Is PR Good for the World? Defining PR’s CSR Roadmap

Many of us advise clients on matters of corporate social responsibility (CSR).  We often exhort our clients not to think of CSR as a purely symbolic gesture that adorns their core business.  Instead, we encourage them to embrace CSR as an integral part of building healthy and ethical businesses.

PR has social responsibilities too, and our main responsibility is to restore trust, not because that’s our bread and butter, but also because that’s our best possible contribution to the betterment of society.  With this goal in mind, PR practitioners can apply to their business the same questions with which they titillate their clients: What are we doing right and wrong to get closer to fulfilling our social responsibilities?  What are some of our glaring shortfalls?  Here are a few ideas:

Rethink the idea of “Influence”.  Building trust is qualitatively distinct from “influencing audiences”.  Rather than segmenting the world into constituencies passively receiving our influence, we should learn to see every constituent as a participant in a conversation.  That’s the lesson that politicians often preach but seldom practice.  PR should at least start preaching this idea.

Re-examine PR’s idols and ideals.  Why is Edward Bernays still the towering intellectual influence on the practice of PR?  Granted, Bernays earned his credentials as a founding father of modern PR.  But his ideas evolved in a unique historical context that fed Bernays’ elitist worldview and his view of The People as the manipulable rabble memorably depicted in Gustave LeBon’s The Crowd.

Still, Bernays’ ideas were fit for their time.  After all, it was much easier to manipulate a nation without Facebook accounts.  It was easier to control messages in a society where most information flowed only one way — from writers to readers, from newspapers to subscribers, from Walter Cronkite to his viewers.

But since the publication of Propaganda in 1928, the world has changed in ways that warrant a thorough rethinking of how PR participates in the marketplace of ideas.  Yet, no thinker has yet emerged who can stand on the shoulders of PR giants to see the industry’s new horizons, and to reconcile the practice of PR to the realities of a world transformed by cycles of boom and bust, by paradigm shifts in science and society, and by a decade overloaded with trust-crushing “Black Swan” events.

Confront blatantly unethical practices.  If truth and candor truly form the backbone of our work, then we need to isolate and explicitly disown the practices that undermine these values.  For example:

  1. In the dark art of creating fake news, we continue to see fake letters-to-the-editor campaigns, and “whisper campaigns” spreading fake news that disparage competitors.
  2. In the social media, we see scams and farces perpetrated by “PR professionals” who co-opt the very spirit of unbridled expression that sustains the medium.
  3. We continue to see futile efforts to remake realities simply by renaming them.  British Petroleum becomes “Beyond Petroleum”.  Farce overshadows truth.  But then oil spills into the Gulf of Mexico.  Truth asserts itself.   Oil, by any other name, still kills marine wildlife.
  4. Objectivity of research – Much of PR/IR research today is so vitiated by conflicts of interest as to be rendered useless.  We need to better protect research from undue influences such as a PR firm’s sales objectives and an in-house PR/IR director’s desire to receive a stellar performance review.
  5. Devil’s Advocates — We continue to see avid advocacy of patently false claims: e.g., Tobacco is not addictive (1994); cigarettes are “Torches of Liberty” for women (1929).

None of the ideas are brilliant.  In fact they are kind of obvious.  But, if applied thoughtfully, they work.

Published in PRWeek

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