Since the start of my career in 1996, opinion polls and surveys have chronicled the erosion of public trust in the institutional pillars of society, including government, corporations, the news media, religious institutions and NGOs. I’ve written several reports and essays on this subject, including a contribution to PRWeek in 2012, in which I argued the following:
Despite the dramatic weakening in the bonds of trust, the PR industry and its clients still operate as if little has changed in the world since Bing Crosby died or since Edward Bernays published his seminal book: Propaganda. We still rely on methods and habits of mind that evolved in a world uncomplicated by post-modern anxieties. We and our clients are facing a torrent of discontent, if not open contempt, and we are still trying to dam the flow with the veil of soulless corporate-speak and tricks of the trade that worked in a simpler time. This reflexive ritualism only deepens the crisis of trust. It also obscures more sensible remedies consistent with the industry’s professed commitment to truth, candor, creativity and the craft of storytelling.
This view had germinated in my mind since I read The Cluetrain Manifesto (published in 2000), a daring call to action for “activists” who understand that humor and humanity may be the most sorely lacking characteristics of corporate marketing and communications. The manifesto challenged readers to rethink the meaning and methods of corporate PR and marketing and to consider new ways for “The Voice of Business” to better harmonize with the voices of increasingly distrustful “target audiences”.
An article in Social Media Today coined an apt name for this new model of PR: Human-to-Human (H2H). I think the name is helpful because it represents a clear shift away from the obsolete conceptual frameworks that have failed to organize marketing and PR around the needs of complex flesh-and-blood human beings. The prevailing paradigm of corporate communications still centers on reductive abstractions such as “consumer”, “client”, “customer”, “voter”, “employee”, “investor”, “journalist”, “analyst”, “patient”, “doctor”, “expert”, etc.
Based on these dubious constructs, corporations and consulting firms have developed an acronym-soup of vaguely segmented communication disciplines such as public relations (PR), investor relations (IR), public affairs (PA), analyst relations (AR), corporate social responsibility (CSR), business-to-consumer (B2C), business-to-business (B2B), not to mention strategic communications, crisis communications, transaction communications, stakeholder engagement…etc.
As they are applied today, these constructs not only reduce — and, in a sense, insult — the target audience, but they also rob marketers of the opportunity to form deeper (and a more profitable) bonds with the human beings they are trying to reach and persuade. Under the new H2H paradigm, marketers can deliver better results to their bosses simply by sincerely acknowledging the full humanity of their audience.
Granted, the argument is as obvious as the goodness of motherhood and apple pie. But this is also a radical argument with significant practical implications for corporate storytellers.
First, consider these questions: Do you agree that all human beings are human beings, and that the traditional nomenclature in marketing needlessly reduces them to one-dimensional caricatures? Do you agree that customers, employees, partners, investors, media contacts, regulators and elected officials are human beings? Do you agree that professional affiliation the appetite for consumption does not — and cannot — fully define a human being? Do you agree that a fuller definition should, at the very least, incorporate other dimensions of the persona (e.g., gender, age, socio-economic status, past behavior, educational background). Do you agree that even the incrementally expanded definition will be necessarily incomplete?
- Stop over-relying on the Copy-and-Paste function — Software is a tool. Use it. But don’t let it use you.
- Stop obsessing Over Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) –In theory, KPIs help corporate leaders make better decisions by quantifying and tracking the vital signs of the business. In reality, many corporate decision-makers use KPIs in at least two counter-productive ways. (Read More)
- Start conducting multi-audience perception surveys — Audience segments are not isolated monoliths, and perceptions do not take shape in a vacuum. Every audience segment today participates in increasingly complex, global, digital, 24/7, intersecting conversations that defy distances and dichotomies which used to separate stakeholder audiences. Opinion research should reflect this reality. (Read More)
- 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.
- Do not try to remake realities by renaming them — British Petroleum never became “Beyond Petroleum”. Farce cannot overshadow truth, not for long. When oil spills into the Gulf of Mexico, truth asserts itself. Oil, by any other name, still kills marine wildlife.
- Take Creativity Seriously — Whatever the reason that the idea of a corporation evolved as it did, progressive corporate leaders today increasingly recognize that the idea needs to evolve further – and fast – to restore corporate creativity and innovation. (Read More)
Of course, this list could be longer, but it doesn’t need to be. We don’t really need to learn how to communicate with human beings, as much as we simply need to unlearn the obsolete constructs and break self-defeating habits of mind conditioned by pioneers of propaganda such as Edward Bernays. Once we remove these anachronisms from our collective consciousness, the merits and methods of H2H will become self-evident.