The Future of Influence (Part 2)

People with professional backgrounds similar to mine often feel challenged by the question “What do you do?” Since my graduation from college about 20 years ago, I’ve made a living in consultancies consumed by an identity crisis. Typically lumped into the category of public relations (PR), these consulting firms have long struggled to find their authentic voice, their own PR strategy. This struggle hasn’t redeemed the industry from its existential angst, but it has produced a heaping word-salad of services that claim to do for the clients of PR firms what PR firms have largely failed to do for themselves.

In the table below, I organized these services into five categories, even though a colorful word cloud (perhaps with a smiley-face watermark) would better reveal the inelegance of these notional constructs lacking a clear and consistent sphere of reference. In addition to generally legitimate uses of influence, I included here shady and unethical (but still very common) PR tactics such as fake blogs.

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This table provides merely a snapshot of an ongoing and agonized search for a sustainable way to rebrand an obsolete and anti-democratic idea — “Public Relations”, as conceived by Edward Bernays. Some PR practitioners continue to add new coinages to this burgeoning nomenclature. A former senior exec at Edelman recently made his contribution to this tangle of taglines. In a PRWeek op-ed, he declared: “PR is dead, public leadership is the future“. There you have it…another attempt to rebrand a bad idea in the same way that British Petroleum tried to rebrand itself as “Beyond Petroleum”. As I have written in the past, petroleum, by any other name, still kills marine life. Similarly, propaganda — whether rebranded as PR or public leadership — harms every stakeholder it claims to serve.

I have not yet seen a thoughtful and sincere description of a new model of PR sensibly separated from its roots in wartime propaganda. Hollow phrases like “Public Leadership” will soon land on the dustbin of similar coinages. The people absorbed in the search for better taglines are reaching for dubious solutions to a problem they don’t appear to understand. But there is a problem, and there are solutions. We need to grasp the problem clearly, and we need to look skeptically at the claims of old-school PR pros who attempt to solve problems by simply renaming them.

Especially over the past few years, I’ve written about more candid approaches to diagnosing the problem and formulating solutions (See links below to “Related Essays, Reports, etc.). Some of the ideas appear to be gaining traction in the mainstream. It has now become fashionable for PR pros to disown — publicly and proudly — the legacy of Edward Bernays. These token disavowals will not suffice. Effective communicators today should go further. And they should stop agonizing about the growth prospects of the PR industry. Neither the industry’s growth nor its purely notional existence plays any role in the work of an effective communicator. All industries are mutating social constructs designed to exploit creative capital. But effective communicators typically find the most productive applications for their talent when they fully appreciate its potential for social innovation and radical problem-solving.

Increasingly, the most urgent problems facing global markets are no longer rooted in resource scarcity or overpopulation or insufficient capital; they are not merely symptoms of the the slow-motion shredding of the tattered dream of representative democracy. Rather, we can trace humanity’s most pressing problems to recurring and intermingling failures to communicate (and to the tributary failures to understand and empathize). That’s why, the role of a progressively-oriented communicator in any organization today is not really to sell products, reshape opinions, manage crises or raise capital. That’s the old model. It’s well-intended, perhaps, but it doesn’t work, and it is fundamentally unenlightened. It is a cultural virus programmed to serve nothing but the cause of its own survival.

The new model has not yet been formalized, and it is important not to formalize it prematurely. We are still at the early stages of the process. PR firms often undermine their credibility when they play the game of “naming and claiming” in which they embrace a trendy and promising idea only to immediately “productize” it and summarize it in a PowerPoint presentation. These crassly mercenary and short-sighted habits of mind provide an in inhospitable soil for the seeds of a sustainable reconceptualization of the legitimate uses of influence.

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I’ll probably publish further reflections on this subject over the next month. In the meantime, below is list of questions and observations for professional communicators looking for more effective approaches to “storytelling” in a global culture mired in a love-hate relationship with the very idea of story.

  1. It’s good that we are smashing the false idols of traditional PR, but who are the leading lights showing the greatest promise in constructing new and superior alternatives?
  2. Which thinkers, and what areas of research, are producing viable reinterpretations of the rules of the public sphere? I personally find great value in the work of Douglas Rushkoff, Sherry Turkle, Slavoj Zizek, Lewis Lampham, Terence McKenna. But we do not yet have a community of conscious communicators fluently navigating the frontiers of emerging possibilities.
  3. By what criteria should we assess the value and viability of new theoretical models of the social experience? How will we know if the new model of PR, when it emerges, serves us any better than its predecessor did?
  4. Beyond what they already do well, what role can industry groups such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI) play in re-aligning the work of the talent they represent with the ongoing “paradigm shift”? No need to orchestrate another futile attempt to rebrand PR. Instead, how can these organizations provide stronger leadership in reinventing the professional culture that often misuses the talent of creative professionals?
  5. How can communicators restore the role of listening in the communication process?
  6. Stop the game of naming and claiming ideas that offer little practical benefit.