Influence Without Integrity

Below I compiled recent noteworthy additions to the literature on the dark side of storytelling and the search for more enlightened approaches to communicating in the Age of Distrust.

Over the weekend, The New York Times report on influence-peddling (A Constellation of Influencers: Behind the Curtain at Teneo) touched on this subject but offered little fresh insight. The tantalizing look behind the curtain yielded deeply anticlimactic revelations about a PR firm guilty of “hustling” for business at conferences and name-dropping to arrange meetings with lawmakers. True, it helps to draw attention to the blurring line between PR and lobbying, but similar reporting in the past (e.g., Center for Public Integrity) has given influence-brokers like Teneo little reason to change.

A Harvard Business Review essay (Theranos and the Dark Side of Storytelling) offers a far more interesting perspective on the challenges facing modern communicators. Increasingly, they instrumentalize storytelling while many organizations struggle to find their moral center. Then story often becomes an instrument of fraud or farce.

The Theranos debacle shows how important it is to build this culture on a rock-solid ethical foundation. Now is the time to acknowledge how tempting it can be to deploy story—as con artists do—as a weapon of psychological and emotional manipulation.

A growing number of authors and PR practitioners acknowledges the obsolescence of the methods of influence formalized by thinkers such as Edward Bernays and Walter Lippman. After convincingly advancing the thesis that PR Is Dead, the author/practitioner Robert Phillips has increasingly turned his attention to articulating a vision for the future of what I call Human-to-Human Communications (H2H). His latest essay on the subject is thoughtful and rousing.

It is not that trust, per se, has evaporated, but it has changed in shape and nature. It is now vested within different communities and networks. Against this backdrop, concrete actions and new norms of corporate behaviour are the only ways to build a more trusting environment for businesses and brands. Trust is a behavioural challenge, not a communications one.

Our “Golden Age of Security” has passed. Deference has disappeared. No-one is in control any longer – neither politicians nor CEOs. This makes trust unstable and unpredictable. Leaders should recognise this instability, give up any pretence of control and positively embrace the chaos that ensues. An asymmetrical world needs asymmetrical leadership.

Phillips’ vision accords with my intuitions, recently summarized here.

…the volume and quality of data on the state of trust has increased substantially, but the central conclusion for organizational leaders hasn’t changed: first, do no harm, and understand that the only way to increase trust is to increase trustworthiness (i.e., integrity). Think of trust as an emotional response to the observed regularities in the behavior of organizations and individuals. Trust increases when behaviors align with expectations, and when governance and accounting standards equitably safeguard the economic interests of all stakeholders.

None of these conclusions will cause organizational leaders to gasp in outrage. Sadly, many of them will agree and start rethinking how they do PR or HR or IR or CSR or VBM or EVA … and they all will have missed the point. These conclusions are an invitation to rethink how we do business — how we align profit with purpose and communications with character, how we create work that harnesses each worker’s highest potential, and how we reclaim our moral center and our right to influence with integrity.