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.
I also argued that one of the clearest obstacles to the emergence of the more sensible remedies is that Edward Bernays remains the towering intellectual influence on the practice of PR.
…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.
My essential argument then was that most of the work done under the banner of public relations was either ineffective/counter-productive or unethical. Now in 2018, the argument is overdue for an update because the effectiveness PR-as-conceived-by-Bernays, has spiked sharply ever since FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) emerged as the new captains of humanity’s collective consciousness. The argument also warrants an update because, for anyone inclined to take ethics seriously, there’s now a new generation of leading lights of PR who have one thing in common: none of them ever worked in PR.
The new prophets of persuasion include Silicon Valley insiders, techno-ethicists and maverick investors (e.g., Tristan Harris, Roger McNamee, Jim Steyer), legal scholars (e.g., Cass Sunstein) social scientists and philosophers (e.g., Nick Bostrom, Sherry Turkle, Robert Cialdini), not to mention privacy/security advocates and academic initiatives featured in this recent reports in The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal.
Long ignored or suppressed by the FAANGs, the affirmation of the foundational importance of ethics in the new media ecology is gaining traction. As reported by The Guardian:
When Google acquired the London-based AI company DeepMind in 2014, one of the founders’ requirements was that the company set up an ethics board, to ensure that any future use of the technology was governed by strict moral principles. A year later, Elon Musk spearheaded the creation of AI research group OpenAI, arguing for a need to “advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return.
The article correctly characterizes these data points as exceptions, rather than reflections of prevailing practices in the tech industry, but consider the bigger picture. In capital markets, for example, ethical standards are no longer seen as a distraction from what really matters, but as a precondition to sustainable performance. The overwhelming majority of asset managers now incorporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria into investment decisions. In confronting disruptive innovations such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Wall Street increasingly examines risks and opportunities through the prism of ethical implications (e.g., Bank of America’s partnership with the Harvard Kennedy school focused on responsible AI).
Still, lip service and resistance remain the preferred responses for many organizational leaders confronting the shift to sustainability, and they naturally resort to PR-as-conceived-by-Bernays to advance their agenda. The current governance standards of the FAANGs enable and reward this approach, but the tide is turning.
Influence with Integrity does not aim to jettison Bernays’ undoubtedly valuable contributions; it does cleanse them of their indifference to social impact. More importantly, it elevates the communicator’s craft to its highest potential in part by aligning communications with beliefs and actions and eschewing attempts to remake realities simply by renaming them. When British Petroleum (BP) attempted to rebrand itself as “Beyond Petroleum”, farce overshadowed truth. But it was oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. Truth asserted itself. Oil, by any other name, still kills marine wildlife.
Several of my current services and research products are designed for organizational leaders committed to Influence with Integrity. The work typically begins with an ESG brand audit that relies on the same taxonomy of “extra-financial” risk factors used by institutional investors to assess mispriced risk. To learn more, fill out the Contact Form.