Members of my own association, the Arthur W. Page Society, this month delivered the second in a series of white papers, this one on trust. Produced with the Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics, it presents with authority and the apparent endorsement of the society's rank-and-file. It does not represent me. It is, in fact, a well-wrapped guilt gift to our industry.
Guilt gift. That's shorthand for a present we give someone when we've cheated them.
What appears to obsess some Arthur Pagers is the idea that the public has lost all faith in business. Thus, we seem to operate as a sort of think tank or chamber of commerce for communications goodness. Our conferences and white papers focus on abstract and unmanageable concepts, such as “Values Under Stress” and the “Authentic Enterprise.” They all suggest a profound guilt that somehow it was the PR guy who created this crisis of public confidence.
I'd argue that indeed the PR industry is complicit in the loss of public trust. The craft and its skilled practitioners know well how effectively we move markets and influence behavior. We are surely now the mature counterpart to advertising, so our fingerprints are on the smoking gun.
But we did what we were supposed to do. And not without due consideration to our responsibilities and the era. We propelled the macho ethic of American car brands. We fed the habituation for debt financing. We even managed to make a soap brand a cause so that more of it might be bought.
But that is what our industry was and is built to do. For the record, we also helped prevent pandemics and created new categories of technology and services to make our world cleaner and flatter.
So what's wrong with white papers and conferences on Authenticity and Trust? Nothing, per se. It's just that they are being championed by the very class of professionals whose strategies were ground-zero in the economic run-up and its associated excesses.
In the meantime, we should take pride that the business of communication is moving quickly up the pecking order. Trust, authenticity, values, and sound ethics above all should be our touchstones, but what will propel our progress is the ability to manage discussions and sentiments.
Perhaps we'll be party to the next Great Depression. Perhaps we'll slow global warming. But whatever we do, we should do so with a certain knowledge that our function is to advance the interests of clients and companies in competitive marketplaces.
No gifts, please.
Alan Kelly is CEO and founder of The Playmaker's Standard, and adjunct professor, USC, Annenberg School for Communication.