We are at an interesting point in the timeline of persuasion. Long ago, it seems, professionals were considered to be the highest paragon of influence. CEOs could move industries, politicians' words were taken as hard currency, and the words of journalists were viewed as impartial observations, not biased opinion.
Surely, there has always been pushback against professionals and authority figures, but that was often the work of agitators, not true representatives of society's investment in the words and actions of figures of authority.
But, now, that has all changed. The world is a cynical place, and, if we're to believe Edelman's annual Trust Barometer (which PRWeek distributed as an insert), trust placed in the traditional influencers (politicians, corporations, CEOs, journalists) has degraded significantly, while the opinions of peers has increased.
We can see this anecdotally through the ascent of blogs and of critics - both amateur and professional - toward spheres of power, the cynicism toward government and corporations, and the increased likelihood that your average citizen understands the power in his or her voice, and has channels to use it.
So, perhaps we shouldn't be incredibly surprised that CEOs, corporations, and their agencies these past few years have chosen to delve into surreptitious blog postings, fake grassroots campaigns, and other chicanery. Persuaders go to where the influence is, and an anonymous commenter with ostensibly no agenda might have more clout to a community than a CEO.
The July 11 news that a senior member of the 5W PR team was involved in deceptive comments left on a blog critical of a client was just the most recent incident involving an individual from an organization or firm obscuring his or her affiliation to influence a discussion about that organization. Other companies and agencies have gotten into situations like this since the onset of the social media evolution - of varying degrees of impropriety - and there are surely many that have gone unnoticed. Let's not be naive. The public has not had a great regard for the PR industry to be authentic, and missteps like these further destroy what goodwill the industry has earned with the public.
But, there was likely a time when that public would have at least respected a PR pro's or executive's presumed knowledge when it came to matters of an issue affecting a company or industry.
The public's declining trust in professionals is deep and ingrained, and the road back to authority is long and arduous. But to spend the next few years cowering in anonymity and trying to influence dialogue from the fake perspective of an average Joe will only lengthen that journey.
It is in the best interest of PR pros and their clients to issue statements of their intent to push forth with credible, open dialogue that reasserts their authority to understand their own organizations, their industries, and the overall marketplace. It is only then that historic influencers will be able to get themselves out of the hole they've dug.