With fresh talk of a recession and evidence of panicking regulators, it's time for the PR practice and its educators to shift gears, and quickly. Its inherent power to drive competitive advantage - in business, politics, and entertainment alike - will be urgently needed to shore up slacking demand and compete for position. So much for reputation management and trust banks. These are not the touchstones that will navigate our companies and consultancies through tough economic times. The new model is strategy-centric.
Why so? Because reputation doesn't drive differentiation. It is a platform on which difference can be built, but a means to an end only. Nor do subjective measures of increased trust and respect directly create preference. They are determinants to marketplace success that don't implicitly create and sustain relative competitive advantage. They are remains from the crisis-in-confidence era, compliance programs that now only help us look busy.
What will rule the day in the downturn is smartly set influence strategy - well-run and timed plays and counter plays that continually position and de-position brands, issues, products, policies, and services across all media. Good strategy will put CEOs, politicos, and bloggers in charge of industry discussions and buying criteria.
Among theory lovers it also has to be said: Enough of two-way symmetric communication. It's sound work, but wholly ill-fit for what's coming. Every entity, however noble or self-serving, genteel or combative, competes in a marketplace of ideas and demands. It can never comply or ingratiate its way to success. Sure, it can build a good reputation. It can aspire to what The Arthur W. Page Society dubs The Authentic Enterprise. It can operate in perfect mutual dialogue with stakeholders. But so what?
With a recession, market shares and spending will shrink and most players will fight to keep what they've got. They'll do it through good deeds - corporate giving, social responsibility, triple-bottom-line reporting, etc. These acts will be nice, but not decisive. Employers and clients will cave to the reality that someone else wants their slice of the pie. By necessity, models for communicating will shift from the reactive management of information to systematic advocacy and affect.
So where does this lead us? In the case of PR, public affairs, marketing, and related functions, it brings us back to earth. However distasteful this may be to our certain priesthood, it puts a premium on competing with and beating the other guy. That doesn't mean replacing a cultivated collaborative style with a blood sport ethic. It means that practitioners will move from a game of relationships to a match of rhetorical chess, thinking less about pleasing people and made-for-media gestures and more about positioning people and a rival's countermoves.
It's too bad that a recession will have to teach us these lessons. But PR is, and always has been, a competitive function, a full-fledged member of the influence industry. To serve any other purpose is an act of professional seclusion. Time to show our strategic chops.
Alan Kelly is CEO of The Playmaker's Standard, author of The Elements of Influence, and adjunct professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.