PR pros as provocateurs

The role of challenging assumptions, pondering worst-case scenarios, and thinking the unthinkable can prove worthwhile if the PR pro is able to avert even one crisis.

On August 31, 2012, The Wall Street Journal ran an article by Katie Roiphe entitled, “How to be a provocateur without over-provoking.” Her general arguments mirrored many of my current research findings on the role of PR pros in the C-suite. A provocateur must stir things up; Roiphe argued that a polemicist must “follow the Romantic poets' exhortation to make the familiar strange.” I contend PR pros must be the opposite of “yes men” and go so far as to be the “what if?” person or even a “naysayer.”

Why be a naysayer? More PR pros are telling me they advise the CEO and C-suite than in the past. In my 2006 research for the International Association of Business Communicators (The Business of Truth), 30% of PR pros in a worldwide sample said they reported directly to the CEO. A similar survey in 2014 would very likely reveal that number has gone up. The idea of being a provocateur coincides with my research in many ways.

In reporting directly to the CEO, the PR pro has the ability to wield a great deal of decision-making influence and power in the organization. However, he or she must move from the position of simply implementing the ideas of others – or even engaging with those ideas – to being a provocateur.

Although it might be easier to go along with the group or simply agree with the CEO's favorite ideas, the communications pro brings much more value to the table by saying, “What is the worst thing that could happen here?”

The provocateur role might be a bit difficult to enact initially, but the value brought to decision-making can be multi-dimensional. An organization can use that “naysayer” information to strategically tailor initiatives to publics, to prevent lawsuits, to stave off government regulation through self-regulation, and even to prevent crises. Scholars call these various forms of disaster prediction “scenario building” and it has always been studied as a special role within issues management. Why is that role not more talked about, encouraged, and acted upon by PR pros? Too often, the discipline of PR is still seen (rightly or wrongly) as little more than a cheerleader for decisions from the top.

PR pros should be encouraged and empowered to actively seek out the potential problems with the C-suite's decisions before those policies are enacted. In fact, this question should be asked every time a major decision is being considered: “Let's see how the PR folks can shoot this down and predict what bad thing could happen?”

How does this get accomplished? At the top of organizations, PR pros must acquire the credibility to offer critical assessments of organizational decisions without being seen as “disloyal.” In fact, the legitimacy of the PR pro's function as an adviser to the C-suite can be enhanced by offering a hard-nosed “what if?” assessment of organizational initiatives and policies. Get the discussion started by asking, “What's the potential blowback if something goes wrong publicly?” Trade press and professional associations can do their part by enhancing their discussion of and encouragement for the provocateur role.

In my ethics classes, I ask students to challenge the assumptions of a classmate by role-playing an ethical argument that is often quite foreign from their own values. Being a provocateur, in a productive way, is a learned skill and can be taught. The role of challenging assumptions and asking “what if?,” pondering worst-case scenarios, and thinking the unthinkable can prove worthwhile if the PR pro is able to avert even one crisis.

Shannon Bowen, Ph.D., researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and the board of directors at the International Public Relations Research Conference. Her column will focus on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at

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