Honestly, PR is Dishonest

May 13, 2014

Bored of the alchemy of reputation metrics, the insincerity of authenticity and other communication terms du jour, I am often entertained at public relations conferences by counting the utterances of words like compete, rival or opposition. Never have I needed more than the fingers on one hand.

Fingers Crossed

I’ve come to the conclusion that the field we hope will be a profession is intellectually dishonest and anti-competitive. It needs a fresh start: one that’s based on the real intentions of its function.

I don’t mean anti-competitive in the sense of antitrust or the restraint of trade. I mean it in the sense that PR practitioners and their myriad supporting associations and accredited degree programs willfully resist the idea that their practices and scholarship are rooted in winning and taking.

As a consequence, most practitioners can’t (and don’t) vie for marketing-sized budgets or McKinsey-like retainers because they won’t position their work as a means to prevail. They won’t admit to the reality that PR and communications is, however subtle, an exercise in positioning, re-positioning and de-positioning. Thus, these same practitioners are denied a seat at the proverbial table because what they do is perceived to be prophylactic and compliant, not proactive and competitive. They are do-gooder scouts knocking on boardroom doors.

Symmetrists, my word for the folks who opine for fair and two-way communication, are prone to preach that PR excellence is based not on winning but on aligning mutual interests. I’d like to think that’s true. I’d like to think that Arthur Page, the pioneering communications chief who helped build one of U.S. history’s most dominant companies, AT&T, was right when he observed that an organization operates at the pleasure and permission of its publics. But that Page’s creation grew to a suffocating monopoly suggests his skills were more for the benefit of executive shareholders than customer stakeholders.

Symmetry is fine but only, in reality, if what it delivers is success in a contested market, a point of my video debate with the scholar James Grunig and a subject I present in a feature article in The International Journal of Communication, “Dancing with the Giant.”

I am mindful of the merits of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and new models to tease out and trigger corporate values. They offer some benefits, but their adherents know better than to invoke virtue. CSR is more often a guilt gift wrapped in corporate values, and corporate values are a dog whistle to harness employee advocacy. Each is packaged and presented for its mutual upside, but each is employed for its competitive potential.

Practitioners and educators of PR and communication have largely failed us, their clients and students, not for their good intentions, but for their wishful thinking and dismissal of their disciplines’ base value and purpose. PR and communications exist to advance the relative competitive advantage of brands and—dare I say it—reputations, but only then.

Let’s talk less about storytelling and more about what we really do, story-selling, the plays we run to get it done, and the actual units that define the work and research.


This post, which was featured in the May 2014 blog, PR Conversations, drew 100 comments from an international community of practitioners and academics. For related op-eds, read Fake News: PR’s Little MonsterProtecting Our Fourth Estate: The Plunder of Politics and PRWe Need a Language for Spin, Believe Me, and Trust Me, I’ve Got a Barometer.


Post by Alan Kelly

Photo credit: Playmaker Systems, LLC