The Page Center and Bob Jones

September 9, 2009

Our Incurious Era and the Mission for Moral Communications

There are irreducible stratagems which communicators routinely employ – for better and for worse. It’s my mission that they all be known, and this is why my friend Don Stacks of the University of Miami often chides me, You’re looking at the dark side of PR.” Well if the shoe fits…

With this week’s arrival of a mailing from The Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State I’m reminded that strategy can be cleverly applied for better and for worse. I wonder if PR is now building its own Bob Jones University. And I wonder if this era in communications will be known more for its preaching than teaching and transparency.

I am referring generally to the Page Center and its founders and specifically to their mastery of the influence stratagem called the Screen. Think of the Screen as the influencer’s play of choice to enhance and broaden a communicator’s meaning. Think of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. roaring I have a dream not just from a modest podium but at the foot of the marbled great emancipator Abraham Lincoln.

There are three of these “plays” at work in the Page Center prose. First is its direct adoption of the name of the late AT&T communications chief Arthur W. Page and second its willing association with the society also named after Mr. Page. Third is a kind of rental on morality: “Integrity in Public Communication ” reads the Center’s tagline.

No one should be surprised by the word play and leased language. Founder Edward Block is a former AT&T executive, understandably inclined to honor his colleague, Mr. Page. Another founder, Lawrence Foster, a retired corporate VP of healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson, is equally prone to showcase his past employer’s brand legacy and the Center’s donors, heirs of J&J.

But looking deeper, it’s vexing that the Center invests itself in both a man who presided over the PR machine of a developing monopoly and the less-than-heady insight that communication should have integrity. Are we not a little skeptical that in his time Arthur Page helped create a monopoly? The concept is anti-competitive and often illegal. His company’s legacy is not, inherently, one of integrity. And are we not wary when moral imperatives are attached to simple functions? Integrity in Communication is like Accurate Accounting, Flight Safety, Scientific each, aPend my own tortured favorite, Strategic Communication.

I’d expect Page Center leaders to pat (or bang) me on the head, Are you not aware there’s a crisis in business? That corporations are mistrusted? That they’ve lost their integrity?

I’m aware that some are mistrusted. But this is not a problem communicators and influencers can solve in any direct and measurable way. And I’m not aware that integrity has been lost but in only a few. So I am left to wonder if those who celebrate Page are apologizing for a misguided minority or imposing on professionals and educators an untenable vision. Either way, it bears more scrutiny.

As I have argued (see reference links below), what the field of communications has lost is its curiosity and clarity. As reflected in so many recent Page Society white papers and reports and the Page Center’s mission, we are in a state of denial about what we actually do and achieve. Many imagine that reputation, authenticity and trust can be managed. Others celebrate the certain triggering of corporate values as a communications high ground; in truth, they’re running a diversionary play on those whose values they have ostensibly triggered. It’s called a Red Herring.

The current result in all things Page is something akin to conservatives’ embrace of family values and the corresponding establishment of evangelical universities. Compare the creed and mission of Bob Jones University to the Page Center’s expressed purpose. The mutual focus on virtue is palpable.

What we need are not centers for moral excellence. Such things will color inquiry and observation. They are bound to proscribe best practices more than discover them. What we need is a new science and frank discussion of what communications contributes to an organization’s purpose and well being and the specific and measurable ways it works. It’s a far better thing than to run plays with the imagery of departed pioneers and leverage of big corporate brands.

Posted by: Alan Kelly

Reference Links:

Photo Credit: faqinfosite.com