Simulation is coming to communications, and for the good. A featured exercise at the recent Global PR Summit was certain proof as Polpeo, a London-based social media firm, presented the case of a fictitious pet store chain and the viral video attack of an activist employee. The session was impressive for its social media tools, faux news sites and more.
Sitting with my team, we were enlisted to play the role of the embattled pet retailer. Our instructions were familiar: “…control the crisis over social media…manage members of the public…communicate facts of the crisis…” The implicit charge was to mitigate the problem, not flip it or exploit its competitive potential.
I don’t blame the game managers; they are selling what the market is buying – social media and crisis management. But our instructions, as imparted and inferred, were emblematic of the mindset that pervades crisis communications: Dilute the disaster; make it go away. This is in spite of what seasoned practitioners know – that PR is not just about controlling the burn of a crisis but sometimes fanning the flames, that detractors should be confronted more than they are reflexively appeased, and that facts are subject to interpretation, always.
This is heresy to rank-and-file communicators and especially the associations and educators that inhabit public relations. Pick any of the hundreds of definitions of PR and you’re sure to notice the common thread of public interest. Attend any capstone PR class and you’ll sense the pressure to practice what the communication scholar James Grunig calls two-way symmetric communication (i.e., fair and equal). Attend any PR conference and you’ll feel a chastity belt’s pinch, snugged tight by priestly thinkers. Members of The Arthur W. Page Society, by example, are quick to remind us of their namesake’s first principle – Tell the Truth. Yet these principles were derived from Mr. Page’s writings, never actually written by the late CCO of the late AT&T monopoly.
A basic purpose of simulation is to try things you’re not sure will work and deliberately challenge what convention says is impossible or forbidden. We simulate to test the boundaries of risk and reward. The pilot of your last plane ride has suffered many simulated crashes not only to perfect a best practice, like a smooth landing, but to understand what makes for a lousy one. Because we can now bend and break things virtually we learn more of how to make our means and methods stronger, often to our surprise.
Therein lies the opportunity for PR and its use of simulation – to explore its full potential, particularly with respect to crisis management. If, however, communication simulation is limited to the defense of an organization, how will we develop skills to debate or publicly prosecute on its behalf? To invoke the hackneyed sports analogy, how will be learn to play offense?
PR pines for a seat at the proverbial management table. But because it positions itself as prophylactic it earns a regard as a special-use function, best called upon to tamp down troubles, only then. And when it is called upon to push the envelope, it is called marketing.
Simulation is coming to communication, thanks to the likes of Polpeo. Let’s hope that our companies, associations and professors will give us the freedom to crash and burn. We’ll know more for trying and we’ll shake free of the mitigation model that defines the field and holds it back.
Alan Kelly is founder and executive director of Playmaker Systems, a strategy and simulations firm. Kelly is the author of The Elements of Influence (Dutton, 2006) and numerous opinion-editorials and peer review papers. From 1991 to 2013, he was founder and CEO of Applied Communications Group, a San Francisco-based public relations and research firm.