In his new book What Would Google Do, journalist, blogger and all-around social media guru Jeff Jarvis has written a book crammed full of all the reasons public relations will emerge as the critical organizational function of the Web 2.0 revolution. And yet he has somehow come to the conclusion that public relations is one of a handful of industries “immune from rehabilitation” in the Google Age. The only conclusion I can draw is that Jarvis understands the Internet, Google, social media, and the societal changes they represent a lot better than he understands PR.
More on that later: first, it’s worth reviewing some of the changes Jarvis sees that have obvious—and almost universally positive—implications for the PR business.
“Life is public,” he says. “So is business…. We now live and do business in glass houses (and offices), and that’s not necessarily bad.”
The reality is that the Age of Transparency—something PR people have been talking to their clients about since I started writing about this business more than 20 years ago—predates the new media revolution. It was fueled in its early stages by increased media scrutiny of business and the proliferation and growing sophistication of activist groups, and has been accelerated exponentially in recent years by the communications and social networking power of the Internet.
The Age of Transparency means that companies must conduct their business as if every decision and every discussion might one day end up on the front page of The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times (or at the center of what Jarvis calls a “blogstorrm”). That means the public relations consequences of decisions must be considered much more carefully than they have been in the past, given consideration equal to financial, operational and legal consequences, which in turn means that those who best understand those public relations consequences should have a more central role in the decision-making process.
Jarvis also discusses the importance of trust, and the inverse relationship between trust and control—another idea that will be familiar to public relations professionals. It’s been a theme of my speeches for at least a decade, and I make no claim to having originated the idea, which underpins the entire value proposition of the public relations industry: that earned media is more credible and thus more valuable than paid media.
“Leaders in government, news media, corporations and universities think they and their institutions can own trust, when of course trust is given to them,” Jarvis says. “Trust is earned with difficulty and lost with ease…. [And] before the public can learn to trust the powerful, the powerful must learn to trust the powerful.”
Elsewhere, Jarvis touches on the declining power of advertising—he’s absolutely right about that—in a world in which “your customers are your ad agency.”
“The more your customers take ownership of your brand, the less you will spend annoying people with your ads,” Jarvis writes. “Advertising is your last priority, your last resort, an unfortunate by-product of not having enough friends….”
It barely needs saying, but in order to earn friends, corporations (and other powerful institutions) need to earn trust; in order to earn trust, corporations need to relate better with their publics. His conclusion acknowledges that reality: “It comes down to relationships—relationships that are lived in public.”
So how does Jarvis make the leap from this conclusion—it’s all about public relations—to the idea that public relations people will struggle to adapt to a world that would appear to be tailor-made for them?
“The problem for public relations people… is that they have clients. They must represent a position, right or wrong. As they are paid to do that, the motives behind anything they say are necessarily suspect. They cannot be consistent, because they may represent a client with one stance today and the opposite tomorrow, and we’ll never know what they truly think. In a medium that treasures facts and data, they cannot always let the facts win; they must spin facts to craft victory. They must negotiate to the death, which makes them bad at collaboration. It’s not their job to help anybody but their clients. They are middlemen. They won’t admit to making mistakes well; clients don’t pay for mistakes.”
Let’s take the Jarvis argument point-to-point.
“They must represent a position, right or wrong.” I know of no competent public relations person who would accept that as a term of his or her employment. If a position is wrong—either morally abhorrent or untenable—it is the first job of a public relations counselor to craft a new position. To do otherwise would be not only a waste of the practitioner’s time and the client’s money, it would be counterproductive: destroying the company’s relationship with its public rather than enhancing it.
“The motives behind anything they say are necessarily suspect.” There’s obviously some truth to that, although I’m not sure that suspect motives are unique to the PR profession. Any for-profit organization is going to be motivated, at least in part, by financial concerns. Does that mean that no corporation can hope to succeed, to overcome public suspicion, in this new age? More to the point, are financial motives inherently more suspect than ideological motives? Doesn’t almost everyone have an ulterior motive for their communication?
Surely the distinguishing aspect of this new age is that we have more resources at our disposal to evaluate both the motives and the content of communications and to make our own judgment about what to trust?
“They cannot be consistent, because they may represent a client with one stance today and the opposite tomorrow, and we’ll never know what they truly think.” I have to say I am not quite as enamored of consistency as Jarvis appears to be. Nor do I think it’s the job of PR people to tell us “what they truly think.” (Why would anyone care?) I think most stakeholders are smart enough to realize that PR people are making an argument: it’s the intellectual integrity of the argument that matters, not the authority of the individual making it. Again, one of the significant implications of the new media age is that we trust people to evaluate arguments on their own merits, that ad hominem attacks (of the kind Jarvis appears to be making here) should not be allowed to distract from those merits.
“They cannot always let the facts win, they must spin facts to craft victory.” I’m not entirely sure what Jarvis means when he says PR people must “spin facts.” Facts are facts. Facts inform our decisions, but they do not dictate them. We might all agree, for example, on the fact that tobacco products cause cancer (and a whole host of other health problems). But that fact alone does not lead inevitably to any conclusion about what we should do about tobacco products. It is reasonable to argue that they should be banned, because of the costs they impose on society; it is also reasonable to argue that individuals should have the right to choose dangerous behaviors—including the ingestion of dangerous products—if it pleases them to do so. One could describe the crafting of arguments on either side of that question as “spinning facts,” but it seems to me that such language serves only to stigmatize a process that is essential to public debate and thus the democratic process.
“They must negotiate to the death, which makes them bad at collaboration.” This is, perhaps, the strangest line in Jarvis’s whole argument, since public relations is in many ways the art of collaboration. Building effective relationships between an organization and its publics demands collaboration and compromise. For that reason, public relations professionals are often viewed with suspicion by their corporate colleagues precisely because they are “collaborators” whose job it is to represent the views of external stakeholders inside the organization.
“It’s not their job to help anybody but their clients.” Even if this were true, is Jarvis really suggesting that they can help their clients—particularly in this hyper-transparent social media age—by advising them to adopt positions they know are untenable, or by telling them they can achieve success by manipulation, deceit and “spin?” If PR people want to help their clients, they will surely advise them to be more honest, more transparent, to listen to their stakeholders more closely, to build relationships based on mutual trust. In reality of course, public relations people have been offering clients this advice—with varying degrees of success—since the birth of the profession, for both ethical and pragmatic reasons.
“They won’t admit to making mistakes well; clients don’t pay for mistakes.” Again, the traditional role of public relations people has been to advise their clients to admit mistakes, often butting heads—again, with varying degrees of success—with legal counsel in the process. It is one of the fundamental tenets of the profession that the public will forgive mistakes, but punish a cover-up mercilessly.
The bottom line is that to accept Jarvis’s argument that the Google era spells trouble for public relations, one would have to believe two hypotheses: first, that all public relations people are incredibly bad at their jobs; and second, that all of their clients are morons. I have to say—based on close to 25 years of writing about this business—that I don’t think either of those hypotheses is true.
“It should be the job of PR advisers to convince clients that it is in their interest to be transparent and honest now that obfuscation and lies can be exposed so easily online.
“That is PR turned upside down.”
Actually, it’s public relations as it has been practiced by any half-way competent practitioner since long before either Jarvis or the Internet came into existence.