Now we get to tell them the truth, and they’re telling the truth to their stakeholders.
No, don’t get me wrong. I think PR folks are among the smartest, most principled people I know, and I haven’t met more than a handful over my 35-year career who didn’t bring an incredible amount of sincerity and passion to everything they did.
But the opposite of truth isn’t a lie: rather, it’s a huge grey expanse created by marketers, branding experts, and assorted management consultants, and filled with branding and process nonsense in which we’re forced to swim, tread water, and sometimes drown.
It’s the proverbial swamp, and the coronavirus crisis is draining it.
Suddenly, coming up with utterly made-up reasons to post on social media seems pointless. Product announcements will be ignored if they lead with insider gibberish or follow with highfalutin executive quotes cribbed from trend studies. Employees will rise up in revolution if we propagate the tired old retreads of marcom blather that until only recently passed for internal communications.
Repetition of brand values, missions, promises, and whatever will not longer be tolerated. Stock images of happy, racially and gender-mixed teams of people working closely together across a table won’t pass for company imagery, just as promises of a glorious future enabled by technology and providing abstractions of “added value” and “enhanced experiences” are no longer relevant (if they ever were).
There’s no time for meetings in which the majority of attendees raise thoughtful questions about scale and integration but don’t volunteer to be responsible for follow-up tasks. One more executive isn’t allowed to tear up a process in which she or he spent no time as a contributor or co-owner. If somebody isn’t actually doing things other than overseeing or managing things, they’re not invited to the party.
Because the crisis won’t let us ignore what stakeholders always wanted: Truth, in the form of transparent communications that, by definition, would be relevant and useful and, thereby, credible.
Fate demands that we deliver it.
It’s an incredible responsibility and opportunity, and each of us has a choice on how we’ll respond. We can embrace it as a New Day for how we interact with our clients and internal stakeholders, or we can try to preserve our old ways.
We can dare to reimagine the very structure of why, what, and how we communicate, and revisit how we pay for work and what we get for it in return. Or we can pretend that we’re experiencing a passing crisis “messaging challenge” and get an old dog to do one more old trick.
We can embrace the peril of telling higher-ups when what they want to say or do isn’t relevant or even appropriate anymore, and propose novel, bold ways to help them to engage with their stakeholders. Or we can hunker down as our employers and clients slash budgets and activities that they never appreciated as core to the success of the enterprise.
We can agree to go along with things that we know won’t work, or just aren’t true, or we can hope we can get back to the way things used to be.
I, for one, don’t think those old days are coming back because they never really existed. We were told they did, and a happy go-along economy let us enjoy the pretense. It also supported our budgets and, judging from this story in PRWeek earlier today, those budgets are getting slashed.
Public relations professionals shouldn’t be beholden to the nonsense of integrated branding and marketing because we serve a different, higher function: We should be the thoughtful, moral, and inspired go-betweens who translate company behaviors for stakeholders who want to be informed and not just exploited.
It’s what we were taught was the right thing to do, and it’s how we’re going to assert and preserve budgets to do it going forward.
The opposite of doing the right thing isn’t doing things that are wrong: it’s going along with activities that aren’t particularly right or wrong, perhaps labelled with fluid and happily convenient definitions of what truth really means. It’s the pretense of relevance and usefulness and authenticity without the underlying substance.
It’s spin, not public relations.
So call it what you will…the swamp is draining, the veil is being lifted, our inner selves are getting a shot at seeing the light of a New Day. It’s up to us to decide whether or not we want to see today’s peril as tomorrow’s opportunity to define a new role and responsibility for our profession.
This is PR’s Moment of Truth.