Sunday, May 15, 2005

Return to the Past? 

I mentioned a few days ago I was getting around to reading Dick Martin's excellent analysis of the fall of AT&T, Tough Calls. I've finished it, and if anything, it is better than I expected. It should be required reading in every PR course, PR agency and PR department. Hell, it should be required reading for CEOs.

Interestingly, the key chapter for me is the last one where Martin puts his finger on failures that wrecked AT&T's brand. The first was concern for stock price over the obligation to provide the best products and service. Second, he faults the decline of PR to media relations rather than a way of thinking and operating that builds credibility with publics. (Martin upholds the principles of Arthur W. Page, the first great PR man of AT&T who, incidentally, did not come out of PR.)

I agree with Martin on both criticisms for both have bothered me for some time.

But, and this is a big but, it seems to me PR is no longer the body of beliefs or practice that Page defined and that AT&T fostered. The loss of AT&T paralleled the loss of meaning to PR beyond a media technique. That is why it has been subjugated below marketing in many instances. What Martin appears to be wishing for is a return to the past when PR did have more meaning. Sadly, it doesn't appear that will happen. There are other arms in the corporation now that have taken the place of what PR used to do. For example, Sarbanes Oxley has fostered compliance groups whose job it is to establish ethical principles throughout an organization. Compliance groups have a sledgehammer -- jail time and fines. PR has nothing beyond simple persuasion -- the tool it has used all along.

In an era of institutional investors and demand for a high stock price, Page-style PR is not a consideration. That is why Martin on p. 261 could cite a PR counselor who said the object of the job was to ensure that the CEO "could read the Wall Street Journal at breakfast without developing indigestion."

There are companies that practice "old-fashioned" Page-style PR. I'm proud to say at least one is a client. But they are a minority, and they don't necessarily call what they do PR. I'm afraid Martin's desire to return to the past isn't going to happen -- not for PR anyway. It will happen for other communications and business disciplines that take up principles PR once espoused.

For those still practicing PR according to Page principles, which, I hope, includes me, we feel like dinosaurs shuffling to extinction. The world we live in is less ethical, less concerned about credibility and obsessed with selling rather than service. Perhaps, it is time to say goodbye to a wonderful past and accept a perilous and compromised future.


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