Thursday, December 29, 2005

On Second Thought 

A longtime colleague in the business, Don Bates, had this to say about the "system v. chaos" entry of two days ago. (I've edited for length.)

At the risk of prolonging your family discussion I have to admit that I'm not sure what you're saying.

--Are you saying that PR doesn't require systems? I don't think so.
--Are you saying that PR can do more than systems to resolve life-threatening issues? I don't think so.
--Are you saying PR isn't a system in its own right? I don't think so.
--Are you saying that PR works with or for a greater truth? I don't think so.

But you imply these things in what you wrote or at least as I interpret what you wrote. Can you clarify your view?

PR uses systems and uses them well. It has to, but the PR practitioner who has been in the business for any length of time has experienced circumstances and cultural beliefs that disrupt systems he or she uses. They are events and assumptions that occur outside of the reach or mechanics of the system as happened to Union Carbide at Bhopal, for example. In this instance, the disaster was complete before anyone could react. Systems were good but insufficient. So too with the tsunami of a year ago and with the destruction of 9/11. These were events so overpowering, so swift and so complete in their outcome that a system does not comprehend their eventuality nor how to handle them when they occur. One tries to stitch the old system together to handle the aftermath or invent a new one on the fly. There are belief sets similarly opposed to systems one uses. In a capitalist society, for example, we believe consumption is good for the betterment of societies. With individuals opposed to capitalism, or at least the expression of it in Western business, unregulated consumption is evil.

While PR practitioners monitor and react to events and beliefs outside of systems, so do organizations. At the edge of every organization are individuals and events outside of it. Systems for sales, customer service, logistics, etc. are subject to constant stress that test them and sometimes, break them. For example, an unplanned strike can leave vital goods in a warehouse thousands of miles a way. Or, customers simply don't like your product or service in spite of all the consumer testing you have done (Remember New Coke of years ago?). Or, customers can sue over the use of your product even when it has performed as indicated (the pharmaceutical industry can speak about this.)

My point is that PR practitioners work where beliefs and events collide in ways that sometimes cannot be anticipated no matter how good the system. We get used to that -- or at least, we should -- because as smart as we are and as organized as we are, we cannot anticipate everything. Nor can anyone else.

Thanks Jim. You've given me more thought for today and tomorrow and days to come than I got from reading today's editions of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. I'm often amazed by what a fecund mind you have but I really shouldn't be -- You're one of the smartest people I've met in almost 40 years in the public relations business. Happy New Year!

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