By letterhead | October 17, 2009
Imagine if, a year ago, you had asked a PR pro about the response of the financial services sector to the meltdown, and you had gotten the following answer:
They will do a mandatory mea culpa and then dig in to defend their turf, not giving one inch on anything. They'll torpedo all efforts at market reform while protecting their balance sheets — taking advantage of every nickel of federal money they can get their hands on while squeezing fat margins and fees out of broke customers, or inflating the value of shitty assets, or bellying back up to the derivatives craps table, or all of the above. In the end they will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to a new way of doing business, and that's only after a noisy, ugly battle to pry their white-knuckled grip loose from the throat of the economy.
Personally I would fall on the floor if I heard anything remotely like that, because any PR person who said anything remotely close to that would never ever have another financial services client ever again. Might never ever have any clients, or any job, ever again.
With consequences like that hanging over your head, who wouldn't drink the Kool Aid?
THE TRUTH?… WHAT'S IN IT FOR ME?
In reality, PR people hardly have any incentive to be real. All their incentive is geared toward spewing hokey PR pablum.
Looking back on what PR pros said about the crisis a year ago, it's hard to imagine them burping up anything other than happy talk about values and authenticity and brand greatness. It's the vocabulary of the profession, and it conjures up the old saying that "to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
What else could they say? But let's be generous for a moment and assume that they really believed it. Why?
Gigantor financial services companies are businesses. Big ones. Their loyalty is to the bottom line. They have zero shame. They have proven themselves addicted to risk, allergic to responsibility, arrogant to the extreme, and heedless of the public's pain. The executive ranks of the entire industry grew up in this culture; they're steeped in it; it's all they know; and they all still in charge.
Moreover, whenever any industry has felt deeply threatened it has always doubled down — from big tobacco, to big oil, to big auto, to asbestos makers, to drug makers… the list goes on. So why on earth would any rational observer expect anything other than a doubling down on what we've already gotten from them?
PR 101: KNOW WHEN TO HOLD YOUR TONGUE
The reality is that PR people have almost no influence on the corporate agenda. And very few companies, much less entire industries, really care about brand or reputation, until after they've made a boo-boo and it is hitting the bottom line.
When PR bigwigs prattle on about being the conscience of the corporation… about values and transparency… the enormous gap between the talk and the reality makes all of us in the profession look like liars or fools.
So do us all a favor. Shut up, do your job, protect the company and its agenda, collect your check.
And when you get a call from a reporter asking about the ethics and values of the PR profession, just say say "no comment."