Public relations post Gulliver

GulliverPublic Relations sets itself apart.  There is something "high church" about the profession,   as if it were much too fine to mix with the rest of marketing, vulgar, beer swilling, louts that we surely are.

This is about to change.  Thanks to a good article in the Financial Times today, we can see that the corporation faces two new structural realities.

1) the corporation is losing its communications advantage.

The contest that Public Relations must modulate is no longer being conducted between press releases from on high and disorganized grumbling en bas.  Thanks to the internet and the blogosphere, every grumble is, potentially, available to every grumbler.  Grumble aggregation is now possible and for some brands, now certain.  Several "grumble Tsunami" have already come running off the internet to devastate several corporations.   

2) there is no place to hide. 

According to Chris Deri, head of Edelman’s head of corporate responsibility practice,  "The expose by some 19-year old blogger of a factory in Thailand is only months off."  This means that no constraints of time and space will protect the corporation from scrutiny.  Bangkok might as well be in Cleveland.  It’s a "see through" world.

Two reactions

The first reaction from Public Relations is raw panic.  Surely, the corporation is now poor Gulliver (as above), confined and attacked on all sides by little people who have no sense of responsibility or accountability. 

Once the panic passes, a second reaction sets in.  The profession reaches for a new metaphor.  "Right, then," the argument goes, "let us think of this as a conversation."  (Bob Langert, McDonald’s head of corporate responsibility calls it a "dialogue."  Alan Marks, Nike’s head of media relations, refers to "real time conversations."  See Murray for both, below.)

I think this is wrong.   The metaphor gives us a communications event in which the corporation and the non-corporation engage in a rapid, spontaneous exchange of views.  If there is a rule in marketing after "know your audience," it is "craft your message." The corporation must continue to engage in set piece communication, crafting each method with strategy and care.   

Parts of the old model must hold

This is another way of saying that Public Relations will continue to manage public relations, and not an open, daily conversation with many hundreds, or thousands, or millions of consumers.  The principles here will be what they are in the rest of marketing.  What are the ideas, the meanings, the concepts, the promises for which the corporation stands?  How do we make these meanings most effectively using the instruments at the professional disposition.

Parts of the old model must change

Here’s what I think must change: tone.  As it stands, Public Relations speaks with a grand and formal voice.   (And this gets us back to that "high church" positioning again.)  One can’t help feeling that this press release is authoritative, possibly definitive, perhaps from the CEO herself.

This is a strait jacket.  Communications from the corporation would do well adopt a tone that is lighter.  No more thundering from on high.  No more tablets from the mount.  What we want is that engaging tone that comes naturally to the football coach, especially the ones with an Arkansas accent.  This is a tone of voice that says, "I’m just saying," instead of "hear ye, hear ye."  It is confiding, sometimes almost conspiratorial.  It is candid when it can be, and tentative when that is, in point of fact, the only real option.  The new public relations will not be a conversation, but the tone will surely be conversational.

What about those party animals? 

Yes, there is a precedent: advertising.  The rhetorical rules here are entirely difference.  These messages may be funny, casual, beguiling, ironic, playful, counter-intuitive.  These are, willy nilly, messages from the corporation.  And no one says, "hold, this will not do."  If we are prepared to let brands speak in a various, variously engaging voice, why not the corporation?  (Certainly, I do not mean to say that Public Relations has the same of degrees of freedom, merely more degrees of freedom.) 

Yes, the corporation lives in a world that is newly symmetrical in terms of power and newly  see-through in terms of disclosure.  Yes, the Public Relations profession must change.  But I wonder if conversation is the model to pursue here.  Perhaps there is something to be learning from those drunken louts after all. Let’s all drink to that.


Murray, Sarah.  2006.  When blogs put brands at risk.  Financial Times.  November 8, 2006, p. 10. 

6 thoughts on “Public relations post Gulliver

  1. Tom Guarriello

    I wonder if we sometimes aren’t tool literal when we talk about the Cluetrain-based “conversations” that now defines markets. For me, behavior is differently conversational than a chat, but nonetheless conversational. Dancers converse. Wordlessly. The key is to understand the customer’s vernacular and, as you say, adopt the tone most conducive to testing the meanings which the corporation’s messages ARE conveying rather than screaming out the ones it WANTS TO convey.

  2. Reshma Anand

    Isn’t it the TONE – sometimes that brings credibility and authority to the message ? If yes, would a conversational style or a more casual tone dilute the seriousness with which the message is perceived or received by readers?

  3. jens

    mccracken’s posting quality reaches new heights.
    ‘gulliver’ is a wonderful metaphor.
    and ‘conversation’ has always been helplessly misleading.

  4. steve

    This is intriguing. I wonder if it is possible, though, for an “official” voice of the company to be ironic or tentative or human. Advertising can get away with this because there is a notable distancing between the message and the promise–there is an allowance for hype, a knowledge that the ad wants to be entertaining, etc. I’m not sure the audience is willing to cut that kind of slack to a statement about metal fragments in the acetominophen. “Hey, now we’re fortified with iron” or ” oops–our bad” probably won’t work very well.

  5. Tom Guarriello

    Steve, I like your question.

    Can, “official” and “corporation” go hand in hand with “human” (read: tentative, ironic, etc.)? I think that’s what’s at the heart of all these anthropomorphic metaphors (“conversations,” “embracing change,” ). Can the modern corporation become more than a “legal person” and take on more of the characteristics of its creators?

    Kind of like cylons.

  6. Ashish Banerjee

    When the corporate entity and its market-facing brand are pretty much one, then evidence suggests this is indeed possible. The Body Shop is the first example that comes to mind. We may not all like Starbucks’ omnipresence, but it does have an authentic voice. In the UK, companies/brands like Innocent & Lush have distinct, engaging, authentic voices. I suspect we’ll see more of this in time… less artifice and manufactured meaning, more essence, soul and humanity… from companies and brands brave enough to take this path, which is not for everyone.

Comments are closed.