As we remember Dan Edelman, the public relations giant who shrewdly built a business empire, I wonder if what we have today is something to marvel at or mock. As an industry, PR has soared through a half-century of growth, profits and improving stature. But has it made equivalent strides for society? This week, I am not so sure.
Witness the cunning exploitation of the public relations function by the defrocked cyclist Lance Armstrong. For years, he manipulated media, his fans and detractors to dodge doping scandals and, incredibly, burnish his global brand. Borrowing from seven Tour de France victories and his survival of cancer, he became a walking and biking cause. Livestrong.
Proof of Lance Armstrong's confidence in and mastery of PR, he has lately fashioned a new strategy to recant his lies and seek redemption. He may well be sued all the way to jail, a cellmate to OJ Simpson, if we're lucky. But that he has stage-managed a LeBron James-style decision, replete with timed leaks by hand-picked surrogates and negotiated exclusives with daytime diva Oprah Winfrey, and so far emerged as a figure of enduring fascination more than disapproval is technically marvelous. But his feat is truly a mockery of what I am sure Dan Edelman, Arthur Page and other fathers of the PR industry had in mind.
The PR industry is headed for a crisis. The tools, techniques, strategies and players have solidified into a happy industry of hype and normalcy. But it's not normal that we obsess over Lance Armstrong. It's not normal that we Tweet more about a Kardashian wedding than an Afghanistan killing. It's not normal that people vote for American idols more than American presidents. And it's not normal that we cover the shooter of Sandy Hook more than his victims. These things are plastered with our professional fingerprints.
What we lose in the passing of Dan Edelman is akin to what we are already missing in the loss of Steve Jobs. They can't stay to manage the mess. With the likes of Lance Armstrong, PR is soon to be exposed for its incredible ability to influence markets and minds. Try as we might to adorn our function with values, transparency or trust, we all know the reality is more complex and less pretty. And we all know that our many publics, once fully-informed, will never condone these evolving and misapplied practices.
Lest we wish for our own defrocking, public perceptual jail, inquiries and regulations, we must acknowledge the raw power of our building profession to manipulate and, thus, we must establish a higher standard and repudiate those who commit its malpractice.
By Alan Kelly
CEO and Founder
Playmaker Systems, LLC
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