PR should lead and advocate change says Paul Seaman, MD of agency West PR-Seaman

Here’s a decent challenge for modern commercial PR. How does it best help firms shake-up their management behaviour and thinking so as to survive our anxious times? Answers on a postcard, and please be quick.

It’s certainly been a pinch time. Corporates have become scapegoats in the recession: they seem to have failed as managers and citizens about equally.

I see an opportunity. This may be the moment when we get beyond the usual guff. You know, about the importance of transparency, corporate social responsibility, sustainable development and treating all stakeholders as equals. That’s not just because it’s all motherhood and apple pie. It’s also because those mantras are part of the problem.

I am pretty sure that the mainstream of the PR world is hoping to persuade their paymasters and peers that firms are in trouble because they have not been sufficiently “disrupted” by insurgent ideas, which would maybe get them back onside with the right-on public.

For my part, I think it ought to be PR’s first task to work out what firms actually want and to help them express it. Plenty of companies want to develop and innovate. They want to build new-generation nuclear; or wind farms; or new runways or fast trains; or housing projects. The noisy NIMBIES will command the media’s attention, while the putative beneficiaries of change will go unheard. Our job is to work out how to make the future attractive now.

I like another, tougher PR job. This is to remind firms that spinning giant narratives is often disastrous. Bankers (too many too mention, but let’s lob in HSBC, RBS and HBOS), and oilmen (I can’t resist a BP name-check) didn’t remember that doing the boring stuff – quiet, expensive, unprofitable safety engineering, for a start – is the first and very nearly the last serious, professional, grown-up requirement of the good corporate citizen. Indeed, sustainability and responsibility start right there.

It’s difficult today to introduce a new technology or to get new ideas accepted. It’s not just nukes and Monsanto who meet with militant resistance. In fact, any project that calls for real disruption gets disrupted by intense protest; including tidal power, fracking and biotech. Even successful enterprises such as supermarkets are held up as problems rather than triumphs in the popular media.

So we need to go to back to basics. PR professionals need to define what making a positive contribution to society should consist of. In my view it consists of helping society overcome the barriers to development. That is going to require a cultural shift, not least within the ranks of the PR profession.

The real job of PR professionals ought not to be to put a positive front on whatever comes our way. Our role also ought not to be merely to explain change, or to dress it up as being something more than it really is. Yet, quite frankly, that's most of what we do most of the time.

No. Our role should be to lead progressive change. In my book that calls for economic growth, fuelled by innovation. It calls for embracing a positive spirit that advocates and celebrates change.

It means we are going to have to fight the ideas that denigrate disruptive innovation, more production, consumerism, profit (bigger the better) and risk (unavoidable and exciting).

A good place to start the campaign would be by ridiculing sustainable development and popularising development.

We might also be well advised to stick up for consumers. But that’s a tough call for PROs who have aligned their clients’ reputations with the ethics and culture of anti-consumer activists.

It’s these very ideas that need disrupting most if ever our economies are to achieve escape velocity and leave the recession behind.

PRmoment Awards 2019