The guy who hired me to do PR for AT&T was a former newspaper editor. Like his peers at most companies, he only hired ex-journalists. I had a degree in broadcasting and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was kind of an experiment foisted on him by people higher up the food chain. For the next couple of decades, nearly all the new hires had some broadcasting background. Not because I had been such a roaring success, but because everyone was convinced that most people were getting their news from television.
Then the Internet changed everything. The new hires might not know how to spell, much less how to write, but they knew HTML and Java. Eventually, I was doing whatever hiring we could afford and I came to the conclusion that writing skills were the cost of entry and a leading indicator of basic intelligence. Beyond that, what technical skills people had was less important than their character. That’s even truer today.
Higher immigration rates are changing the demography of developed countries and globalization is spurring the growth of new middle classes in emerging markets. While PR used to be all about publicity and advocacy, its highest role today is helping companies make business decisions in a sound context. In philosophical terms, PR today is less about rhetoric and politics than about ethics. Less about explaining and winning permission for proposed actions than helping choose and shape the actions themselves, based on a clear understanding of the people they affect.
Now, to many people, “ethical public relations” sounds like an oxymoron along the lines of “jumbo shrimp.” But if the experiences of some of our leading institutions — secular and religious — have taught us anything in the last few years, it’s that large organizations can easily lose any meaningful connection with the ethical principles they espouse. Companies are just as vulnerable.