PR on the couch

By Ewen Haldane, The School of Life

The PR industry is in existential crisis. Often seen as the amoral ‘eminence grise’ of the media world, it can be a slightly embarrassing job to confess to at a party. Even a launch party. For an industry that is concerned with making things seem attractive, it’s ironic that, for many firms, recruitment and talent retention are the key strategic challenges.

For many outside of the industry, PR can be synonymous with a pathologically upbeat positivity, or less charitably, with carefully calibrated deceit. If PR were embodied, it might be Jack Nicholson’s character Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men, reminding us that, for all our protests to the contrary, we really can’t handle the truth.

There has been much soul searching over how PR needs to refresh its own image. Some focus on the newest channels — asking whether the press release is still relevant when power is shifting towards highly networked citizen journalists and online ‘think-fluencers’. Others focus on product placement or hover surreptitiously around the digital honeytrap of Wikipedia.

Still others trumpet the latest communication techniques. Brand storytellers, the media’s new Jedi masters, advise on how specific words can ‘neurally couple’ us to brands. Behavioural scientists are wheeled in to show how our irrational biases can be leveraged to nudge us, herd like, into more positive associations.

But the channel or the technique isn’t really the issue when it comes to addressing the biggest challenge facing PR. Focusing on techniques like these is a bit like advising an armed robber to move into cyber crime – rather than reflecting on the activity itself. So what, at root, is the problem? As with someone in therapy, it’s helpful to go back to the early days.

Public Relations was invented by a New York press agent called Edward Bernays in the 1920s. His methodology was based on some theories drawn up by his uncle — who happened to be Sigmund Freud. Bernays saw how a great deal of our behaviour is driven by powerful irrational drives that operate below the threshold of consciousness: sex, power, freedom or status. Having worked in military propaganda during WW1, Bernays feared that unless our darker drives could be kept in check through consumption, they could easily break out in dangerous ways. His deft move was to subliminally divert these urges onto products, often via celebrity endorsement.

Of course, PR has evolved since then. Freud’s ideas are now far more widely referenced. Since the 60s, when hippies encouraged us to wholeheartedly embrace our most ‘authentic’ instincts, PR has been less about subliminally linking desires to products like some kind of nationwide Manchurian Candidate experiment. Rather, consumers are urged to get in touch with what they really desire deep down. PR firms have implicitly adopted the philosophy of the Enlightenment French philosopher Rousseau, who argued that if something feels good, then it is good. And if we can scientifically and socially validate those feelings by carefully worded and strategically edited nationwide surveys, so much the better.

None of this would have seemed especially appropriate to Freud, who was repelled by his nephew’s attempts to get him to write an article for Cosmopolitan magazine. He was not interested in bringing our libidinal drives into awareness so that we could express them more fully. Rather, he wanted to help his patients to learn to exercise some degree of control over these drives, however, initially frightening or negative they might appear. Freedom for Freud did not come from doing whatever we want but from being able to understand and regulate, to some small degree, what it is that we want. The first step being the acknowledgement that while some of our drives are noble, many are rather dark, petty or selfish.

It’s for this reason that PR that is only able to admit to the most positive associations around a brand can feel rather hollow. Companies who insist on only putting out rose tinted communications can indirectly alienate us. Their refusal to acknowledge the more negative aspects doesn’t ring true and can make us feel that bit more detached from the lonelier, darker, or more melancholic aspects of our own characters. The reverse is true when a company does dare to be a bit strange or to take a bold line on a topic that runs counter to received opinion. They charm us — by giving us permission to feel a little more at ease with our own oddness.

Businesses who can help consumers develop more realistic self-understanding in the areas relevant to their activity — for example, acknowledging that we can be stubbornly myopic when it comes to making financial decisions and need to learn to be more restrained (banking), that many of our conversations can be awkwardly boring and can prevent us forging deeper connections (telecomms), or that for many of us, developing a positive body image can be a long and difficult road (beauty products) — will be the ones who thrive. Not those who offer a doggedly positive spin in order to ‘intelligently manipulate’ us – as Bernays put it.

A wiser future for PR rather lies not in smarter ways of influencing our thoughts but in more charming ways of helping us to gain a little more self-awareness. A traditionally competent PR campaign is able to steer us to understand the world a particular way. But the effective PR campaigns of the future will be those which leave us feeling that it’s us who are a little more understood as a result.

Ewen Haldane is business director at The School of Life, an organisation that helps brands communicate their purpose in more engaging ways.

Leave a Reply