Existential angst for business and PR

While the mindless bleatings of many businessmen and women about the benefits their faith-based mantras will bring to humanity are as persistent as their mindless bleatings about how some change or other to business regulation will be disastrous for the world there are some signs of existential angst amongst the business boys and girls.

What is interesting is that the PR industry is also starting to have some doubts about its role in the spread of these self-same bleatings and their impact on inequality, the environment and the quality of public services.

ANZ Chairman, David Gonski, speaking at the bank’s AGM talked about how business needed to step outside the traditional role of shareholder focussed value if it wanted to rebuild trust. Milton Friedman and others who claimed building shareholder value was the prime role of companies, despite history making it transparently obvious that the quickest way to destroy shareholder value was to ignore stakeholder needs, would be turning in his grave.

Similarly the editors of Public Relations Inquiry are calling for papers “focussed on neoliberalism, public relations and society (which aim) to extend the debate and critical scholarship in this area of urgent social and political concern.”

In the call for papers Associate Professor Kristin Demetrious of Deakin University says: “Neoliberalism, a project originating in the work of economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek and economist Ludwig von Mises in the 1920s and 1930s, is based on assumptions
that support the centrality of free markets and economic calculation as the basis of determining and judging the value of all human, social and political activities. Over the course of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, public relations has been pivotal in supporting the social, political and corporate practices that embed and extend neoliberalism as the common-sense way of life, and public relations’ communicative and material impacts are seen and felt in business, government, education, health, culture and everyday life.”

Some of the suggested paper topics are the marketization of knowledge, community, connection and the concept of the public; globalisation; social change and activism; communication ethics and responsibility; and, social movements, resistance and mobilisation.

The call for papers cites some of the literature on the subject in particular Miller and Dinan’s A Century of Spin, How Public Relations Became the Cutting Edge of Corporate Power. There is much more, although it should be remembered that PR was only the instrument used by, and continues to be used by, powerful people. When the tobacco lobby employed Hill & Knowlton John Hill played a key role in the campaign but it was the industry – supported by a number of scientists – who funded and devised the strategy of finding people to cast doubt on the science behind the health dangers of smoking. What was worse, of course, was that the industry knew that the link was real but pressed ahead – with huge legal and financial implications for them decades later albeit after they had made billions in profits.

The same playbook was used with CFCs, acid rain and is now being used with climate change although largely financed by different groups and companies such as the Koch brothers. The playbook has changed a little in that there is now not only denial but also outright censorship with the Trump Department of Agriculture, for instance, banning phrases such as ‘evidence based’ and deleting the White House website page on climate change. Equally, in the same vein, the ABC bowed to political pressure to can a story by Emma Alberici on the myths of company tax cut benefits.

The great book, Merchants of Doubt by Oreskes and Conway, not only described the process but was also remarkably prescient about how it continues to be used. It could be said, however, that while the PR industry took the money and piped the tunes they also played a critical role in framing issues and developing many, many ways to get the message out even if many in the media were conducive to their tactics. For instance, in the debate about the need for company tax relief the veteran journalist Robert Gottliebsen dutifully rolled out the business and political factoid that the Trump economic record was better than Obama’s who had a ‘bad’ economic record – despite any quick reference to the evidence showing that was wrong. But then Bob has form in these matters as those who remember his days working in stockbroking and flogging shares in mining companies during the 1960s boom and bust know.

But then he is not alone in not worrying about evidence. Business leaders trot out the word ‘reform’ as frequently as the public servants who are wrecking public administration around the world trot out the word ‘change.’ In both cases the problem is now not that the use of the words is lazy but rather that the public is on to them – they know it means they are going to be well and truly proverbially screwed. Witness how many of the companies which are touting how company tax cuts will increase wages are simultaneously sacking thousands of staff.

In the February 2018 Company Director magazine you can see further signs of this existential angst. The AICD CEO, Angus Armour, headlines his contribution with the words ‘the politics of reform.’ Recently the ‘politics of reform’ has been easy simply because the neoliberals had convinced governments that there was, in Thatcher’s words, no alternative to their policies. Increasingly the public is saying – there better well be because this needs fixing. Indeed NAB Chair, Ken Henry, virtually admitted it in the same magazine issue when he heretically (if oxymoronically) claimed “capitalism wasn’t broke but it needs fixing.”

The other sign of angst is the fact that business types are being forced to employ ever more hyperbole to make their point now that the magic word ‘reform’ is not enough. Just as 18th and 19th century mine owners said they would be ruined if child labour was outlawed, modern day business types forecast ruin and damnation whenever anyone suggests mild changes which would reduce inequality, allow trade unions to work effectively to protect their members, force companies to pay wages and superannuation contributions to which staff are legally entitled and the disadvantages of casualised employment (to employees if not employers).

The blog frequently referred staff and students to a long ago Petty cartoon where a group of US business boys (as they all were then) were sitting around in their club decrying the fact that the government was spending billions on sending men to the moon when the whole world was crying out for company tax relief. The whole world – including the PR industry – today tends to have different priorities as the business boys (and now girls) are belatedly discovering.