ITL #293 - Shameless: the death of shame is killing PR6 months, 3 weeks ago
Is being shameless now a widely accepted strategy? And what does that mean for ethical PR and reputation as a calculable metric? By Gerry McCusker.
‘A good reputation is more valuable than money’ claimed Publilius Syrus (85–43 BC).
Too bad, though, he didn’t live to see United Airlines announce a record stock price – up around 33% – despite enduring repeated, globally derided PR disasters (dead puppies and passenger assaults) over the last year. The ex-slave also missed Volkswagen’s positive business bounce after faking emissions test results.
Publilius didn’t live to watch many modern luminaries behave in increasingly amoral ways, without so much as reflecting on, far less smarting from, their hurtful behaviours.
Many entities no longer care about being shamed, because the penalties of shame don’t seem punitive or lasting. I’m scratching my head while asking myself; “What is reputation really worth nowadays?”
If companies cop little lasting repercussions from bad behaviour, why bother pursuing good deeds?
For if companies care less about how they’re regarded, then what’s the point of ethical PR?
Professional PR (not press relations) is supposed to help business both listen and behave better, then build ongoing relationships with others on a developed trust basis. In essence it’s a relationship based on responsive, two-way engagement.
But when I watch companies act without consideration or regret about how their actions could negatively impact upon others, it suggests a lack of shame. Shame is, simply, that internal pang or unease which reminds us we’ve done wrong either accidentally or purposely.
Billings over brand
Australia’s recent royal commission into banking, for instance, totally debunked Publilius’ pronouncement about reputation’s pre-eminence, by showing that many banks clearly value(d) pelf more than PR. Or billings over brand.
Several notable Aussie financial companies – including AMP, CommBank and IOOF to name just a few – are set to star in a new reputation-shattering, tell-all book (called ‘Banking Bad’) by the ABC investigative journalist Adele Ferguson. That bad PR, will be writ large in the annals of corporate history.
Remember, despite being found guilty of a litany of predatory banking behaviour, some of the Aussie financial companies called had to be dragged kicking and screaming to front the enquiry in the first place: Evidently, no ‘pangs’.
Alarmingly, it appears that most customers are apathetic about the scandals, as there’s been no reports of mass defections from financial brands scandalised by the negative revelations.
It seems that healthy shame – where damage caused is ruminated, then meaningfully remedied before moving on having received forgiveness from those offended – is losing ground to an emergent hubris epidemic. Hubris and healthy shame don’t get along very well.
Hubris – described as an inflated sense of flawlessness – might occasion a leading tennis pro to make mid-game playing violations (by taking coaching instruction from the sidelines) then angrily deny their actions while abusing the umpire by calling him a cheat and a thief.
Afterwards, they may ‘shame’ the umpire as having racist and sexists motives. Even if he were so, the outburst might cloud the ‘cheating’ issue which fuelled his umpiring decisions, and which have been left unaccounted for.
When we see an inflated sense of ego – even in the face of courtroom or televised proof – hubris increasingly emerges as a more palatable and proscribed issue response, rather than true humility.
Author Steven Berglas has opined that hubris, ‘… is an "unfortunate consequence” that leads the sufferer to "supreme overconfidence" or "the transient delusion that he (sic) is bulletproof.’
Brands, businesses and people are cottoning on that they, too, might be ’bulletproof’ when it comes to repute and status, simply because the hits (the PR bullets) neither wound nor kill.
Is shameless a strategy?
Did the Aussie Liberals feel any sense of shame over their recent Malcolm Turnbull leadership tear-down? Not to most observers’ eyes. Instead, propaganda apparatus kicked in to gloss over the treachery and to declare that the backstabbing perfidy was entirely in the best interests of the Aussie nation.
Do badly behaved celebrities experience any shame when involved in widely-publicised and often drug-fuelled domestic violence abuses? Or are they glad of spin doctors – modern-day Sidney Falcos – who can cosy up to media influencers to smooth over misdemeanours and perpetuate the bad reputation of the PR profession in the process?
Again, no genuine PR is needed when shamelessness becomes your strategy.
Whether it’s automotive manufacturers falsifying emissions tests, Presidents lying pathologically, banks stealing blatantly or religious leaders not honestly copping to the sins of the Fathers, the lack of shame diminishes the need for professional PR and reputation management. Spin, not substance, can help the bad guys prevail.
US family therapist Carl Whitaker declared that; “Shame occurs when you haven't been able to get away with who you want people to think you are”.
Extrapolating to reputation, Whitaker’s concept is all about spin and very little about behavioural substance (which should be the turf of the ethical PR guy or gal).
If Carl is right, the only antidote to shame has to be to develop true character and integrity. Yet that’s much harder to access and practice than acting shamelessly, which is on the rise as a real issues management tactic.
More worryingly, developing an integrity based reputation is no longer key to doing well.
Reputation’s diminishing returns
I was schooled to practice a brand of public relations which – as opposed to propagandists or spin doctors – involves trying to help businesses in the development of mutual understanding between themselves and their various publics: Less ‘Wag The Dog’ and more ‘The Candidate’. Several of my PR peers share my dismay at the diminishing value of reputation as a calculable metric.
Is it because many business decision-makers have decided their triple bottom line is simply “Me, Me, Me”.
Some brands who have encountered supposedly lethal PR and reputation disasters – Carnival, Nurofen, Target and Volkswagen for instance – have rebounded back stronger than ever.
Their recovery methodologies vary yet they are united by a common thread: no-one cares much about bad PR.
So, is reputation now anything more than an aspirational online meme? Or, is a reputation claim easier to publicise rather than live out?
Readies versus repute
When celebrities, churches, civic leaders and corporates become consumed with self-interest, they lose the ability to see how their decisions can seriously impact third parties. Without genuine interest in ‘others’, there’s less need for establishing and maintaining authentic relationships (i.e. PR).
I’ve been 35-years in the PR and reputation management business; who knows, for how much longer? Should I meet Publilius in another life, I’ll show him exactly when ‘readies’ became more important than repute.
And I’ll tell him the only stock that sunk along the way, was that of the ethical PR adviser.
Gerry McCusker is the founder of Crisis Simulation technology, The Drill.
Gerry McCusker is the author of the pop-academic text ‘Talespin: Public Relations Disasters’ (Kogan Page 2005) and the founder of crisis simulation technology The Drill. Gerry provides issues and crisis management advice and industry insights to ‘tough-to-love’ brands via regular contributions to industry association events plus conferences and seminars in Australia and overseas. Recent client crisis simulations have supported the work of key players in the agri, food, healthcare, infrastructure, oil and gas, plus utility sectors. NB: An expanded whitepaper version of this essay is avaliable on request.mail the author
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