We need to talk about purpose

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Clear mountain air and blue sky thinking. Pixabay
Clear mountain air and blue sky thinking. Pixabay

‘In the second half of the twentieth century we went from being viewed as workers to being thought of as consumers.’

The quotation is from a challenging recent book by John Higgs (Watling Street: Travels through Britain and its ever-present past).

The book is not about public relations, but it is about the people. It also suggests one part of a broader socio-economic perspective on public relations.

In the week of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, let’s propose a socio-economic explanation of public relations in the twenty-first century.

I’m aware that purpose is being ridiculed as yet another vapid business buzzword but I think there’s more to it than that.

Economics is, in large part, the study of scarcity. To take the most obvious example, the law of supply and demand suggests that when resources are scare, they increase in value; when they are abundant, the price falls.

So let’s take the long view of public relations through the lens of scarcity and the laws of economics.

The nineteenth century was the age of industrialisation in this country. Technology solved some problems by increasing production through mechanisation and the factory system. These factories depended on abundant labour and a supply of energy (usually water and coal).

More than anything, what was scarce was the money to invest in new processes and new factories. Capital – and capitalism – was the focus of one of the great thinkers of the age, Karl Marx. And it was no surprise that his Communist Manifesto from 1848 emerged from Manchester, that prototype industrial city.

By the end of the nineteenth century we saw the beginnings of some industrial brands – soap from Lever Brothers at Port Sunlight; chocolate from Cadbury’s in Bournville, Birmingham. But neither marketing nor public relations were major problems that needed solving in the nineteenth century. The problems were all around technology, transport, capital and process.

By the twentieth century, the challenge was not production, but finding markets for all these mass produced goods. The first half of the century was dominated by the two world wars and a great depression, but the consumer society began from the middle of the century, as John Higgs argues in the quotation above.

Capitalism went beyond producing lots of things to creating demand by engineering lots of needs to satisfy. We had become consumers, defined by what car we drove, where and what we ate and went on holiday.

In this analysis, the scarce commodity was not manufacturing but marketing – the creation of demand. The twentieth century followed the lead of the United States – the land of the brand.

Public relations also had a good twentieth century, but it often remained in marketing’s shadow. Where it was distinctively important was in government and public services: governments needed volunteers to fight their wars; they needed citizens to pay their taxes. Democracies govern by consent, and Engineering Consent was the title of a book published in 1955 by public relations pioneer Edward Bernays.

In the consumer society of the second half of the twentieth century, the scarce commodity was not things, nor labour, nor money, nor even consent. The real scarcity was demand. The greatest rewards went to those who could build sustainable demand through the trick of turning things of little value – such as fizzy drinks – into global brands. Not everyone could afford the latest car, but they could all aspire to a Coca-Cola.

Just as this engine appeared to be stalling, celebrity came to the rescue. Celebrity is another scarce resource and a way to engineer yet more demand. We can’t all be celebrities, but we can copy aspects of the celebrity lifestyle.

This takes us to the present century. To some extent we’re still influenced by celebrity and are still defined by what we consume.

But the financial crisis of 2008 was a shock to the economic system, and despite governments rescuing private sector banks and central banks boosting the economy through cheap money (low interest rates and ‘quantitative easing’), another law of economics has reasserted itself. Money is not an infinite resource, and debt can be risky and expensive.

Capitalism relies on growth. This needs consumption, yet consumption places demands on scarce resources, and risks damaging the planet.

Environmental concerns have existed throughout the consumer age. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring dates from 1962, and the Greens in Germany have successfully influenced government policy away from nuclear energy.

Yet it seems to have taken a David Attenborough documentary about the oceans first broadcast in 2018 to tip public opinion in the UK against ‘single-use’ plastics. Attenborough was in Davos this week to receive an award for environmental leadership.

We’re still consumers, but we’re starting to use our power as consumers to reward or punish business for reasons other than their products or their prices.

So we’ve moved from a capitalist system driven by production to a market driven by demand. But what next? It’s dangerous to predict the future, but some trends are already apparent.

Some brands and some technologies can still make rapid advances. Witness Apple and the iPhone; yet there comes a point where growth becomes unsustainable because the product has saturated the market, or profit margins shrink because competitors catch up with or undercut the brand leader. That seems to be happening to Apple.

What happens when demand has been satisfied? When we realise that we own too much stuff and that happiness lies not with yet more stuff but with giving some of it up?

The great paradox of twenty-first century capitalism is that we have such abundance and yet seem so dissatisfied with it. How can young people have so much to entertain them, but be so quickly bored? To be largely free from the threat of war, of disease or famine, and yet so anxious? Past generations would greatly envy our lifestyles, yet we hanker for something else.

The human spirit is restless, and we are seeking new challenges and new satisfactions. We’re beginning to value experiences over buying yet more things. We’re looking for meaning in ordinary things, so exercise becomes a spiritual quest in the form of yoga.

The best way to summarise this trend is in the word ‘values’. We’ve moved from a scarcity of resources to a scarcity of demand to a search for purpose (in which meaning is the scarce commodity).

The global elite meeting in Davos this week will be very concerned about profit, about tariffs and trade wars. But they also know that the agenda for big business has been set by outgoing Unilever CEO Paul Polman – the need to combine profit with purpose.

It’s easy to join in the popular bashing of elites. To blame the champions of globalisation for the uneven spread of wealth between and within nations. Yet consider how rational these business leaders seem compared to those in government pursuing narrower nationalist, populist agendas now threatening the system of free trade that has enabled consumers to buy things affordably.

So where does this leave public relations in the twenty-first century? If the twentieth century was dominated by marketing and branding, then the talk of values and purpose plays to a public relations view of the world.

Profit is a given for any commercial company, but is that enough to attract and retain the best employees? Is that even enough to satisfy all analysts and investors, let alone to appease activists and fend off governments?

It seems that the scarce resource in the twenty-first century will be legitimacy – an organisation’s licence to operate. This might be something as specific as a licence to fly an aircraft into an airport, or as generic as the public’s or a government’s willingness to accept business-as-usual.

Just look how quickly the social media giants have moved in the public’s imagination from being great enablers through free services to being tax-avoiding and unaccountable operators distorting free speech and threatening our privacy and democracy.

Consider how tobacco has moved from being a legitimate big business to being outlawed socially (if not quite legally). What next for fossil fuels? For sugar or alcohol?

I struggle to disagree with Robert Phillips, though. Public relations will be viewed as part of the problem rather than part of the solution it it’s only seen as a defensive ploy to defend global corporations.

That’s why industry bodies like the CIPR and PRCA (along with public relations academics) have been talking up the responsibilities that public relations practitioners have to society as well as to their clients and bosses.

That’s why sustainability has been replacing corporate social responsibility in many discussions. Sustainability rightly suggests a concern for the environment, but it does not exclude societal and economic priorities. It’s about sustainable business contributing to a sustainable planet and an equitable society. It’s about arbitrating between short-term and longer-term goals.

It’s a big and daunting challenge. It’s the terrain mapped out by Tony Langham in Reputation Management. He writes that: ‘The drive to be seen as a purpose-driven business is currently the number-one trend in global reputation management… This drive can be called purpose, vision and values, corporate narrative, storytelling or can even be phrased in plain English: ‘Why do we exist?’ or ‘What are we here for’.

In other words, it’s an existential question.

It’s not just a question for those in reputation management. The talk of values and purpose plays to the strengths of internal communicators. The 2019 Edelman Trust barometer shows people trust their employer to ‘do the right thing’ more than they trust NGOs or the media. ‘Fifty-eight percent of general population employees say they look to their employer to be a trustworthy source of information about contentious societal issues.’

It may be that we, or our discipline, are not capable of rising to these multiple challenges. But we do at least have the vocabulary: these challenges were articulated in The Stockholm Accords back in 2010. We do have the support of industry bodies. We know what discussions are needed with employers and clients.

I don’t sense that marketing-led advertising, the most prominent element in the promotional industries in the twentieth century, holds the answer to these problems.

Last week’s example from Gillette makes my point. The film was creative; the negative reaction perhaps overstated. But has this significantly shifted Gillette’s social legitimacy and made the firm a key player in the #metoo agenda? I don’t think so.

You can scoff at talk of values and purpose. But I predict it’s rising up the agenda and we’ll be having this discussion more often in future.

The consensus around the postwar world order has been challenged in recent years. Perhaps this really is the beginning of the end for global markets and the consumer society. Perhaps it’s a price worth paying for environmental protection. But if so, what’s next?

Over the past two centuries capitalism seems to have moved from the pursuit of production to the pursuit of markets – and is now moving onto the pursuit of purpose in a search for legitimacy.

That’s why you’re hearing so many conversations, internally and externally, about values and purpose. If this matters to the public and it matters to organisations, then it’s obvious is should be a driving concern of twenty-first century public relations.