Good Will vs. Self-Interest

Don’t Keep Your Public Relations Officer in a Cabinet on the Wall

Adam Smith is considered the father of capitalism. He is also responsible for creating the need for public relations.

At a time when Western Europe was dominated by Christian principles and ruled by Diving Right Kings, Smith controversially justified self-interest. The Christian golden rule said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Smith countered by arguing that in a market-driven economy, when individuals pursue their own gain, the invisible hand of competition promotes the greater interest of society. In other words, businesses best serve the needs of the community by best serving themselves.

Gordon Gekko dramatically paraphrased Smith’s business philosophy in the movie “Wall Street” when he said, “Greed is good.”

Good vs. Bad

Greed may be good sometimes, but sometimes greed is bad. Greed is good when it leads to innovation and competitive pricing. But greed is bad when it leads to environmental disasters, false claims about products or services, endangered workers or customers, violations of government regulations, and agitated NIMBY groups.

Most companies aren’t all that callous, but those that are create problems on two levels. On one level they cause operational problems that need to be resolved if possible by the business leaders who created them. On another level they create potentially bigger problems of reputation, and reputation is the domain of public relations.

The public relations spokesperson is the ironic doppelganger of the ruthless CEO. When pelicans and sea otters are covered with crude oil, when the paying customer has been dragged off the airliner, and when the economy car gas tanks are blowing up and incinerating passengers, the PR practitioners hold media conferences and explain that the petroleum company is donating money to a wildlife fund, that the airline flies the friendly skies, and that the burning vehicles were extinguished quickly and did not contribute significantly to air pollution.

Public relations practitioners are constantly working to deny the ends justify the means philosophy of Smith and make it clear that their companies are actually more philanthropic, self-sacrificing and sympathetic to the needs of workers, customers and the community than they get credit for.

Public relations practitioners write press releases and blog about good deeds done by the company and its employees. They give luncheon speeches about how the company contributes to the local economy. They sponsor little league teams. And when the company does something really outrageous, they apologize saying it was a mistake, it isn’t as bad as it seems, and safeguards have been put in place to make sure it never happens again.

Give and Take

The volatile give and take between self-interest and philanthropy dates back to the pagan beginnings of Western Civilization. Aristotle in “The Rhetoric” observes that a speaker needs to demonstrate good will in order to be persuasive. Goodwill is the key component of what Aristotle calls the “character proof.”

Demonstrating character through good will and honesty is more important than having a logical or emotionally charged argument. More than anything else, character puts the listener in a frame of mind to listen and to believe the speaker.

Yes, a company following Aristotle’s advice might put itself out of business, but isn’t the opposite also true? Don’t the completely self-serving ENRONs of the world also put themselves out of business with their extreme application of Adam Smith’s philosophy?

When decisions are made about investments, cost cutting and safety, the public relations officer needs to be at the table, not in a cabinet on the wall with a glass door that reads, “Break glass in case of emergency.” The ideal business keeps a balance at all times. It earnestly strives to make a profit, while also looking out for the needs of its workers, its customers and the community.

Smaller organizations like family-owned quarries that don’t have full-time public relations professionals don’t necessarily need to hire them. They can assign executives at the highest level of decision-making the responsibility of voicing the concerns on the people side of the equation.

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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