By Thomas J. Roach
In the 18th century, when Scottish philosopher Adam Smith postulated that self-interest and competition were morally acceptable and would lead to economic prosperity, he laid the foundation for today’s market economy. He also created the need for public relations.
Smith’s theory is paradoxical. On the one hand, it incentivizes innovation and cost-cutting. Essentially, this is why we are using iPhone 11s and not flip phones. But on the other hand, Smith’s theory justifies sweatshops, layoffs and products with planned obsolescence.
The public, which buys products and services, wants quality at low prices, but it also wants the providers of products and services to be friendly, loyal and well meaning.
Thus, a professional niche is created for public relations practitioners. Essentially, public relations is all about creating goodwill and serves as a counterpoint to the drive to produce profit by any means possible.
Ethical Public Relations
Ethical public relations practitioners actually guide their organizations into mutually beneficial relationships with their employees, customers and communities. Unethical public relations practitioners merely try to create the impression that their organizations have goodwill. They lie and hope nobody notices.
Enlightened management realizes that meaningful and long-lasting rapport with their publics is essential for survival, and they are willing to sacrifice a percentage of potential profits in order to be good citizens and nurture these relationships. They welcome the feedback and guidance of communication professionals who are monitoring and gauging public opinion.
There was an appliance shop in Joliet, Ill. The owner had negotiated contracts with major producers of washing machines and refrigerators and stoves, and he was selling familiar products a super low prices. Shortly after we were married, my wife and I moved to Joliet, and we went shopping for large appliances. Naturally we went to the store with the big discounts. The owner was the main salesman. He knew he had the best prices, and he didn’t waste time with niceties. He told us what we should buy and quoted a price. When my bride asked questions he grew impatient and insulted her. We walked out and decided we didn’t care how much money we could save, we were not going to buy anything from this guy.
After shopping around for another week, we swallowed our pride and went back hoping he would still give us the deal he offered before we walked out. Over the course of the next 20 years, we bought all our appliances from him.
I told this story in a public relations lecture at Purdue Northwest in Hammond, Ind., and when I was done, three students who lived in Indiana raised their hands and told me they had been driving to Joliet to buy all their appliance there as well.
Do Unto Others
Does this disprove what I am saying about the need for public relations? Not really. The shop in Joliet closed. There will always be anomalies in the market where someone has a product that people want bad enough that they don’t care who sells it to them.
Eventually competitors always materialize and sell products of comparable quality at competitive prices. Once someone has a choice, the ruthless provider goes out of business.
Essentially there are two rules. There is Adam Smith’s rule, and there is the golden rule. Organizations need to be competitive in order to prosper and survive. And they also need to do unto others as they would have others do unto them.
Public relations practitioners are primarily responsible for the second rule, and they do not need to be apologetic about it. Wise business leaders know they need to consider both before they make decisions about laying off workers or building oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico.
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].