Dealing With Machiavellians

Almost Every Public Relations Problem Is The Result Of The Public Discovering That Some Companies Aren’t What They Profess To Be.

By Thomas J. Roach

Some of us believe our values and our personal lives are more important than our jobs. We work to live, we don’t live to work. We hope our professional efforts make a better world, and we assume most of our co-workers feel the same. 

We would like to think supervisors care about the wellbeing of subordinates and will reward them appropriately for their accomplishments. Our friends are people we genuinely like; we are happy for them when they succeed, and we believe them when they say they are happy for us. 

At the other end of the spectrum are those who think everything I just said is a myth. They believe everyone is out for themselves. Friendships are alliances based on mutual needs. They show kindness to others to create the illusion of good will and gain the trust and cooperation of others. In their world, people don’t work to live, they live to work.

  • We might call the first group the Golden Rulers – doing unto others as they would have others do unto them. They are as they appear. 
  • The second group are the Machiavellians who subscribe to Niccolo Machiavelli’s quote: “Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know what you really are.” They deal in illusions. 

No one wants to do business or work with someone who they think is going to take advantage of them, so all public relations practitioners typically present their organizations as utopias of well-meaning managers supporting a close-knit family of employees eager to service the needs of respected customers. Not surprisingly, almost every public relations problem is the result of the public discovering that some companies aren’t what they profess to be.

In some organizations, enlightened management believes that a Golden Rule culture leads to the highest level of success and profitability. Public relations in this environment is all about facilitating communication to provide reward and recognition for employees and to channel information into a decision-making process that adapts to the needs of customers. 

In organizations with an essentially Machiavellian culture, the public relations job is ethically flawed and way more complicated. If a company is willing to do anything it can get away with to make a profit, then public relations has to make it appear that the company is operating according to the Golden Rule when it is really doing the opposite. 

Classic Example

The now classic example is United (Fly the Friendly Skies) Airlines whose security guards knocked a passenger unconscious and dragged him off his flight in 2017. United’s CEO defended the action saying they were, “re-accommodating” their customers. The airline subsequently came under heavy public criticism and, two days later, the CEO changed his mind and said, “No one should ever be treated this way.” It took them two tries to get it right. 

No organization is free of Machiavellians. Even the most well-meaning business culture has employees facetiously complimenting and buying gifts for their superiors and mechanically hugging all their coworkers like they are their best friends.

Benefit of the Doubt

After more than 40 years practicing and teaching public relations, I believe in giving everyone the benefit of the doubt – treat others like you want to be treated and assume they will do the same for you. 

To do otherwise is to give in to the temptation to be overly calculating and self-serving. Of course, once someone has demonstrated sociopathic tendencies, you feel foolish and you back away, but I’m ok with that because becoming paranoid and vengeful seems a lot worse than being naive and getting hurt occasionally. 

Sometimes sincerity has surprising benefits. In a meeting with my peers, a corporate vice president once accused me of not making my job the most important thing in my life. The next day I sent him a list of my priorities with the job ranked fifth. He forwarded my memo to everyone on his staff with his own list scribbled in the margin and said he wanted them all to make lists. 

He ranked the job third. 


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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