At best, PR is widely considered superficial and obnoxious; at worse, mercenary and mendacious. And that's on its better days.
That could change. Working on the principle that what you do matters more than what you say, the Arthur W. Page Society has just issued a report recommending a new model for the practice of public relations.
Full disclosure: I was once on the board of the Page Society, whose membership consists of the heads of PR for some of world's leading companies. Indeed, the society was named after one of my predecessors at AT&T -- Arthur W. Page was the first person responsible for PR to be named an officer of any corporation back in 1926.
The Page Society's report -- which is entitled "Building Belief: A New Model For Activating Corporate Character & Authentic Advocacy" -- draws on insights in the fields of cognitive and behavioral psychology. But its purpose is not to manipulate people into paying attention to things that don't matter, buying things they don't need, or thinking things they don't really believe.
On the contrary, the new model is built on ensuring that everyone in an enterprise understands and acts on the purpose for which it was formed in the first place, a purpose centered on satisfying specific, unmet needs.
That "differentiating purpose," and the mission and values that stem from it, are what constitutes the enterprise's "character." And the "definition and activation of corporate character" is PR's first responsibility.
That gives PR an integrative role within the enterprise, ensuring that all its employees and representatives "think" and "act" in tune with its character.
It's only when an enterprise achieves such a level of integration that it can create "shared belief" with the people it serves -- customers, investors, employees, and citizens.
And only then will that shared belief be a springboard to action -- buying a product, accepting a job, supporting a policy, investing money, etc.
When those actions are satisfying, it gives people confidence in their actions and opens them to the possibility of spreading what has now become a shared conviction. They become advocates, building shared belief among their friends.
Obviously, communications can facilitate this whole process. But under this new model, PR has a much broader role in the day-to-day management of the enterprise. Ironically, it's a role closer to the one Page played at AT&T in the first half of the 20th century.
So in that sense, we may be coming full circle, albeit in a business and social environment Page would not recognize.
The report itself carefully avoids suggesting it is the last word on the subject. On the contrary, it presents its new model as a "hypothesis."
All I can say is that of such hypotheses, entire industries have been born and (hopefully, in this instance) reborn.