Why communications isn’t a bullshit job

If you’ve been in the business a while, then you’re well aware that PR people are paid to take care of things for which no one is really responsible. I mean, who else handles everything from vague requests to “cooperate” that aren’t addressed to anyone in particular, to cryptic customer complaints based on mystical facts and figures, to that yearly yet fateful question so delightfully chock-full of pitfalls: How should we design our Christmas card? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As communicators, our very job description includes assuming responsibility for things for which no one person could possibly be personally responsible. Who seriously believes that an organization’s reputation hinges on one individual or, for that matter, that it can be casually shaped from an Archimedean point provided by the communications department.

I suspect the impossibility of the task is also the reason why we all find it so difficult to explain the actual added value of our work to family, friends, and sometimes even ourselves. American ethnologist David Graeber doesn’t stop there, ranking the work of PR people and lobbyists as superfluous – an empty ritual at best – in his new book: Bullshit Jobs (2018). He categorizes corporate communicators as goons because their jobs have an “aggressive element” – a verdict that is less than flattering (though we did avoid being ranked among the flunkies, box tickers, and taskmaskers). And his thesis has found a receptive audience. German author Jürgen Kaube cites Graeber’s argument in his article entitled “Work no one needs” (Diese Arbeit braucht kein Mensch) published recently in the FAS, the Sunday edition of Frankfurt’s widely read daily newspaper.

Now you can counter this point of view in a number of ways. First, corporate communications as a profession did not form in a vacuum. Especially in business, where cost management is a must, the line would have been drawn at some point. The evolution of public relations in the business world, as has taken place in Germany since the 1970s, was in response to social change. Bernhard Diez, a historian at the University of Mainz, writes about this: “For companies, ‘1968’ was a provocative time both politically and publicly – the response to which was an increasing willingness to engage in dialogue, more professional public relations, and ultimately accepting criticism and introducing reforms.”

Communicators typically mediate between the (mostly media-influenced) expectations of society and the interests of their organization. One not unimportant aspect of that is measuring and evaluating the seismic waves of communicative oscillation. While the ability to empathize with critical stakeholders is essential for this, the degree of empathy required to face the moods and mind-sets within your own organization is just as vital. And all the more so as companies and their leaders are permanently pelted with rising levels of provocation. The late French Marxist Guy Debord, author of the 1967 work The Society of the Spectacle, would likely feel vindicated today. Contemporary philosopher Christoph Türcke talks in terms of an “excited society” (2002).

In fact, one of the essential tasks of a professional communicator is to manage moods and excitement, so that the organization and its leadership – to put it simply – stay cool. That requires emotional intelligence and a clear understanding of your own personality. If you’ve taken the Hogan personality assessment, then you know what I mean.

Indeed, PR people are exactly the opposite of Graeber’s goons. PR managers sort and categorize criticism, separate polemics from key issues, and distinguish between generic accusations and personal attacks. It’s a hard-fought battle in both the private and public arenas with highly skilled and efficacious actors. In the face of harsh external criticism, you have to overcome the feeling of impotence in order to avoid the journalistic and rhetorical fight-or-flight reflexes that are so easy in today’s social media age. But these risks are nothing new. At the beginning of the 19th century, Heinrich von Kleist, author of the essay On the Gradual Construction of Thoughts During Speech, clearly recognized them when he wrote, “I believe that, at the moment when he opened his mouth, many a great orator did not know what he was going to say.”

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