So goes the toast of the French foreign legionaries. The Legion are legitimised mercenaries. Many are not French, but fight for France with professional efficacy. The same could be said of Gurkhas or Irish in the British Army. Less officially or legitimately there are many private military companies that are employed by sovereign states. The top PMC’s operate in the classical manner that mirrors the Gurkha or Legion capability: strategy is designed, objectives are set, missions are accomplished with professionalism.
So why am I blogging about mercenary soldiers?
Because of this article, written by fellow KCL Warstudies post grad and Comms advisor, Tom Hashemi: https://www.prweek.com/article/1583013/pr-firms-own-medicine-regarding-social-purpose
The article considers “social purpose” and whether PR firms that advise their clients to follow best practice and put social purpose at the heart of their organisations and their communications campaigns actually take their own medicine in this issue.
My reaction came from my gut and was not supportive of the core argument that PR consultancies or departments or PR as an industry should necessarily have a “social purpose”. So I went online and asked for thoughts from the PR universe. Engaging with some friendly ex colleagues and peers on the issue gave alternative points of view.
The first response was a mirror image to my gut feeling from one of the outstanding PR advisors and people anyone could want to know, Anastasia Ivanova. “it can be cool to know you’re doing more than paying the mortgage”. A fair point, well made. Alastair Sibely also commented about how a clear social purpose could well be a talent attraction tool, especially for younger colleagues.
Rod Cartwright (who if you don’t know, you should) commented, “purpose is key to customer and stakeholder engagement, no matter how good your products/services. Without it, it’s not easy to differentiate over the long-term and generate the emotional engagement crucial to sustainable brands. But internally, it’s arguably nigh-on impossible to deliver great products/services if your people don’t know what they belong to and where you are heading collectively”
I quote this in full because its typically smart and thought out from a respected PR & Communications industry leader.
But I still don’t buy it.
Following more discussion, where I suggested that agreed objectives were more important and practical than shared purpose, Rod pointed me in the direction of some scrupulously researched and nicely presented work on the subject of purpose being at the heart of brands, businesses and organisations and that it is the shared purpose that allows organisations to define the right objectives and execute effectively.
It’s great stuff and I get the theory and can see how it resonates.
And then there’s the second article that caught my attention and it’s almost like the perfect hook to the body / hook to the head combination: https://www.ft.com/content/6aa98f00-669c-11e9-9adc-98bf1d35a056 It encapsulates a particularly British challenge with a pithy and witty precis: “I find it hard to appear wildly enthusiastic about anything. Which is why I find the idea of being passionate about work a bit difficult.”
Those of you reading this that know me, either personally, professionally or virtually will be aware that I like my job and have worked hard to develop a career. I do care about the work I do.
My combined reaction to these articles is to return to honest and honourable mercenaries (as opposed to shits like Mark Thatcher). They have developed a particular set of skills that they can monetise, as long as they meet the objectives set out for them by their client. They don’t have to be demonstrably passionate. They don’t have to agree on a shared purpose. They have to be effective and do what they say they will. This isn’t about individualism over corporatism. Outside of cinema and a few VC citations, the single hero doesn’t win the day on their own. The Legion and other mercenaries rely on teamwork and a shared understanding of mission, objectives, tactics etc. I could use any team sport as the same analogy. You don’t have to like each other or believe in the values of the club to win.
My experience at the intersection of capital / (geo)politics and commodities could be a little niche to generalise about “PR” per se. I’m not claiming to speak for the industry, just give my personal reactions on it.
I don’t like being told what to believe. I don’t like being told what to feel. I don’t think we have to engage on that level to do an outstanding job. I was briefly both a hard left trot and worked on an institutional foreign exchange floor. I’ve comfortably coexisted as a soft left social democrat and PR advisor to autocratic sovereign states whose system of government I find personally challenging.
The growing dynamic about the intersection between “PR as a force for good” and wider issues of “purpose” combined with a growing corporate desire for demonstrable “passion” and “engagement” runs the risk of alienating those of us that just want to do as professional job as possible for clients or employers that understand the value that we can create. This may also chime in with the PR extrovert / introvert discussion I’ve seen recently.
There is and will remain a role for the objective outsider in PR that can provide an alternative view and maybe call BS on the group think. Maybe we’re occasionally uncomfortable to have around, but I believe there is an ongoing role for the honourable PR mercenary as much as those committed to social value and demonstrable passion.
Vive la Légion Étrangère, vive le sacré mercenaire