Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

Alan Kelly On PR’s Hidden Truth: It’s Competitive and Nobody Wants to Admit It

The Measurement Life Interview is pleased to welcome Alan Kelly, Founder and CEO of Playmaker Systems LLC. As we’ll discover, Alan is the guy who keeps telling PR what it doesn’t want to hear: that it hides its real process, and fools itself about its true purpose. It’s not surprising that many in PR don’t appreciate his insights or point of view. Nevertheless, the smart money is on his Playmaker concepts as the future of communications measurement.

Bill Paarlberg, Editor, The Measurement Standard: Welcome to The Measurement Life Interview, Alan. You are not our typical interviewee, being a bit of a PR outsider. Your outlook on what PR and corporate communications are and how they function is unusual and refreshing.

Alan Kelly: I might be atypical, but I’ve studied, practiced, and taught PR since 1980. My graduate work was in communication research and my former PR agency, Applied Communications, was one of the first to offer sentiment analysis among other media-based measurement products. What throws folks off is that in 2003 when I sold my book of business, I kept the intellectual property that differentiated our practice. I moved to the cradle of influence, Washington, D.C., to incubate it and to broaden my laboratory into politics, teaching, and other branches of influence. I had other ideas than to take a corporate or agency job.

BP: Yeah, OK, I know where you’re going. Let’s have it.

Alan Kelly's book The Elements of InfluenceAK: As a result of this work, I’ve deepened my view that PR/Comms is a competitive function, one of the many members of what I call the Influence Industries. It is not a profession, though it should be. And it is one of the most under-rated and ironically under-publicized agents of change in commerce and society. PR/Comms people are really good at what they do. But, unlike more advanced disciplines, they have no formal or codified basis for understanding the atomic nature of their work. As my book, The Elements of Influence, suggests—they are like chemists without a periodic table. (The interested reader can learn about this conceptual framework at

“…any member of the influence industry is always running plays because their essential purpose is to defend or advance the position or point of view of a client or company.”

BP: Which areas have been most receptive to your Playmaker System? Why? Which areas have resisted?

AK: The system’s intriguing to most anyone, and eye-popping to people whose work involves, hate to say it, spin. Those who really grok it include specialists in information warfare, simulations and gaming, competitive and government intelligence experts, academics in business, marketing, linguistics and rhetoric, and entrepreneurs in the various fields that support cognitive artificial intelligence (e.g., machine learning). PR is, to my surprise, a much tougher nut to crack.

“PR/Comms is advocacy dressed as education. And if it’s advocacy, it’s manipulation.”

BP: I learned about your strategy-based point of view back a couple years ago, when you and David Geddes wrote “PR Is Strategic—So Why Doesn’t PR Measure Its Strategy?” You and I pushed David’s thinking a bit further at the 2015 Measurement Summit, where we presented a framework for including strategy as part of communications measurement programs. To me there’s no doubt that measuring strategy is the future of measurement. But that future awaits wider acceptance of your Playmaker System. Any progress on that front?

The Playmaker System Standard Table of Influence
The Playmaker System Standard Table of Influence

Alan Kelly: Of course, I agree that the measurement of influence strategies (the technical term for plays) is or should be in the future of metrics. (The plays are in the chart to the right, and discussed in a video on this page.) If you’re not measuring the strategy of the practitioner, you’re not being honest about the work being done. The strategy is the one thing you can know and for which a practitioner can be held accountable.

But it’s become clear that my general theory is quite different from how the PR/Comms industry regards its purpose and practice. When my friend the great James Grunig first looked at my table, he asked, “Where are the collaborative plays?” Our beloved Queen of Metrics, Katie Paine, upon reading my book, remarked that it “…made [her] feel dirty… but that [she] wanted to keep reading.” Professor Don Stacks, a mentor and leading scholar in PR research, has, to my chagrin, called the system, “PR’s dark side.”

This is all to say that the rank and file don’t speak my language, or vice-versa. Their view (in my view) is that PR/Comms exists to create consensus and, to quote a mainstream PR pundit, create positive relations. As informed by my work, it exists first and foremost to create competitive advantage. It can be two-way and symmetric, as espoused by Grunig and so many of his acolytes, but its principle reason for being is to compete. (See my video debate with Grunig here and my paper, Dancing with the Giant here.)

“…though I tend to be pitted against PR ethicists and the acolytes of two-way symmetry, we are all in fact pursuing the same point—that PR is inherently self-serving and challenged to be fair and ethical.”

BP: Why do you think PR and communications is slow to embrace your system, or at least to accept the role of strategy in what it does?

AK: Because PR needs to maintain a beautified view of its work. After all, it does a PR person no good to promote a framework that exposes an ulterior motive or the competitive strategy that embodies it. Journalists would have a field day. Regulators would get wise. And many academics would walk.

Now, I figure you might say, “Hey Alan, not all of the 250,000 U.S. PR people out there are running plays on journalists or any other intermediary to drive their agenda.” But what my system reveals is influencers are always running plays, most especially PR people, because their essential purpose is to defend or advance the position or point of view of a client or company. PR/Comms is advocacy dressed as education. And if it’s advocacy, it’s manipulation.

“I’m dismayed that the developing practice I have been pledged to is so determined to… resist a precise and exhaustive framework of its means and motives.”

BP: What will it take for PR and measurement to come around to understanding the true motivations and strategies behind what it does? Will it take some sort of epiphany or revolution? Or will people gradually accept it?

AK: I’ve been saying for a while that PR/Comms is headed for its very own 9/11 moment. Just as insurance, energy, finance, and now politics and media have hit their walls, PR is a hair’s breadth away from being exposed. My op-eds, Protecting Our Fourth Estate: The Plunder of Politics and PR and Fake News: PR’s Little Monster make the case that decades of normalized hyperbole and hedging attribution have both compromised the Fourth Estate and laid the groundwork for fake news and post truth. With new calls for media literacy, PR is one step away from being outed for its excesses. When this occurs, we might begin to see real progress toward regulations and licensure of the practice and its so-called pros. Until then, you can settle back and enjoy the diversions of nearly every major comm’s association and agency as they express their mock shock at fake news and their determined efforts to fight the monster they’ve made.

“PR is, ultimately, the power user of influence strategies. PR practitioners are the playmakers of our world…”

BP: So the PR establishment maintains that it’s being cooperative and all nicey-nice, and then you’re telling them they are actually competitive and lying about it to themselves and the rest of the world. It’s no wonder the reaction. So here’s a two-part question:

  1. First of all, when it comes to persuading PR to look at itself in the mirror, don’t you have a better strategy than just to get in their face about it? Have you tried being, well, diplomatic?
  2. Secondly, isn’t it possible that PR could be both things at the same time: both cooperative and competitive? Two sides of the same coin, or alternative universes, perhaps? Can you conceive of a General Theory of PR that would admit both?

AK: No doubt, I’ve been pointed, but, I hope, never unprofessional. In the early going, when I previewed the system with the IPR and Arthur W. Page Society, I merely suggested that PR should have its own periodic table of irreducibly unique units. That was my driving construct and, as Fraser Likely observed, I hardly knew what I had on my hands. But PR and other influence functions are different from chemistry, biology, and music, because what describes their work is also what they do. And, so if it turns out there are radioactive elements, per se, in a PR periodic table well, then, the questions arise: Who is handling this nasty stuff and under what conditions? To bring it home to the taxonomy, who is deflecting, recasting, diverting, calling out, framing, preempting, etc? And by what standards of practice and codes of conduct?

Though I tend to be pitted against PR ethicists and the acolytes of two-way symmetry, we are all in fact pursuing the same point: that PR is powerful and challenged to be fair and ethical. We all recognize its role in a presumptuous game of perception management because as an advocacy function its first duty is to serve the interests of its commissioning clients and companies.

Where the only genuine disagreement occurs between me and, say, the folks of PRSA or The Arthur W. Page Society, is that they are teaching what amounts to piety and abstinence and I am teaching what amounts to sex education. Both have their place. Both are necessary. But up to this point, moralizing has eclipsed honest self-appraisal and frank understanding of the trade.

“Where the only genuine disagreement occurs between me and, say, the folks of PRSA or The Arthur W. Page Society, is that they are teaching what amounts to piety and abstinence and I am teaching what amounts to sex education.”

As for your second question, I do agree that my theory gives PR little room to wriggle. The logical end-point would be that PR should be regulated or somehow licensed. And that, of course, is anathema to so many institutions that have scale to serve and margins to make. But, again, PR is getting too good at what it does and the costs it is exacting on critical thinking are far too high, as I note in my op-ed on the plunder of the 4th Estate. PR has for a half-century or more successfully normalized hyperbole. It’s part of our culture that, sadly, we accept. And also, by virtue of its built-in anonymity, it has successfully hedged the attribution in earned and owned media that paid media can’t. Who really knows in the course of a news day how profoundly PR influences the facts?

BP: Let’s go back to measurement and evaluation. How would your plays work for communications measurement?

AK: In its current form, I’m not too enamored of measurement and evaluation. The AVE debate is a Red Herring—that’s a diverting play—that helps metrics companies upgrade their services, but, more important, protects traditional vanity metrics. As I have argued many times—more recently with the release of Barcelona II—PR metrics are measuring what makes clients feel good about their work. But measures of reputation, which is subjective and more a measure of likeability, tell us little. Sentiment, it turns out, tells us even less. And key message counts are busy work. What metrics should support and sell are measures of success of the strategies that drive a program.

Consider, for example, a crisis. If the core strategy is to dodge negative press, then the key is to measure how effectively it has been avoided. The Playmaker System provides the precisely-described units of strategy to make this measurement possible—in this case, the Deflect and Red Herring. For another example take thought leadership, where the core objective is to win an argument or debate. In this case the measurable units are the Screen and the Mirror plays, which are used to slow or stop a competing point of view. The usual measures of tone, key messages, and even reputation require too much inference to matter.

“PR metrics are simply self-indulgent… [they] are measuring what makes clients feel good about their work… What metrics should support and sell are measures of success of the strategies that drive a program.”

BP: Okay, so what’s it like being Cassandra? How do you deal with the frustration?

AK: Sometimes I want to run screaming from PR. There are more rational trades and professions to ply. But there’s little doubt that PR is, ultimately, the power user of influence strategies. PR practitioners are the playmakers of our world, whether in business or politics.

For me, there’s also a big investment. My career in PR began in 1980 when I served as the national president of PRSSA—the student arm of PRSA. I had access to the industry’s top thinkers, including the legendary behaviorist Pat Jackson and the then-living father of PR, Edward Bernays. Over tea one day in Cambridge, Bernays quipped that “Any nut, weirdo, kook, or dope can call themselves a public relations practitioner,” and he repeated his hope for licensure to control what he knew and openly admitted was a storefront for propaganda.

My career in the field was highlighted with a wonderful run as founder and CEO of a ground-breaking PR and research agency, Applied Communications, which openly practiced what I called “competitive communications.” There was no dodging the truth of the methods we taught and popularized—positioning, re-positioning and de-positioning. PR has rewarded me, no doubt, but I’m dismayed that the developing practice I have been pledged to is so determined to ennoble something that is more necessary than noble, and that it so diligently resists a precise and exhaustive framework of its means and motives.

BP: Tell us the story of an organization that has used your system to great and telling effect. Go ahead and brag about how effective your system has been in certain situations.

AK:  The Playmaker System has been used by a variety of elite companies, largely in tech, energy, and pharma. This includes Abbott, AbbVie, Covestro/Bayer, Dell, Dow Corning, GSK, HP, HPE, Intel, Pandora, Royal Dutch Shell, SAP, and the U.S. Dept. of Defense. The activities and outcomes are confidential—this is competitive communications, after all—but it’s safe to say that the work has helped these companies gain offensive footings, re-position industry values and criteria, and de-position rivals and competing interests.

Most often, my work has involved the development of “strategy signatures” through which I determine and track the baseline moves of competitors and then conduct simulations that help my clients explore untouchable scenarios. Often, I’m called in to address a crisis, but I prefer to think of it as situation management. A subset of the plays in The Standard Table of Influence are what we call “contra” or counter-intuitive influence strategies that, once revealed to a client, help us all to understand how bad news can sometimes be flipped. Crisis, to me, is often an over-stated circumstance.

BP: What does your day-to-day job involve?

AK: I split my time between earnest work and guilty pleasures. On the earnest side, I’m developing a first-of-its-kind AI-based system that machine-reads the plays of the Playmaker ontology. To support it, I’m putting the finishing touches on System 3, a third-generation of the general theory that’s more compact, easier-to-use, and optimized for the programming of the necessary algorithms and analytics processes.

As for guilty pleasures, I continue to do strategy analysis every Thursday on the nonpartisan POTUS channel of SiriusXM (visit SoundCloud for my podcasts). I’m not a politico, but my system brings a unique perspective to the game and gamesmanship of DC —particularly the peculiarly effective strategies of Donald Trump and the heretofore neutered counterplays of his detractors. And, then, of course, there’s my sailboat, Playmaker, an Etchells, which I am prone to drag around the eastern seaboard in search of fair winds, top competitors, and a great Dark and Stormy.  (That’s me and my crew at the 2014 World Championships, earning a hard-fought 64th out of 99 entrees.)

“PR is a solution, not a salve, an offensive tool that can be wielded well, ethically, and powerfully.”

BP: Suppose you have to address a tough audience about a tricky project. What A-game presentation techniques will you bring to the meeting?

AK: All my projects are tricky as I am typically called in to handle complex and competitively vexing issues. I generally let the Playmaker work and my book do the talking. I use the system to dissolve the conventional habits of mitigation (i.e., Mitigation PR) and to build recognition that PR is a solution, not a salve, an offensive tool that can be wielded well, ethically, and powerfully.

Bill Paarlberg: Thanks for the interview, Alan, all the best.

Alan Kelly: Pleasure’s all mine, Bill. You ran some nice plays!


Bill Paarlberg
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Bill Paarlberg

Bill Paarlberg co-founded The Measurement Standard in 2002 and was its editor until July 2017. He also edits The Measurement Advisor newsletter. He is editor of the award-winning "Measuring the Networked Nonprofit" by Beth Kanter and Katie Paine, and editor of two other books on measurement by Katie Paine, "Measure What Matters" and "Measuring Public Relationships." Visit Bill Paarlberg's page on LinkedIn.
Bill Paarlberg
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