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

A photo of Alan Kelly, Founder and CEO, Playmaker Systems LLC

Bill Paarlberg, Editor, The Measurement Advisor: Hello to you, Alan Kelly, Founder and Principal of Playmaker Systems LLC. Welcome to our interview. You are not our typical interviewee, Alan. You do not work in the measurement or PR industry, and indeed are a bit of an outsider. Your outlook on what PR and corporate communications are and how they function is unusual and refreshing. The interested reader can learn about your conceptual framework at

Alan Kelly, Founder and Principal, Playmaker Systems LLC: 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, after selling my firm in 2003, I kind of went to ground, never surfacing in some agency or corporate capacity. I had other ideas.

“Their view is that PR/Comms exists to create consensus and “positive relations.” My view is that it exists first and foremost to create competitive advantage.” —Alan Kelly

BP: Explain briefly how you think about PR, and how your Playmaker System got started.

AK: PR/Comms is competitive function, one of the many members of what I call the Influence Industry. 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 and self-aware fields, 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.

A photo of a book by Alan Kelly, "The Elements of Influence."

BP: Your Playmaker System and general conceptual framework has applications in many areas, I’m thinking probably politics, negotiation, interpersonal psychology. Which areas have been most receptive to your system? Why? Which areas have resisted?

AK: The System is intriguing to most anyone, and eye-popping to people whose work involves—I 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. ” —Alan Kelly

BP: I learned about your strategy-based point of view back a couple years ago, when you and David Geddes wrote an article, “PR Is Strategic—So Why Doesn’t PR Measure Its Strategy?” You and I pushed David’s thinking a bit further when we presented a framework for measuring strategy as part of communications measurement programs at the 2015 Measurement Summit. I am convinced that measuring strategy (or your plays) is the future of measurement; it seems an obvious and valuable development. But that future awaits a wider acceptance of your Playmaker System. Any progress on that front?

AK: Of course, I agree that the measurement of influence strategies (the technical term for plays) is or should be in the future of measurement. 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 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, “positive relations.” My view, as informed by my work, is that 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.)

BP: Why do you think PR and communications is slow to embrace your system, or at least to accept the role of strategy and influence plays in what it does? I know you have a particular view of PR’s role and/or its self-delusion.

“It’s become clear that my general theory is quite different from how the PR/Comms industry regards its purpose and practice… This is all to say that the rank and file don’t speak my language, or vice-versa.” —Alan Kelly

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 academics would walk.

Now, I figure you might say, ‘Hey Alan, not all of the 250,000 PR people out there in the U.S. are running plays on journalists or any other intermediary to drive their agenda.’ But what my system reveals is that 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. PR/Comms is advocacy dressed as education. And if it’s advocacy, it’s manipulation. And if it’s manipulation, it’s propaganda, or some form of it on a spectrum of influence.

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 911 moment. Just as insurance, energy, finance, and now politics have hit their walls, PR is a hare’s breath 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 real 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.

BP: Has anyone so far actually used your system to to measure, evaluate, or improve PR or corporate comms? What is holding them back? Am I delusional about this because it’s my pet idea? Or is there real potential?

AK: Over the last decade I have invited CEOs of metrics companies to partner with me. None have accepted, which I attribute either to genuine confusion, deep attachments to white elephants (like reputation measurement), or suspicions of a trojan horse. My reputation for competitive PR, after all, can sometimes precede me. Either way, this stuff is disruptive, so trust is low. And perhaps it should be because there is no real call for reform and everyone’s making money.

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

AK: By turns, I want to run screaming from PR. There are more rational and truthful trades 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 could call themselves a public relations practitioner,” and he repeated his hope for licensure to control what he knew and openly expressed was a storefront for propaganda.

Pat Jackson, of course, boiled it all down to behavior, which I interpret now as a dog whistle and an endorsement of social manipulation. I make this leap, in part, due to the recent contributions of Ogilvy’s Chris Graves, whose work is clearly, though subtly, taking us farther into the management of minds. My career in the field was capped with a successful run as CEO of a revered PR and research agency, Applied Communications, which openly practiced what I called “competitive communications.” There was no dodging the truth of what we endeavored to do.

PR has rewarded me, no doubt, but I’m disappointed that the developing practice I have been pledged to is so determined to ennoble something that is more necessary than noble and to so diligently resist an honest and exhaustive framework to define its means and motives.

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

AK: Over the last ten years, the Playmaker System has been used by a variety of elite companies, mostly in tech, energy and pharma. This includes Abbott, AbbVie, Covestro/Bayer, Dell, Dow Corning, GSK, HP, HPE, Intel, Pandora, Royal Dutch Shell, SAP and U.S. Dept. of Defense. By contract, 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 to gain offensive footings, re-position industry values and criteria, and de-position rivals and competing interests. Generally, our work has involved the development of “strategy signatures” by which we can determine and track the baseline playbooks of competitors and then conduct simulations that have helped our clients explore untouchable go-forward programs.

Often, we’re called in to address a crisis, but I prefer to think of any crisis as opportunity 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.

“I have argued many times that 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.”  —Alan Kelly

BP: How did you become interested in measurement and evaluation?

AK: Early in my tech career, it became obvious that I was going to hit a wall doing what I called “Process PR,” i.e., launch plans, events, tours, releases, media relations, analyst relations. I wanted to know more and take the business farther. So I found and literally talked my way into the Communication Research MA program at Stanford University. (I had a lightweight degree from a jock school and my math scores sucked.) It didn’t obsess over new technologies that, I figured, would be obsolete in a much time as I took to study them. And it didn’t obsess over communication theory, which I enjoyed but knew would be less useful in industry. (At the time, I would rather have pulled out my nose hairs than pursued at PhD.) Instead, it focused on empirical measures and methods for understanding communications phenomena and data and making meaning of it. Communication research is, or should be, the principle discipline that houses the PR metrics industry, so it was somewhat inevitable that, later, I would develop a research arm at my agency.

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

AK: I split my time between earnest work and guilty pleasures. On the earnest side of the equation, I am 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 original general theory. 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 to politics a fresh understanding of the game and gamesmanship of it—particularly the peculiarly effective strategies of Donald Trump and the heretofore neutered counterplays of his detractors. And, then, of course, there’s my one design racing sailboat, Playmaker, an Etchells, which I am prone to drag around the eastern seaboard in search of good competition and great Dark and Stormy cocktails. Here’s me and my crew at the 2014 World Championships, earning a respectable 64th out of 99 entrees:

A photo of Alan Kelly and crew sailing.

BP: What’s so special about measurement and evaluation? Why are you doing it and not something else?

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, look it up – that helps metrics companies differentiate their services but, more important, gives them an excuse to perpetuate an old and broken model. As I have argued many times – more recently with the flogging of Barcelona II – PR metrics are simply self-indulgent. They are measuring what makes clients feel good about their work. But measures of reputation, which is subjective, 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. If, for example, in a crisis, my core strategy is to dodge negative press, then I should want to measure how effectively my team avoids it. Of course this is self-serving to suggest, but the Playmaker model provides the precisely-described units of strategy to make this possible – in this case, the Deflect and Decoy. If, as another example, on a thought leadership issue, my core strategy is to win an argument or debate, then I should want to measure the efficacy of the Screen strategy I implement or the Mirror play I use to slow or stop a competing point of view. The usual measures of reputation, tone, key messages and even AVE would do me little good in this case.

BP: When a client asks you to do measurement or evaluation in a way that you know to be misguided, how do you handle it?

AK: I give them this article, “Trust Me, I’ve Got a Barometer.”

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. Animal research and testing, arctic drilling, dislocating technologies, to name a few. I generally let the Playmaker work and my book do the talking. Particularly if my client is more communication-centered than, say, marketing or science or management-facing, 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.

BP: What are your favorite measurement tools or projects?

AK: Strategy signatures and strategy maps are my favorites. These are aggregations of coded plays of some bounded content that yield two and three-dimensional views of how players in my client’s markets are running their game, where they are strong, and how they can be beaten. It’s terrific data to have in preparation for our simulations.

BP: Tell us a story of when you used measurement or evaluation to significantly improve a client’s program. Yes, when you were the hero; go ahead and brag.

Alan Kelly: For a top enterprise systems company, we mapped the influence signatures of the client’s rivals and created best practices for smart competitive engagement that persuades, not bashes. For a leading chip maker, we solved the puzzle of an insurgent competitor and designed new plays to keep it on the offense in a critical new market. For a global energy conglomerate, we decoded the playbooks of extremist NGOs and introduced new strategies to retain the client’s freedom to operate in an important new market. For a major pharma, we identified the plays and ploys of activists and developed a five-point framework for defending research and advancing alternatives.

BP: Thanks for the interview, Alan, all the best.

AK: Pleasure’s all mine. And, btw, you ran some nice plays. ∞

About Author

Bill Paarlberg

Bill Paarlberg is the Editor of The Measurement Advisor. He has been editing and writing about measurement for over 20 years. He was the development and copy editor for "Measuring the Networked Nonprofit" by Beth Kanter and Katie Paine, winner of the 2013 Terry McAdam Book Award.