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November 23, 2009
Detroit: A Ghastly Advisory to Us All

A Bob Herbert column in The New York Times on Detroit ("An American Catastrophe") is, in its perverse way, testimony to the importance of relational PR in industry and government. Herbert is rightly appalled at the ruins of industrial Detroit.

"What you'll see are endless acres of urban ruin, block after block and mile after mile of empty and rotting office buildings, storefronts, hotels, apartment buildings, and private homes," he writes. "It's a scene of devastation and disintegration that stuns the mind."

Where's the recognition of, or response to, such an epic failure of industrial policy? Detroit looked like a moonscape when I was there years ago, and it's probably worse now. For me, Detroit's fall stems from an epic failure in relationships. First, the carmakers didn't relate well to their customers over time, and politicians didn't relate well to what was happening at the auto companies as they were eclipsed by imported cars. Everyone lost sight of the importance of running a basic American industry as a relational system with the customers and welfare of an industrial community coming first. Instead, Detroit gave customers what it thought they wanted, what it was tooled to provide, and what labor-management relationships made it easiest to provide. It was an encapsulated world.  

No one should have expected public relations as it was practiced in postwar America to have anticipated or prevented the collapse of industrial Detroit. PR people did management's bidding, even if management was wrongheaded. The lesson in this for today is that good PR is truly relational PR. It has to sense what's happening in an economic setting, an industrial or commercial environment, and maintain a clear-sighted hold on that reality. Regardless of, who, if anyone, wants to hear it. If nobody readily wants to face reality, PR needs to come up with ways to help them do so. 

In light of Detroit's example, that makes PR one of our most important national disciplines. 

There might have been some heroic Detroit PR people who sensed this and tried to sound a warning. I'd love to know about them if there were. I'm writing this from a distance and on the spur of the moment, but PR is nothing if it doesn't gauge an environment correctly and advise on reality, both in corporate and government offices. Detroit is proof.

Photo by Sean Hemmerle, Time magazine


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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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