“Justice is an equation,” says Diane Lockhart, the protagonist in "The Good Fight", the phenomenal CBS legal drama. “Justice equals the law times the zeitgeist. The law on its own doesn’t stand up. You need the mood of the times on your side.”
This quote encapsulates the national mood right now after yesterday’s historic indictment of Donald Trump, the first former U.S. president to be charged with criminal conduct domestically. That justice requires not just an authoritative rule of law, but also the collective will to see to it that it is enforced, is a fascinating idea to ponder, and it reflects the important role communicators have played and are playing in the history we are living through.
Public relations, more than any other field, establishes and governs the mood of the times. Journalism holds accountable those with power, electeds set policy, and both of those groups have a central role in creating the zeitgeist. But PR, as practiced best, is the field that litigates important issues in the court of public opinion. Yes, PR pros do a lot of other stuff for clients, and it is perfectly ordinary for us to represent companies whose leaders just want to be left alone to sell potato chips or software or investment products or whatever else. That’s all fine. But we are the only profession whose job is to understand what every stakeholder group wants from a company and why. There is extraordinary power in this unique platform.
Trump’s indictment in New York is likely to be the first of several humiliating dominos to fall for the disgraced former president, who happens to be the current 2024 Republican frontrunner. He is facing other investigations that I believe will lead to more indictments, and I would be mildly surprised if he manages to avoid being held in contempt of court in the New York matter.
But Trump, as it has been said many times before, is not the illness, he is a symptom of it. The illness is the collapsing trust in institutions across the board. It’s a crisis of confidence. It’s a bank run on the reputational capital of once-trusted systems.
What’s struck me most powerfully, since Trump’s unlikely election in 2016 ushered in the post-truth era of domestic politics we still grapple with, is the degree to which the PR industry wants to reset a zeitgeist that had begun to fail society.
I’ve spoken to many, many practitioners over the years who’ve stepped up and pushed clients towards using their power and influence to right wrongs, because it turns out that using power and influence in that way can restore trust. It’d be fair enough to call this accidental activism, because I don’t think we’re even doing it out of altruism. We’ve just found, by doing our jobs, that this is what our clients’ stakeholders want—that it makes for good business.
In 2020, after the Biden-Harris ticket won the White House, I wrote that PR had a central role to play in restoring the soul of America. Yesterday’s indictment suggests that restoration is well underway. The hard work of communicators is changing the mood of the times to one that is conducive to justice. This will not happen all at once, but every incremental step is further progress in that direction.
Andrew Graham is founder and head of strategy at Bread & Law, a public relations agency in New York, and was the 2021 president of PRSA-NY.