By Kathleen Adamson (May 13, 2021)
The 100-Year PR Plan, Benjamin Miller, Gail K. Picco Books, Civil Sector Press, January 15, 2021, 238 pp., $39.99
Like the legal system, the language of academic discourse has become so complex that it sometimes requires an interpreter -- someone like Benjamin Miller. But that does not mean nothing important is there. Revisiting theoretical works to update concepts based on the history that has occurred since their first hatching may seem like a luxury that these urgent times do not afford us. Yet to fail to do so is to ignore a great many things that could help us on our way. However, very rarely does an author take political theory, apply and interpret it with the relevance and clarity of Benjamin Miller. Miller’s first book, The 100 Year PR Plan, is a breathtaking antidote to much of the overexposed, repetitive jargon and histrionic search for novelty that characterizes a great deal of modern political commentary and the news cycle.
Using the work of British academic Quentin Skinner as a foundation, Miller presents a stellar analysis of the current information climate and maps out a planning process for ideological development that was as much a balm to our overstimulated, feverish foreheads as it is an inspiration.
The goal of this planning process is to determine how best to effect change meaningfully and efficiently. His method is intended first and foremost for the philanthropic sector, but as he points out in the introduction, the concepts apply easily to other sectors as well, as well as to individuals who are trying to articulate a course of tangible action.
As an artist and academic, I found Miller’s book relevant and exciting, and many of his explanations have continued to resonate, usefully, in my mind ever since. However, the philanthropic sector is the perfect place for the change-oriented, world-building approach that Miller has laid out here.
A major joy of Miller’s book is the simple but thoughtful exposition of Skinner’s work and its relevance to the current social climate. (Fans of politics or history podcasts will agree.) But the simple elegance of Miller’s distillation of Skinner’s thought into a practical set of precepts and masks how innovative it is. Like the KonMari method, the Miller process of conceptual planning is best when done holistically, but many of its ideas are insightful in isolation as well. A perfect example of Miller’s synthesis at work in the current news cycle relates the term ‘vaccine passports’, which has created a great deal of controversy and raised alarm from a diverse spectrum of commentators including Naomi Klein and Ron DeSantis.
While ‘vaccine passports’ have been called Orwellian and unfree, ‘proof of vaccination’ documents is uncontroversial and have been shared freely on social media by people from a variety of demographics, even though they ultimately serve the same function as a ‘vaccine passport’. In Canada, public schools have traditionally required proof of vaccination for students to attend, but the process of exemption is accessible enough to allow for a proliferation of unvaccinated children over the last 10 years. Under Miller’s/Skinner’s method, using an existing term for vaccine documentation rather than inventing a new one would have clarified messaging and made the simple concept of vaccine documentation an easily integrated practice, instead of the draining and polarizing debate that it has become.
In other words, not only does Miller’s book avoid all the pitfalls of jargon-heavy academic writing, but it also tells you exactly how to do the same.
It is no stretch to say that journalism and the not-for-profit sector are all caught in a similar cyclone. In all these fields, Systemic inequality, a public conversation that is primarily driven by advertising algorithms, a workforce that is increasingly underpaid, traumatized, and isolated, and a vast mistrust of accumulated expertise are all major obstacles to meaningful change. More and more, buying into the mainstream non-for-profit sector seems to be an exercise in increasing complexity with diminishing returns. Miller’s book shows us exactly what it means to keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater. As he steps effortlessly from Quentin Skinner’s foundation onto a bridge of his own making, he leads us out of our 21st century along a path that, mercifully, feels like it’s already there.
(Kathleen Adamson is a musician, composer and community activist based in Montreal, Canada.)