The arts are imperative to public relations

A public relations professional will fail to achieve their potential unless they actively engage with the arts. Society itself will be fundamentally – in a socialised or social sense – anorexic as well without the arts playing a central role in the lives of its people. But for PR professionals specifically, a lack of immersion in the arts is an absolute horror show.

The same can be said about human resources for much the same reasons as I am about to expound.

The arts and PR

Humanism for public relations

‘Publics’ are people. Public relations is preoccupied with ensuring the best possible relationships between organisations and their publics. Call them stakeholders if you like, but don’t mention this to some academics as you’ll get them upset at the lack of demarcation. And these stakeholders will obviously include other organisations – corporate ‘edifices’ et al – but they, too, are populated with people, the (people) ‘product’ we deal with.

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So it therefore essential we have the ability to understand and engage with people.

  • This includes empathising with them.
  • This includes not just tolerating diversity in perspectives, it means welcoming them.

Other than actually interacting with a diversity of people (i.e. being social) the arts, I believe, provides us with the best possible means of humanising ourselves.

In fact, perhaps it is the single best means of humanising ourselves. As it is in our nature and it is our habit to interact most closely (i.e. friends and work colleagues) with those who are from similar socio-economic, ethnic/cultural and political backgrounds as ourselves, it is the arts that provides a window to the world and those people who are different to us.

For me, it is the arts of literature and music which have the most allure and provide the most interest and fascination. For others, it will be theatre, film, visual arts or ballet/dance/movement.

My interest in music has given me an understanding of cultures different to the one I was brought up in, including Afro-American, Jewish, Kentucky hills, indigenous Australians, the south of the USA and various sub-cultures of Africa. I believe it has given me an increased empathy towards these cultures as a result of my exposure to them. It certainly given a a great deal of admiration towards them!

But a knock-on effect of this interest in the cultural (or artistic) ‘artefacts’, is that the music which has inspired this impact has also prompted me to learn more about the cultures via other means, such as film, literature, journalism etc. It has, in essence, opened my eyes to the world, to a broader church of human experience and the opinions of many than would otherwise have occurred.

It is literature, however, which has really made the big difference. One reason for this is out of all the arts, it is literature where the greatest amount possible of information can be crystallised or articulated. I know it is pictures that speak the thousand words but, for me at least, they can never reveal as much psychological depth or complexity as the written word.

Literature allows the tensions between different pieces of information and people to be played out on the largest possible canvas. It can comfortably contain a swarm of subtleties other art forms cannot. It is in literature where my prejudices and preconceptions have been most effectively challenged and where the greatest amount of scales have fallen from my eyes (and skeins have been pulled from my heart and my head).

Through literature, I have gained understanding of the rationales why some people think differently to me; the value in this thinking and why they have developed this ‘difference’, whether it be manifested in a political position or a way of dressing.

People impact from the arts and on public relations

By involving yourself in the situations literature explicates, you gain an increased understanding into how people can react to stimuli. This helps you predict reactions from publics and recommend solutions which are better informed and, hence, are more strategic and likely to have greater success.

As such, reading literature is a professional development activity!

The arts as tactical resource for PR

For public relations professionals, there are two further reasons why the arts are imperative to our discipline’s practice.

The first is that the arts inspires creativity; it resources creativity. And creativity is central to PR. We need it to create communication which will interest people. This is not an easy task, especially in a content-crowded world where every waking moment seems to be stuffed with information.

Further to that point, engagement with the arts (if we let it!) can provide a respite from information overload, too. Reading a novel, watching a film etc can provide a sense of peace and ‘separation’ which we need to refuel ourselves, emotionally and mentally. We are living in another world for a short period of time, one where, in fact, we can actually be another person, transported to another time and place.

Like sleep enriches the body and helps prepare us for the new day, so can the arts do precisely the same thing for our mind and soul.

In regard to literature specifically, reading fine fiction enriches our vocabulary and teaches us different, and hopefully excellent, ways of writing. And writing is a PR professional’s number one skill.

Humanising literature and music hit list

This is the really fun bit. The following is a very brief selection of literature everyone, not just PR professionals, should (yeah yeah, i know in my view) read. Not just for their humanising impact, but for the sheer joy and entertainment they provide:

  • David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  • War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  • Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
  • Underworld – Don DeLillo
  • American Pastoral – Philip Roth
  • Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
  • The Sound and The Fury –William Faulkner
  • Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor
  • Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

But I leave the final words to one of my favourite authors, W.G. Sebald:

Writers, he said, “sometimes succeed in opening up vistas of such beauty and intensity as life itself is scarcely able to provide.”

How has your engagement with the arts enriched your professional practice of PR and/or your life itself? Is there enough engagement, do you think, between you and your colleagues with the arts? What artistic discipline provides the most sustenance to you in your profession – why?

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Crisis management and the need for CEO leadership

Commentators around the world commonly promote the CEO as Chief Communication Officer, or as Chief Environmental Officer, or occasionally even as Chief Reputation Officer.  But what best practice requires now is the CEO as Chief Crisis Management Officer, and that is much harder to “sell” along the mahogany-lined walls of the executive suite.

Issue and crisis management

Of course the role of CEO as spokesperson in a crisis is well known and well understood (including the fact that there are good reasons why the CEO is sometimes NOT the best spokesperson).   However that activity is purely responsive – it’s about what gets said when the crisis has already struck.

This is a guest post from Tony Jaques*, an internationally recognised consultant and authority on issue and crisis management.

Yet the true role of CEO leadership in crisis management should be much more, and public relations practitioners have a real opportunity to identify and help develop that broader responsibility.

Crisis management as executive responsibility

The concept of crisis management as an integrated executive responsibility is a key theme of my new book, Issue and Crisis Management (Oxford 2014).

It shows that comprehensive crisis management extends from long before the crisis with identifying issues and potential crises; through introducing and activating effective crisis prevention and response; and continues long after operational resumption to include post-crisis risk issues such as inquiries, inquests and adverse legal action.

It’s not surprising that a crisis situation turns the spotlight on leaders as the human face of any organisation.  As US reputation expert Leslie Gaines-Ross says:  “Just as CEOs receive most of the credit when things go right, they are also expected to accept the majority of the blame when things go wrong, particularly in times of crisis.”

Leslie Gaines-Ross research found. “when crisis strikes, nearly 60 per cent of the responsibility for the crisis is attributed to the CEO.”

CEO: more than a spokesperson in crisis management

One result of this attention on the CEO is that a lot of the available material concentrates on the role of the leader as spokesperson in a crisis. But I believe that if CEOs understood better how much blame they will get for the financial and reputational  damage when things go wrong, they just might be more willing to take a more active role in helping prevent the crisis happening at all.

If they need any further convincing, you need look no further than the seminal study by Les Coleman at Melbourne University, which examined Australian crises over a ten year period. It found that more than a quarter of those crises cost the organisations concerned in excess of $100 million, and about one in four of the organisations failed to survive.

In my own research interviewing Australian CEOs about crisis preparedness, it became obvious very quickly that top executives simply don’t see crisis management as their immediate priority.

As one CEO told me:  “People prioritise based on day-to-day issues and pressures. And, hopefully, on more than 99% of days, crisis management is not an issue or priority. Consequently, I think there is a tendency for people to put it off.

“When it’s time to do the crisis management stuff, there is always something else which is more important in the short term. It’s a matter of planning and priority setting and leadership.”

Accountability and opportunity in crisis management

Crisis (and issue) leadership is about much more than just speaking on behalf of the organisation—albeit a crucial responsibility.  Public relations practitioners are in fact ideally placed to help promote what I propose are basic criteria for true crisis leadership:

  • Leaders need to be able to help identify issue and crisis threats early and have the forethought to assign sufficient resources to make a difference.
  • They need to break down functional barriers to drive the integration of issue and crisis management systems.
  • They need to be able to recognise that issues and crisis may represent an opportunity as well as a threat.
  • Most critically, they need to provide an example to managers throughout the organisation to take personal responsibility for developing and implementing effective issue management plans to help prevent crises happening in the first place.

It might seem like a tall order, but it might also be the difference between organisational survival and extinction.

What role do you think CEOs should play in crisis management and why? What experience do you have of effectively undertaken proactive involvement in issues and crisis management from CEOs and executive leadership?

*Tony Jaques is an internationally recognised consultant and authority on issue and crisis management.  He writes Australia’s only specialist issue and crisis e-newsletter, Managing Outcomes, and is author of Issue and Crisis Management: Exploring issues, crises, risk and reputation (Oxford 2014)

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Which of the six types of public relations professional are you?

The six types of PR professionals are: leaders, inspirers, creatives, synthesisers, galvanisers and project managers. Which one are you!?

Of course, you may be more than one simultaneously (or think you are…). And to some degree, the typology above will be reflective of your career journey. Equally, however, I’ve known practitioners straight out of university in their early 20s to, indubitably, be leaders and inspirers. And on different days of the week and, indeed, different times in a single day we may need to wear different hat ‘types’.

At our core, however, I’m interested to hear what you think about the types I have identified, what characterises these types and what I have missed out on, got wrong and, hopefully in some cases at least, got right! Please comment at the end of the post!

Leaders in PR – showing us the way

Clearly, leaders lead through their behaviour, not what they say or how they say they’ll act (e.g. walking the talk). Otherwise, in my books, they aren’t really a leader.

A grandiose title and being in charge of lots of employees doesn’t bestow leadership upon a person, at least not in the ideal (which sounds unrealistic but I’m actually being absolutely pragmatic, as walking the talk is about the most pragmatic thing to achieve results a leader can undertake) and useful sense I am concerned with.

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One of the most powerful characteristics of a leader is that they can be trusted. They follow through on what they say they will follow through with and they treat people with respect and, where appropriate, confidentiality. This trust will be founded, hopefully, on the fact they actually care about those around them – about them as people as well as the nature and quality of their work.

Leaders will always give public credit to those who they collaborate with and not claim undue, or unbalanced, credit for themselves. Sharing this credit and recognising others empowers people. And it reflects well on the person who shares this credit.

Conversely, the leader will protect those who report to them, standing up for them as appropriate in difficult situations.

Inspirers: the wings of an eagle

Leadership, obviously, will inspire people. As will those who are creative and produce stellar business outcomes. As will those who are effective collaborators.

Perhaps inspiring others is an inherent quality of truly effective leadership. But I think it’s worth calling out as being a particular type, too, as so often our activities outside of work and the way we deal with these challenges can inspire those who know us, whether they are colleagues or not.

The way we behave, therefore, just like with leadership, is the ‘platform’ on/through which we inspire people.

In a professional context, one formidable way of inspiring people is by seeking to achieve, and actually achieving excellence. These are two separate things. In many cases, the seeking is vastly more important than the destination. This restless, relentless striving to achieve the best we can be is where we exhibit what sort of person we are.

The only fail is failing to try, I tell the boys I coach at football – and it is equally applicable in the professional world of public relations and business.

Creatives – at the heart of PR

Well, where would we be in public relations without the creative types! Sure, all of us are capable enough to come up with the odd good idea, but there are those who are absolutely characterised by this quality. And they definitely do not always seek to lead or be the big boss.

I’ve seen this quality manifest itself time and again in the PR agency environment. It is an absolute winner as a characteristic to have in this context as new business pitches are won and lost on the creative dimension. (I see this as a far more critical element in winning business than agency reputation or rigour.)

And if you’re in an agency which doesn’t win new business, in turn the agency will fail and you’ll be out of a job.

It’s a quality I particularly value in in-house practitioners, too, but it doesn’t materialise in this context as often, at least in my extensive experience. In-house practitioners can be mechanics, doers, project managers etc and do this admirably and successfully, without necessarily needing to be particularly creative.

It would be expected, however, that even the most plebeian meat and potatoes type (another type?!) of PR pros will add some creative value to, at least, the process of undertaking the work, if not the nature of the actual project/task itself. It may not be as glamourous as the ‘big idea’, but innovation in how to actually get the job done can add much value, including saving time = saving money.

Which leads us neatly to….

Synthesisers – the hidden geniuses of PR

Maybe I should call this type the ‘creative synthesiser’, as that’s what I mean. Synthesisers take creativity from whatever sources input ideas into a project/topic/etc and value-add through two means:

  • Coalesce the divergent ideas into a seamless, integrated whole which takes the best out of each contributory shard to produce an holistic masterpiece
  • Value-add through building on the creativity which has been offered, adding new ideas and coming up with further, compounding (‘viral’, if you like) notions which, once again, help devise an holistic masterpiece.

This is an underestimated type of genius, in my view, and is in many cases founded on an ability to collaborate effectively and understand the genesis of many of the ideas which have been suggested. That way, going to the roots of the various creative ‘shards’, our synthesiser protagonist has access to the mother lode of inspiration at the core of the ideas.

Of course, as we can be a superficial lot, sometimes understanding the genesis is entirely unnecessary. It could be the creativity is resulting in a fabulous launch party and its the glitz, fizz and absolute fabulousness of it all which prompted the compelling value-adding and its integration into an holistic masterpiece.

But enough about me.

Galvanisers

When putting together this dichotomy, I pondered the entrepreneur as a distinct type. But then I decided it is perhaps this is similar enough to the galvaniser to group them together.

I think every PR practitioner needs to be entrepreneurial to some extent, not only those who work in mid to higher levels of PR agencies or in in-house leadership roles (though I recognise you could cogently argue the case for inspirers being in the same boat).

And I think there are different enough qualities between the galvaniser and the project manager to make it worthwhile flagging both as unique types.

The galvaniser recognises the creativity, sees the opportunity, then takes a stand to pull all the potentially wayward strands together. It’s an important role. And it is one which good managers (aka leaders in another guise) are experts at.

Project managers

Project managers make sure the job gets done. It takes rigour, intelligence, people skills and discipline. Creativity is not necessary, but without these PM types we’d be lost. We all need to be a project manager at times, but to tell the truth I wouldn’t particularly fancy to be categorised as one myself.

I’m afraid my ambitions are greater than this. So accuse me of being hubristic, then, as in this case I may well be guilty as charged.

What specific ‘types’ of PR practitioners have I missed or inappropriately called out as a specific type? Do you have examples of how the types noted have manifested themselves in your career?

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