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Whilst there is plenty to like about the seeming only ‘official’ Standard for public relations in the world, it amazes me that such a small portion of it is actually related to putting together an actual communication strategy. Another big miss is that there seems close to nothing in it about changing either organisations’ or their stakeholders’ behaviour – surely the ultimate achievement of an effective stakeholder engagement process?

Committing a cardinal PR sin

The standard, AA1000 Stakeholder Engagement Standard (SES) 2011, seems to have been built from sustainability and community relations mindsets, which explains to a degree some of these gaps. But it emphasises that whilst in public relations we have a deep body of academic research of considerable rigour, we seem to lack Standards and universally defined, audited and accepted processes that apply to our field.

This is a big problem when it comes to working in business. Standards are rife: safety, accounting, human resources, engineering, manufacturing etc.

  • Without appropriate standards, business credibility is lacking.
  • Without them, public relations is not talking business lingua franca.
  • In this context, public relations is committing a cardinal business sin.

Can this be something that is holding public relations back from being more credible in a business environment? Could it also be something that is holding back senior organisational stakeholders, who are commonly from a business/finance background, from actually understanding what actually constitutes public relations (thereby contributing to the previous deficit)?

Also, as Intel executive Craig Barrett explains, “When you have common protocols, interfaces, and form factors, then the whole industry can evolve around those common characteristics and innovate on top of them.” Craig’s talking about technology, but the same mentality applies to PR. With standards, it helps deliver excellence as you build on what already exists in a formalised, structured (and by implication, business-relevant) manner.

If we want to get closer to achieving an appropriate level of recognition in business circles, we need to do better.

Upsides about our PR Standard

So what do we have? Well, as yet the Public Relations Institute of Australia doesn’t support any Standard, though it’s a topic they are looking into. But Australia’s leading PR uni, University of Technology, Sydney, does support the application of AA1000 SES, along with a number of complementary standards, including The Barcelona Principles. But the latter is limited to research and evaluation, whilst the AA1000 SES is about stakeholder engagement/public relations in a broader remit.

As for the whole ‘stakeholder engagement’ terminology, well, I get tired of people using synonyms for public relations. No wonder we have a brand problem. Get over it, guys, stakeholder engagement IS public relations!

But I digress (again). The AA1000 SES encapsulates much of the two-way symmetrical communication approach to public relations, especially the power sharing, giving a voice to the marginalised and negotiation dimensions. This is a good thing, but it does take these notions to what I think are potentially unworkable extremes.

The notion that organisations will give resources to stakeholders to allow them to interact with the organisation doesn’t strike me as being pragmatic. Sure, the organisation should be fluid and adapt it’s communication to the needs and wants of its stakeholders (all flagged in the Standard) but actually giving them financial resources seems wishful thinking.

The Standard is admirable in its stance that organisations should interact with stakeholders so they can learn from them. There is an implication that the organisation can evolve based on this interaction but this implication needs more explication in my view. Of more concern to the hardheads out there is that there seems to be nothing in the Standard that says stakeholders will change based on their engagement with the organisation.


Dialogue in public relations

The Standard is admirable in the depth it goes in regard to encouraging dialogue with stakeholders. Even to the point where dialogue takes place before the ‘official’ engagement/communication strategy is actually defined. It’s a pretty onerous process that is described, actually, and I doubt many organisations will want to dedicate the resources to see it undertaken to the degree proselytised.

Another bonus in the Standard is that it drives towards defining mutually acceptable KPIs then defines success as achieving those KPIs. These KPIs are driven by what the engagement is actually about, which will help them to actually be achieved.

Underpinning the dialogue are processes to identify relevant stakeholders and explore factors that will influence the nature of their potential engagement with the organisation. The levels of engagement are:

  • Consult
  • Negotiate
  • Involve
  • Collaborate
  • Empower.

Interestingly, no ‘broadcast’. Or one-way communication (even in its public information guise). So you can see what I mean when it comes from a community consultation mindset.

There is no way in million business environments is an approach like this ‘best practice’ practical.

What about media relations? What about direct mail/email? What about point of sale (oh, okay so this is a marketing tool but you get the drift).

What about events? And yes, you can talk at events but talking does not necessarily = consulting or even involving. An event can be pure information provision, not involvement in the process.

What our public relations Standard should be

Well, this is where you come in. What should our Standard entail? Should it include tactical platforms outlined in the International Association for Public Participation2 Toolbox, for instance? Should there be a range of Standards that address different elements of public relations?

Certainly, whilst the AA1000 SES is founded on an excellent philosophical mindset that I fully support, it doesn’t seem customised enough to the full remit of public relations, it seems too narrow in its focus and it does not seem pragmatic enough for general business application.

But what do you think?