The idea that public relations is dead is fundamentally absurd, but it makes for a catchy headline. And some circling vultures might find the scent of death compelling enough to swoop down for a closer look. There’s a slew of reasons one can slalom through to explode the PR is dead myth but, at its very heart, the ideal form of two-way symmetrical communication ensures the assertion is a fallacy.
A discussion booted off at PR Redefined gathered the insights of some pretty cluey comms professionals – as well as those of my own – on the topic and a discussion at the PRIA LinkedIn group also contained some interesting dialogue generated by the issue. Following are the notions I put forward.
Two-way symmetrical communication at the heart of public relations
PR cannot be dead if you subscribe to the theory of two-way symmetrical communication.
The chief and defining point of difference for the ideal form of two-way symmetrical is that, based on feedback from target audiences, an organisation will modify its initially proposed business activity so it is more in line with the needs and wants of its target audiences. So it is not, literally speaking, purely a communication activity, but its application does impact profoundly on the quality of organisation-stakeholder relationships.
The other two key elements of the ideal form of two-way symmetrical are market research (being used as a means to listen and learn, not just to help persuade) and two-way communication (listening, again, to stakeholders to gain an enhanced understanding of their views).
Two-way symmetrical frequently occurs, even if it sometimes takes a crisis to motivate the organisation to adopt this approach!
If a practitioner is sceptical of the efficacy or practical application of two-way symmetrical, it provides an admirable aspirational objective to incorporate the approach into business as usual comms (along with achieving ever present business/ commercial/ organisational outcomes, of course…).
Risk management and rigour from PR
Whether you subscribe to, and apply, two-way symmetrical or not, it is a fundamental responsibility of PR to assist organisations understand the views of stakeholders. This generates information which will inevitably enrich organisational decision making, as well as the outcomes of this decision making.
Even if this stakeholder scoping leads to no change to the proposed decision/business activity, it will have provided valuable rigour, risk management and quality to the decision.
Building relationships that last the distance
Inherent to stakeholder scoping, or sometimes additional to it, PR applies its traits of empathy, negotiation and alliance building, making the effort to understand, and then actually comprehend, the needs, wants, motivations and perceptions of stakeholders.
PR can never be dead because these traits – necessary for an organisation to operate at optimum levels – are more fundamental to PR than any other business discipline. Including marketing.
Marketing exists to make money for an organisation. PR can exist to help achieve this but, more importantly, its focus is on creating an environment where relationships prosper, helping organisations in a holistic sense more than other business disciplines. If this does not occur, organisations will be mired in firefighting mode and expend energy more on damage limitation than reputation enhancement.
The moral compass at the heart of storytelling and positioning
PR is the storytelling function of an organisation. In an age of content marketing, brand journalism and a decline in the amount and quality of the media, this role is more relevant and powerful than ever.
With the decline of the fourth estate, however, comes great responsibility. Without aspiring to achieve he actuality and sub-text of two way symmetrical, the organisation will lack a moral compass to assist in the navigation of its communication, culture and positioning.
The moral compass (perhaps it’s just a common sense compass?) necessitates corporate brand journalism not being characterised by spin or tedious, self-serving platitudes. As PR is a boundary-spanning (between organisations and their stakeholders) enabler, it has the capability to use characteristics previously outlined (e.g. empathy, understanding stakeholder needs and wants) to produce creative and authentic content which engages, and doesn’t repel, stakeholders.
Internal relationships in a world of change
Souls more attuned to the zeitgeist of our times than myself have commented that change management within government and commercial sectors is occurring more frequently than ever. This means internal public relations – change comms – is increasingly in demand.
And while often there is not much the PR pro can do about what constitutes the ‘change product’ – so much for two-way symmetrical communication here! – relationship building and issues management help organisations limit reputational damage and maybe, just maybe, contribute to creating an environment where the change is welcomed and adopted, not just tolerated or abjured.
What reasons can you give for PR not being dead? Or do you have reasons to support the opposite argument? Can you provide examples to provide context for any of the above five points?
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