Five reasons why public relations is not dead

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.

PR is not dead_2A 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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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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Saving the world – one cigarette at a time

It isn’t communication and public relations that will save the world; it’s what PR professionals have to work with – corporates’ social responsibility and business innovation.

Smoking kills

CVS Pharmacy is doing it by ditching cigarettes from their retail shelves. Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks are doing it through their stances on gay rights and sexual orientation. There are opportunities aplenty in the areas of resources (including energy) and waste.

Positive public relations from commercial and ethical foundations

On February 5, 2014, CVS Pharmacy (CVS Caremark), one of America’s largest pharma-retail companies, announced it will end the sale of tobacco products in its 7,600 stores come October, 2014.

This is a guest post by Adedamola Jayeola, who writes from Loyalist College in Ontario, Canada. Adedamola has written previously for this PR blog and brings a unique perspective and experiences to his observations, thanks in part to his Nigerian background, but also due to his global perspective.

Launching the move with the slogan “CVS quits for good,” company CEO, Larry J. Merlo said that “tobacco products have no place in a setting where healthcare is delivered and removing them from our pharmacies is the right thing to do.” This makes CVS the first pharmaceutical retailer of its size to chart such a course. As expected, the announcement received commendation from stakeholders such as the American Nurses Association, the American Medical Association and even the White House, to name a few.

This is not a step without consequences.

The company is projected to lose about two billion dollars in revenue (one percent of its estimated $120billion annual revenue) and significant ‘traffic’ from tobacco consumers, meaning further negative ‘knock on’ impact on the sale of other merchandise in the pharmacies.

Analyses will uncover different objectives for this decision, from the public health perspective proffered by the company, to business strategy (CVS Caremark plans to evolve from the retail model into a health care provider) or just “Great PR”, as described by Forbes.com and other industry watchers.

However, what is indisputable is that CVS is taking a stand, a definite one. Tobacco smoking is still dangerous to health and CVS wants to have nothing to do with it.

Taking a stand: fallacy or fact?

Do brands take stands now? Recently, some brands have brazenly expressed, or alluded to ,opinion on controversial issues, often dividing their audience into different schools of thought in the process.

The debate on gay rights and sexual orientation involving Chick-Fil-A, Starbucks and some brands in sports and entertainment come to mind. For-profit ventures now declare a corporate stand on sensitive topics, either as a matter of choice or in a move of strategy. Indifference as a business stance seems to be losing its appeal.

Not to be dismissive of socio-cultural or ethno-religious issues, I find CVS ending tobacco sale an action with greater impact. With consideration of health dynamics, morbidity as a sequel to tobacco usage will supersede individual orientations such as sexual preferences or proclivities. It is a matter of life first, before how you swing. No pun intended.

Applying conscience and commerciality to African enterprises

I had a chat with a colleague on the lesson(s) indigenous businesses (small, medium and large-scale) in Africa’s emerging economies can take from CVS. She gave me that “you cannot be serious” look which I (admittedly) saw coming.

The peculiarities of the business environments in some regions on the continent will make any brand think again before deciding to be a hero. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business Report of 2014, Nigeria and Kenya score 147 and 129 respectively (out of 189) in a ranking of “ease of doing business.” Suffice to say ,the regional average for Sub-Saharan Africa in this data is 142.

Behind any ‘sunny’ statistic positioning the continent as emergent are everyday challenges of infrastructure, finance and lately, security. For local businesses, these are real excuses to be indifferent and leave saving the world to super, cape-donning [and western-based? – Ed.] brands.

These handicaps notwithstanding, I believe Africa’s businesses can take a stand on some issues of global importance. Possible areas include:

  1. Energy: Nigeria (my home country) is still challenged in power production for domestic and industrial consumption. This forces many businesses to generate their own electricity, often through fossil-fuel powered engines. The downside of this is extreme air and noise pollution, especially in the commercial cities. Until power is fixed, brands that take a stand to Go Green on energy (solar, wind, etc.) either partially or totally, will reduce their own carbon footprint. The benefits for the society if there is industry-wide replication will be tremendous.
  2. Waste: Waste and energy share an interesting relationship. Public-Private-Partnerships (PPPs) on waste management are yielding success in cities such as Lagos and Accra. The progress can be made symmetrical if brands are active with sustainability initiatives (recycling, composting, etc.) or develop in-house eco-preservation projects that are strategically communicated.
  3. Resources: Specifically, raw materials that go into manufacturing or production. Issues and conflict from crude-oil exploration in Nigeria’s Niger Delta are legendary, but little attention is paid to other natural resources. For example, wood is an important raw material for industries such as art, tourism and furniture on the West African coast. Players in these industries can take a stand on preserving the earth through tree planting projects, or choose to adopt synthetic materials as substitutes for wood, if possible.

These suggestions are not unfamiliar and would fit somewhere in a corporate social responsibility (CSR) plan. Are they practical? Yes (though I admit this practicality is relative). For instance, in (1) and (3) three above, production costs may be involved, no matter how marginal.

So, here is the crux. Taking a stand will be a step beyond executing a CSR script. As earlier described, it will often come at an appreciable cost, even in the short-term. With pressure on Walgreen and other players in pharma-retail to tow the CVS line, credence is being lent to a radical, yet credible point of view:

the brand of the future cannot afford to only create value for profit, it must demonstrate values in itself. Strong values that may yet give our dying earth some hope.

Adedamola Jayeola writes from Loyalist College in Ontario, Canada. He’s online at www.adejay.com and@drjayecomms

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