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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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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Social media: freedom or fiefdom for public relations?

Social media is an antidote to the nanny state, for young people in particular, offering them a freedom that they are increasingly being deprived of. With its virtually (sic) non-existent rules, ever-evolving ‘etiquettes’, yet-to-be-determined legal precedents and myriad of platforms – which offer opportunities for expression and showboating never known before – social media frontiers are being extended each passing moment.

Social media playground for PR

This is a view recently touched upon on by John Roskam of the Institute of Public Affairs in The Australian. No doubt it’s not the first time this observation has been made, but it’s one I found quite striking and worth exploring.

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The nanny state which Roskam bemoans has been extensively discussed. It is a state of being which is seeing freedoms curtailed for the sake of occupational health & safety. It is having its most extreme manifestation in Australia’s economy, where safety is a major factor in the rising cost of doing business in Australia (e.g. mining, oil & gas), frightening off investment dollars (and jobs) elsewhere.

For Roskam, the freedoms lost to Australian youth are frustrating, too. Examples include children not being allowed to play physical games at school, no matter how seemingly benign, or playgrounds only being permitted to be constructed using certain equipment and after extensive and expensive risk analysis has been undertaken.

An extension of this is the political correctness applied to situations such as children’s sport, whereby coaches of young children are chastised if they answer questions about a match’s score, rather than answering in an obfuscating way along the lines of, “The score doesn’t matter, it’s about participating and having fun.” (Of course this is true, but if the kid asks the question, as a kids’ sporting coach myself I think there is a safe middle ground here which is not condescending to the children.)

Social media as freedom

It’s hard not to agree with Roskam’s assertion that social media offers freedom, though perhaps there is worth in the observation, too, that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.

And this is not just a throwaway line, not in the context of social media, anyway. Because freedom means being able to act like an idiot, a bully and a saboteur, just as it means being able to behave in a manner useful to society and/or simply to have some harmless fun.

We could talk at length about the cloak of invisibility social media offers those who choose to go down this path. How many times have we heard of cyberbullies and/or those who make comments whilst not choosing to make their identity known, potentially causing all sorts of unhappiness, yet running from taking responsibility for what they have contributed to?

Is this the sort of freedom we want?

Yes, the same sort of thing can and does happen offline, too.  But offline doesn’t have the same viral, audience multiplication characteristics:

  • More people can learn of an opinion, accusation, rumour etc online than they can offline
  • Social proof – the credibility of numbers. An implication of this is that if a piece of information is shared often enough online, then by its sheer proliferation it is assumed it must be true, when clearly this isn’t necessarily the case.

It is true, also, that many online environments can have a moderating effect on information, calming the waters of outrageous pieces of supposed information (more like a piece of data, really).

And it is similarly true, and here we have a wonderful example of social media freedom, that the information posted online can be curated by those choosing to share it. This can mean adding further (perhaps qualifying) insights and opinion, scrutinising what is being shared and, ultimately, accelerating a dialogue on the topic in a much more expansive (if not necessarily in a more intelligent) manner than could have occurred offline.

So yes, social media does offer a unique sort of freedom to all of us. How society ends up using the freedom, well, only time will tell. But it will be interesting to see how it evolves!

Freedom at last: implications for communication/relationship management

For communicators, social media offers wonderful opportunities to share information, enhance reputations and build relationships. And it can help mitigate the impact of crises, through issue identification, conversation monitoring, information sharing and having 3rd party advocates assist in the application of social proof.

Of course, when it comes to crises, social media has made worse many an organisational crisis, too, due to the number of people who can very quickly pick up on a piece of information (or disinformation, as the case may be) and share it.

Another major challenge for communicators are the proliferation of social media platforms which can be utilised. And it’s not one size fits all. One piece of information articulated in the same way cannot simply be replicated across all platforms.

All this interaction requires not just strategic insights, technical skills and creativity, but increased budget.

The many opportunities for expression social media and digital offers creates further new challenges. Video, photos, illustrations, software which makes and distorts all of this, with text being either bastardised into new forms or iterations of language or being superseded completely by digital’s current darling, video .

It’s tempting to accuse still images of dumbing down communication, with infographics being one manifestation. But that would be to deny a powerfully large thing we call the visual arts. Still, you have to wonder that whilst, yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes those ‘words’ may not make much sense.

Or, and here’s the killer, words may not be connected in a manner which the viewer is able to ‘decipher’ to give the words meaning.

Furthermore, the meaning audiences gain may not be the meaning intended. It is my belief words can be much more specific than images, both to capture the meaning and to customise the meaning in a manner more attuned to the individual’s ability and desire to decipher it.

Really, even at the best of times it’s hard to know to know whether social is a bane or a boost to professional communication. It’s certainly complicated it! And, as well all know, it ain’t going nowhere, so best we figure out excellent solutions and be ever open to a rapid evolution to the approaches we choose to take.

Where have you seen, or experienced, the impact which social media’s freedom characteristic has had on public relations or marketing? Where do you feel the freedom dimension is helpful or a hindrance to professional communication? Have you observed where the nanny state mindset is being applied to social media (apart from China!)?

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