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.
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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