Public relations: replacing media as the conscience of business?

Australian media is haemorrhaging.  Multitudes of Fairfax’s most conscience-driven and insightful journalists gone. 50 odd journos from The West Australian gone or going. Where will it stop? But where one story ends, another begins. The reduction in skilled journalists and the concomitant reduction in time remaining editorial staff have, places a heavier responsibility than ever before on public relations professionals operating in a manner serving not just the interests of their employer(s), but also of their employer’s stakeholders and, by extension, society as a whole.

Is journalism dying?

This is not about dancing on any putative grave of journalism, or exploiting increasing challenges the media and quality journalism are grappling with; it is about standing up and helping the media produce quality content. Which begs the question, what is quality content? Well, how about content that:

  • is factual
  • is interesting to those it is targeted at (i.e. different media has different ‘customers’)
  • features a range of perspectives (or two at the very least)
  • recognises people are entitled to hold different views on issues, even if extreme and even if you can drive a truck through ‘truths’ espoused
  • has a narrative.

Other characteristics could no doubt be added to the list. Conflict is probably primary amongst these.

Conflict, resolution and depth in narrative

I’ve been told conflict is what compels people; it’s what sells newspapers. Well, that may well be the case, but in my view the obsession with conflict has led to media developing two contemptible characteristics:

  • Commonly having an unnecessarily negative tenor, both in the nature of stores covered and in the way in which they are covered (quant and qual, if you like)
  • The desperation to find narratives of conflict leading to an abundance of stories which are prurient, inane and catering to the lowest common denominator.

I don’t know how journalists drag themselves out of the bed in the morning to cover these sorts of stories as they are so demeaning to all involved and do nothing to make society a better place. All they do is add to the trash heap of sordid information that clutters contemporary life.

(In my view it is more compelling to provide a resolution, or come close to hinting at a resolution. In this context Dickens, Faulkner, Marilynne Robinson, De Lillo – some of the greatest and most compelling exponents of narrative – come to mind. The impatience of media rarely allows it the time to resolve the narrative or, for that matter, capture its subtleties.)

The increasing platforms on which media operates (cable, websites, social media etc), with its insatiable demand for increasing amounts of content, is no doubt part of the reason for its descent into banality. It’s ironic, then, many of the very tools needed to feed the media beast – journalists – are being excised from the juggernaut.

Why media and public relations exist

Making money was always a key part of why media started. That is its raison d’être. Journalism existing for the common good, or as society’s conscience, has always been largely a fallacy; certainly in my lifetime, anyway. Journalism is media’s main tool to help it make money.

The raison d’être of public relations, theoretically anyway, is to assist organisations and their stakeholders change their behaviour so they operate more in line with each others’ needs and wants than might otherwise have been the case. A public relations professional is the discipline’s tool to help it achieve this.

Manifestations of public relations include:

  • helping those without the power, or means, to express their views articulate it to organisations relevant to them
  • helping organisations be as transparent as feasibly possible
  • prompting organisations to change their operations so they are more in line with stakeholder expectations
  • being a positive force, one focused not on divisiveness or negativity or conflict, but one predicated on building bridges with the view to deliver a win-win outcome.

This latter point is one that, clearly, journalism does not seek, nor is it inherently able, to deliver. Journalism operates from the outside; public relations operates from the inside – much closer to where organisational power and decision making resides.

At its best, public relations is the conscience of an organisation. Some journalists achieve this, too, but most media outlets as a whole fail in this because of their heavy weighting towards the negative rather than the balanced or positive.

Various research initiatives have identified in the order of 80 odd per cent of stories in the media are instigated by public relations professionals. So add these elements together:

  • Journalist numbers are being dramatically reduced
  • Most stories in the media are instigated from a PR professional idea or approach
  • The public relations discipline exists to help both organisations and their stakeholders
  • A fundamental tenet of public relations is generating narratives
  • The need for society to hear more good stories and, inherently, the influence this can have in fostering a more positive, amenable and less defeatist mindset in society (okay, okay, this is on my wish list, alright?).

Is something happening here? Is this a tipping point? Is this the opportunity public relations has been waiting for to gain the credibility it has been seeking but, in many arenas, has clearly been failing to achieve for many years?

Can public relations help media not just survive, but evolve into a discipline that is more of a positive healing force than it has ever been before?

What is your experience in dealing with media outlets which are reducing their number of journalists? Is it impacting on your ability to place stories or the nature of their stories? How do you think the rationalisation occurring in the media landscape, as well as the increasing number of media platforms, will impact on how you do your job, or on the practice and evolution of public relations itself?

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Applying truth in public relations

In public relations, values and worldviews are as important and relevant as facts. Together, they combine to form ‘truths’. Yet whose truth is correct? How are we to decide on the most appropriate truth and what happens when it butts heads with another’s – different – truth? Negotiation, collaboration and acceptance of each other’s right to difference will help us practice PR at its most effective level.

Seeking truths through and for PR

Facts are important. Truth requires the integration of ALL known facts, not only those that please us. If we are left with facts that do not fit into our global interpretation, this means a part of reality escapes us; we must therefore continue to explore.

This approach has the immense benefit of forcing us to remain perpetually open to the position of others; this openness is the basis of dialogue.

This is a guest post by strategic Canadian public relations professions, Guy Versailles.* By the way, if you find this post of value, please share it through LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. Thanks!

Beyond the facts, there are values. If the promoter and the ecologist espouse different views, it is because one gives more importance to economic development while the other believes the protection of the environment should prevail (granted, I am being overly simplistic here to demonstrate a point). Therefore, in public relations we must reconcile not only facts, but also values and worldviews.

The recognition of differences in values and worldviews is as important as the establishment of ‘the facts’ in creating meaningful dialogue.

I will go even further: the public relations professional must be cognizant of his own values and worldviews and those of his employer or client. Otherwise, his efforts to create dialogue will fail as he himself becomes a stakeholder in the debate he would moderate.

My truth vs. your truth

In most complicated situations, legitimate yet contradictory interests coexist.

The promoter of a project has his interests and his views; the people favorably impacted on by the project have their own, as do the people unfavorably impacted on. Media, governments and all other stakeholders will have their views, too. Who is right and who is wrong?

There are as many ‘truths’ out there as there are honest people. This comment is not meant to be cynical. We all develop our personal worldview, constructed on the basis of what we hold for true facts, which we weight according to our values and our beliefs.

This is my personal definition of the truth: Truth is a worldview where all known facts are coherently assembled and weighted according to our values and beliefs.

Truth in public relations

As far as truth goes, our professional lives are strewn with ambiguous situations. What is your assessment of the following situations?

  • In the ice storm of 1998, when the island of Montreal (1.8 million people) was deprived of 90 % of its electricity supply for almost a week, the prime minister and the CEO of Hydro-Québec learned that the city’s drinking water supply was dangerously low. They chose to keep the information confidential until the problem was solved.
  • Every day, spokespeople of commercial companies refuse to disclose trade secrets and corporate strategies. They depict favorably their company and sell their products without feeling obligated to emphasize their weaker points.
  • Companies listed on the stock exchange are subject to rigorous disclosure requirements but their spokespeople will try by all acceptable means to present their business in a favorable light in order to maintain the value of their stock.
  • The public relations people who work for the police authorities refuse to discuss ongoing operations, or even to confirm or to deny their existence. It could even happen that they deny something they know is true to protect an ongoing operation.
  • Wikileaks has established that governments do not reveal everything they learn, or what they really think on other countries and their leaders.
  • The public relations people in the service of promoters highlight the economic merits of their projects, while those who are serving environmental groups insist rather on their environmental impact. Both sides insist on different sets of facts, without necessarily painting the entire portrait.

All of these situations raise these questions: must we say everything? Is it acceptable, or even preferable, in certain circumstances, to hide, to pretend, or even to say things that we know to be false?

Where is the line not to cross, and depending on what criteria? Personally, I attach great importance to the respect of the facts, but I know, by experience, that all things should not be said at all times.

We intuitively decide on such choices in our daily lives. We tell our child “You are the most beautiful”. Perhaps we really believe this? Yet all other parents know this to be false, since it is THEIR child they find the most beautiful; there is a conflict between two ‘truths’. Perhaps we know it is false even as we say it? So we are ‘lying’ but it is our way of expressing our love. In any case, are we lacking in sincerity?

In summary, there is no simple answer to the question of truth.

We must learn to think and determine what must be said in each situation. We must develop our ethics. “Science without conscience ruins the soul”, said Rabelais.

Similarly, public relations without ethics open the door to lies and manipulation. The more we occupy a strategic position, the more this is true. That is why it is so important for experienced public relations professionals not only to deepen their training on the effective use of tools and methods, but also to take the time to reflect on their values and to form a strong ethical conscience.

What did you think of Guy’s discussion on the nature of truth in general and specifically truth in the practice of public relations? Do you have examples of when the application of ‘truth’ (or even disclosure) has caused you concern or grief in your professional life? Have you has cause to question the truth of organisations you have observed?

 

*Guy Versailles has expertise in communications strategy and planning, with a special emphasis on press relations, public affairs, internal communication and crisis management. He has worked in high profile government positions (including the Office of the Premier of Québec), Hydro-Québec and the Solidarity Fund QFL, a major investment fund based in Montreal. He holds a BA and is a director of Public Relations Without Borders , a non-profit organisation working with populations facing development challenges by using public relations to leverage social and economic progress. He is a past director of Quebec’s foremost association of public relations professionals. He was recently awarded the Yves Saint-Amand Award for Excellence, in recognition for his contribution to the advancement of professional public relations. He is President of strategic communication consultancy, Versailles Communication.

PR saved my life: a personal story

I once was lost, but now am saved. So it seems, anyway. At a major juncture in my life and one year after starting this blog, I thought it an opportune time to explain how my discovery of the public relations profession pretty much saved my life. Maybe not in a fully literal sense, but close enough to it.

This is a very personal story. Not the normal gist of this blog. But, in some ways – at a sub-atomic level, perhaps – it is ALL about this blog.

It is also longer than my normal posts, but whilst it may be a mini-epic, it is no mini-series.

Fundamental messages of my story include:

  • If you have a sense, an intuition, of being capable of something, exhaust that sense until you are 100% satisfied it has been resolved. Otherwise there will be a vacancy within you that will eat at you like acid
  • You can begin a career later than in your 20s
  • Determination and persistence get you an opportunity; hard work and talent create a career.

Looking for a career, vocation…wherefore art thou??

In my early thirties I was struggling. I had spent time as an actor, waiter and restaurant manager and stood fairly accused as the worst barista in Sydney. I was also a DJ and a journalist on popular culture (mainly rock music – starting out on punk and new wave, then evolving into soul, funk, jazz and roots/country music). I was a pretty good music writer (I thought so, anyway) and DJ and had, as you can imagine, some pretty wild times in these vocations.

In fact, I still write about music for street mag Drum Media for fun, with highlights of the 20+ gigs I have seen this year being the astonishing Wayne Shorter, the lovable Ricki Lee Jones and the unique Lyle Lovett.

Back in my early thirties, though, I couldn’t get a grip on life. I knew I needed some sort of stable vocation to get me on the straight and narrow. I dropped out of post-school college/uni (I studied drama, an early passion, acting with Glenn Robbins aka Kath and Kim in one play) and so didn’t have that elusive degree behind me. I tried to enrol in a journalism course at uni as a mature age student a couple of times, but was rejected.

I had a sort of fearful, fragile confidence in my writing skills. And I thought if I can just get a gig applying these skills in a business environment that might be my ticket out of my personal cul de sac. So I went to see a couple of careers advisers. Supposed careers advisers. I told them about my writing skills and wanting to apply them in a business context, but…

You might think the term ‘marketing’, even if not ‘public relations’, would have come up. But no, not on your life (dickheads).

Making ends meet, but what and where is ‘the end’?

So on I struggled, surviving on the dole and labouring jobs, some meagre takings from freelance rock writing and the odd restaurant gig (as by this time I couldn’t take the hospitality industry anymore: pandering to people’s inane predilections, and their condescension, takes more forbearance than I was capable of consistently delivering).

I applied for over 100 jobs, never seeming to get close to an interview.

Ex-PM/cultural-social-political icon/Australian hero Paul Keating’s Working Nation program gave me some extraordinarily rudimentary desktop publishing skills to go along with the writing skills. Then…one fateful day. I got an interview with the Retail Traders Association of NSW.

The PR ‘break’

Armed with incentives to take on unemployed people like myself, along with my new ‘graphic design’ skills (…), I scored a job – thanks Bill Healey. After three months I asked Bill, well, my probation is over, have I got the job. I loved his response and still do: “Well, you’re still here aren’t you?” Now that’s what I call a performance review!

I was writing case studies, placing them in the media and providing internal communication resources. This was pretty cool, I thought, this seemed like what I might be looking for, but wondered: what is this? What is this vocation I seem to be in?

Next thought: I’d better get a qualification in this ‘thing’ (whatever the hell it is) to make sure I can keep this baby rolling.

I saw a short course in PR and that rang a few bells. Am I in public relations? So I took the course, given by the legendary David Potts. About 10 minutes into the first session, the scales fell from my eyes: JESUS WEPT, I’M IN PUBLIC RELATIONS!

As soon as that course was over I enrolled in a Graduate Certificate in Public Relations at UTS (I was too dumb, underqualified and under experienced to get into a masters). There, I had the extremely good fortune to be taught by more Australian heroes like Gael Walker and John Carr. I ate it up, then articulated the certificate into a full Masters of Communication, where more very wonderful teachers like Shirli Kirschner, Rebecca Harris and Jane Jordon shared their practical and academic knowledge with me.

The masters was the best thing I could have done. It provided me with insights into the wonderful potential of PR and the structure of strategic communication.

So I got my degree when I was just shy of 40, the first person in my family to get one. I was proud, sure, but my God I was relieved. I had something to fall back on, yes, but you know what? One of the greatest gifts that the Masters gave me was self-esteem, a belief that maybe I wasn’t as worthless as I thought I was. Sure, I had the ego to protect myself, that masculine, brittle bravado that held all doubts at arms length. But really, they were there, feasting on my psyche and soul in private moments, shaping who I was in public.

My career progressed at an exciting pace, with excellent jobs in a number of organisations such as 2iC Integrated Communication (with the inspirational Cath Stace and other wonderful colleagues) and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (where I have also made some friends with people who I hope stay in my life for as long as it lasts).

What PR means to me

Before PR came along, I was a drowning man. When it appeared, it was solid land onto which I held. And what at first seemed like a desert island that would suffice, quickly evolved into a continent that has nurtured me and allowed me to explore myself on both a personal and professional level.

PR suits me as a person. I am politically inclined towards social democracy. I believe we all have a responsibility to global society. PR, to me, has that notion embedded into it.

Fundamental elements of public relations that attract me include:

  • It facilitates communication, understanding and engagement between organisations and their stakeholders
  • It helps prompt organisations change as much as it prompts stakeholders to change, leading to a more equitable, responsive and respectful society
  • It necessitates empathising with ‘others’ and, as such, learning from them: it is a humanising professional discipline
  • The way in which it is analogous to culture or art; the way it captures elements of contemporary life and helps reflect back those elements with different emphases; and also because it can be very creative and packed full of ideas
  • It is intellectually stimulating as you learn about different industries, ideas and a diverse array of people (not to mention their views of the world)
  • Writing is the number one skill you need. This is the technical skill I enjoy practicing the most and have a high degree of confidence in.

Public relations and I: now

So, 16 odd years after discovering this wonderful profession called public relations, I am a much happier and more satisfied person. The last few years have been another story in itself, with me struggling to find a specific job in which to satisfactorily work. The GFC got me retrenched, but it has led to me operating my own business which has been an unplanned eye-opener and extremely rewarding. But that is a story for another day…

I was very, very lucky to find what I consider to be my ‘home in professional business communication – or public relations. Its principles have made me a better person and a better father than I would otherwise have been (as for better husband, well, my wife might want to post on that. But then again, maybe not…).

As for the future, well, let’s think about that….

How did you discover public relations? What does the discipline mean to you? Did you come to it from another profession? Are you tired of it and/or do you think you’d like to move to another profession? What would that be and why that particular profession?

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