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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Using uncertainty to position and protect reputation via public relations

When uncertainty descends, public relations offers counsel, support and insights. PR can help illuminate the grey, if uncertainty is considered to cast a pall, or leverage the light-suffused, if the condition is one an organisation is getting all excited about.

Uncertainty, public relations

Uncertainty, of course, is a matter of degrees. 100 years ago private enterprise and government would have frequently fired only a cursory glance, if that, towards any topic it was not entirely sure about. Bluster and an application of the “he who hesitates is lost” uber-alpha mantra prevailed. Look at the wars which were, partially, the result of such primping, small-dick antics.

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These days, uncertainty means risk. And risk management rigour rules. Heaven forbid any commercial or public institution which moves forward without risk analysis and an application of a risk-atomising solution. Public relations looms large in this galaxy, with issues management, the comms face of vapourising risk, being perhaps the most strategic and useful application of PR as a whole.

Over time organisations, at the behest of an increasingly educated and morally attuned society, have opened up their minds more to uncertainty. To admit uncertainty is to become more humanised. It speaks of humility, an attitude which admits it may not have all the answers and could well learn from others who can edify it.

Understanding stakeholder uncertainty

A precursor to uncertainty is understanding the views of others – organisational stakeholders, in this instance.

One of the fundamental activities of strategic public relations is understanding the views of stakeholders and represent them, and their underlying rationales for being so, to the organisation. Attendant to this, the better (and, yes, sometimes the braver, because it can lead to getting your head bitten off or, at the very least, some impatient and ill-intended scrutiny being apportioned to you!) PR professional will provide options and recommendations to help mitigate negative behaviour from the stakeholders occurring:

  • Actions the organisation can take to change its operations (‘accommodation’ in the classic two-way symmetrical communication paradigm)
  • Approaches to communication (e.g. revealing more information than the organisation intended or at an earlier juncture, or more frequently, than it intended)
  • Examine the uncertainty and present options for improvement and opportunity to help the organisation achieve its objectives and maybe, just maybe, evolve as an organisational entity

Public relations, when applied at its most strategic, understands why stakeholder views have transpired. To undertake the ‘boundary spanning’ actions described here is, fundamentally, the beginning of a journey to accept a plurality of perspectives and, indeed, a plurality of realities.

This means opposing the old school corporate control approach to business and stakeholder engagement, including the now non-existent validity of it’s ‘our way or the highway’ notion. This sort of arrogance is pure short-termism. It will not prevail over the longer term if an organisation wishes to earn and maintain a ‘tolerance to operate’.

Leveraging uncertainly for improvement

Similarly, this embracing of uncertainty and the right for an ‘other’ to exist (e.g. not the organisation) is oppositional to an ‘absolute’ existing and the notions of win-win not being a viable (indeed, a preferred) option and/or there being a single best way to skin a cat.

As a boundary spanner, we and the organisations we represent have the precious opportunity to see through others’ eyes, to empathise with their motivations and issues.

In doing so, we humanise ourselves and open ourselves to new ways of thinking, understanding and feeling, as well as encountering new information which may tilt worlds and cause scales to fall from eyes. We then help anthropomorphise our organisation, a leviathan step in achieving positive stakeholder relationships.

At its most primal, using uncertainty as a resource (or, more productively yet, an inspiration!) means we are learning from a non-self-centred (and therefore less conceited) worldview. We are being driven to centre ourselves in others, and in so doing decentralise our morals and judgement.

Standing in the shoes of others, really, is a significant step in making us better people and more effective communicators.

Where do you feel uncertainty has aided you in enriching the communication advice you have provided to an organisation or, more fundamentally, the approach you have taken to communication? Do you agree uncertainty is, essentially, an opportunity for enrichment or do you feel, perhaps, it stymies progression and outcomes being achieved (‘caught in the headlights’)?

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By |March 5th, 2015|Strategic communication|0 Comments

Communication fail in change management

One of the most powerful attributes of professional communication is redundant in change management communication. As such, the strategic power of this (internal) form of public relations is profoundly underutilised when it comes to the challenging change management process.

Change management communication

Two-way symmetrical communication is the professional communication (aka public relations) attribute to which I refer. It is an approach which identifies and/or anticipates, then provides, feedback from the target audience to the service, product or issue (in this case, the product/issue is change) decision makers.

This feedback prompts the decision makers (in this case the organisation’s executive and their advisors) to modify the product so it is more likely to be bought (or bought into) by the target audience.

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This process, clearly, is likely to entail compromise from those wanting the sell the product, but it will also enable a higher degree of buy-in and, hence, success in embedding the change so it becomes business as usual.

By the time the change product has been given to the professional communicator, there is generally little chance of it being adjusted based on target audience feedback. So the role of the professional communicator becomes one of a spruiker and issues management consultant:

  • On one hand the positive attributes of the change, the WIIFM* factor and the benefits to the organisation are sold
  • On the other, potential barriers to change and weaknesses in the change product (as determined by those the change will impact on) are identified and communication approaches are put into place to mitigate their negative impact on the change and, more broadly, on organisational culture itself.

Strategic thinking in change management

In saying the professional power of professional communication is being radically under-utilised in change, however, there are two factors to bear in mind:

  • Before the change product is handed to the communicator to work his or her magic on, it has been thoroughly scoped out by the business
  • The issues management dimension of the change, the nature of the communication itself and the way in which it is integrated into the entire change process (e.g. awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, reinforcement – or ADKAR) makes the contribution of communication – if it chooses to exercise the opportunity, of course – immensely strategic.

No organisation is simply going to implement change without investing a great deal of thought into the process. It is being implemented for the long-term benefit of the organisation.

One of the key factors business analysts/management consultants/organisational leadership will consider is how will the change become embedded into the business? And part of that is addressing the questions of how will those the change is impacting upon receive the change and how will the business evolve due to this change?

One can only hope this is the case, anyway.

So there is an argument that professional communicators shouldn’t get too uppity about being simply handed the change product; the two-way symmetrical communication dimension may have already been embedded into the change product development process.

Challenging orthodoxies to improve outcomes

One of the most useful characteristics of the strategic professional communicator, however, is their ability to challenge presumed thinking (groupthink) and, metaphorically speaking, call out the emperor’s new clothes. This is not done out of ego and wilful negativity, it is undertaken to add rigour to the business and communication process.

No discipline has the capability to understand target audiences and predict their reaction to the promulgation of a product or service, especially if it is an issues-laden one, better then a public relations professional. An organisation which chooses to ignore and/or underutilise this capability is doing itself no favours at all and, in fact, is not taking the soundest possible approach to risk management.

Do you think the professional power of public relations is effectively utilised in the change management process? Where and how can public relations be best utilised in change? Is two-way symmetrical communication irrelevant to change management? Do you have faith the best possible change ‘product’ will always be handed to the change team (including communication) before it is asked to embed the change into business as usual?

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* WIIFM – what’s in it for me