A public relations professional who is not critical of the organisation she works with, including its communication activity, is failing in reaching her potential. Being critical of an organisation will help it improve the quality of its activity and better inform it of external perspectives, whilst undertaking the critical process in itself will sharpen the intellect of the practitioner, building her capability and career growth.

Critical analysis in public relations

It is often assumed that being critical means being negative. This is not necessarily the case.

Critiquing can identify positives as well as negatives. More importantly, an excellent critique will determine why something is a positive or a negative, allowing the organisation to address the root cause of any issues or, if it is a positive situation, leverage it to add even greater value. This might mean extracting greater benefits from the situation being examined, or applying the insights to other organisational activities to improve them.

At the root of being an effective critic is analysis. This is not a skill easily gained.

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It takes an attitude that is thoughtful and reflective and a determination to work your way through what can seem like impenetrable thickets of issues and information. It may also need an in-depth knowledge of the business sector in which your organisation exists.

Without possessing the capability to analyse, however, your career in public relations will reach a ceiling that is likely to be impossible to break through.

Public relations shooting the elephant in the room

Being critical is a fundamental element of not becoming a victim of groupthink, a psychological phenomena which suppresses people expressing points of view and emphasising their importance. Being aware of the dangers of groupthink can lead to healthier organisational decision making.

This has relevance to the practice of strategic public relations (not really a tautology; we practice the tactical manifestation of PR all the time and whilst it should be strategically driven, it doesn’t actually have to be) for two primary reasons:

Firstly, from a process perspective public relations, like any business activity, should always possess a healthy, but not debilitating, sense of doubt. Decisions need to be considered from different perspectives. Are they the best we can make? Do not blithely make the assumption that the initial conceptualisation is the best, or even acceptable.

Secondly, and of course this is the great value of public relations, our profession is a boundary spanning mechanism. A critical part of our work involves determining what stakeholders are likely to think of organisational decisions.

Information gained from external stakeholders should play a large role in undermining tendencies towards groupthink as it will inject a healthy dose of reality into the process.

Bravery in critical public relations

Only the most sophisticated business leaders and organisations understand the value of critical public relations. Anyone who has practiced public relations for more than about five years and who is aware of the power of the discipline (encapsulated most adamantly in two-way symmetrical communication, understands how much of an ‘educator’ role we need to play.

In many ways, ongoing misperceptions about what constitutes public relations means that each of us has an important role to play in educating our employers, business stakeholders and even the general community about what we do and the way in which we can make, and in many cases are making, a meaningful contribution to business and society.

Corollary to this is that we need to be brave to step and inform our organisations what we can do to help them and why it is important that they seek our advice on many business matters. Which business matters? Well, how long is a piece of string?

Certainly, whilst there are certain business processes that are too arcane for PR to add much value to (sourcing IT and office supplies comes to mind), any activity that has the potential to impact on stakeholders will be worth getting professional public relations advice on.

The personal value of being critical in PR

As we mature, the self-evident, vacuous and easy options begin to pall. More importantly, from a business outcome perspective, the simplistic can often lead to less than optimum results.

I’m talking about the practice of PR here. Whilst some organisations will remain committed to the junk notion of PR as only being capable of creating a positive media presence (or protecting organisational reputation in a crisis), others will take the view that stakeholder relations is an invaluable business activity. And that by utilising public relations insights this can be achieved more expeditiously and with better results.

Personally, I’ve certainly developed a need to work with organisations that are more willing to listen to the views of stakeholders and adapt their communication and business operations, to some degree, to the needs and wants of these stakeholders. This is not an easy road for organisations to travel, but it is clearly the road which leads to the destination of better results.

Working with these types of organisations, as a default, means the PR professional’s critical faculties are exercised more, that she gets an opportunity to be involved in more important decisions than what’s on a Facebook content schedule and in more important activity than distributing a media release about annual results.

We are talking decisions that are ultimately about an organisation’s behaviour and its culture, its place in the world. Sounds pretty important, don’t you think?

Do you have examples of where you have been critical – either in a positive or negative sense – of an organisation you have worked with? How did you relay this information to the organisation? Did you have a strategy for conveying this information? What was the result? Do you have an example of where a more critical approach to the practice of public relations was needed?

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