Five reasons why public relations is not dead

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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

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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

Marketing your employee brand: risk management rationale

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There is no such thing as a permanent job anymore. This, and the increasing mobility of employees and employment, added to the rise of social media, means there is no choice involved in whether to invest effort or not into building our personal employee brand. In addition to achieving excellent outcomes in our full-time job, it’s simply a question of how much time we invest into personal employee branding and how it manifests itself.

Working on personal employee brand

Personal employee brand building is especially necessary for those us who work in fields such as marketing and public relations. Let’s face it, if you can’t do a half-decent job of delivering both an ‘employee product’ and marketing the product then, really, can you be entrusted to effectively fulfil a marketing role at all?

And there is little difference between a permanent role (which has no defined end to the employment arrangement) and a contracted role (which does have a defined end to employment).

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This is because any role can be made redundant at any time and this can be done with much less friction and turmoil than was the case even ten years ago. Unions have less say over these matters than they once did and the increasing commercial focus of government organisations is becoming increasingly prevalent. An outcome of this is a diminishing of the ‘jobs for life’ mindset.

What this means, therefore, is that apart from doing an excellent job in your current role, there is a strong argument to be doing at least some proactive and ongoing, even if relatively low level, marketing of your employee brand. Because the sad truth is, your job could vanish when you least expect it.

I believe this is less likely to happen to those who are perceived as doing an excellent job, but it can still happen. Just look at the resources sector in Australia. Because of its recent downturn, companies have made dramatic changes to their businesses which have resulted in contracts being curtailed and, hence, job losses – including high performers.

Building up the personal employee brand is therefore both a reputation building and risk management exercise.

Which leads us to the question of, as an employee (and not a consultant or business owner who is seeking new clients) just what proactive personal employee brand building activity should we engage in? And how much?

Personal employee brand building activity

Jeff Bullas, as usual, has plenty of valuable advice as to building your personal brand. For what it’s worth, here is what I think everyone should be doing on at least a relatively frequent basis, employees included, and especially those working in a public relations or marketing-related field.

Firstly, make sure your profile has its act together on LinkedIn.

Do I really need to say more? There is plenty of useful information on this topic available. LinkedIn is the number one professional networking platform and if you aren’t taking it seriously then I suggest you aren’t taking your career seriously.

Secondly, undertake activity on LinkedIn. Share some good articles/posts through LinkedIn, adding some useful observations, rather than simply sharing. Participate in some professional group discussions.

Thirdly, if you do not have a blog, write one post (it doesn’t have to be long) expressing an opinion on a topic related to your profession on the LinkedIn blogging platform. You can even analyse some other posts or articles. If you can’t manage one a month, then try for one every two months to start with.

And finally, once you start developing this content, which should based on your expertise and interests, over time you develop your own thought leadership positioning. And after that occurs, you can consider the variety of other means of developing your personal branding such as getting articles in the media and speaking at conferences.

Holy Trinity of public relations applied to personal employee branding

The Holy Trinity of Public Relations is constituted of three elements, which can be applied as much to personal employee branding as any other marketing activity:

  • Strategic alliances
  • 3rd party credibility
  • Thought leadership.

You can create strategic alliances in your job by collaborating effectively with those outside of your work’s business unit. It’s salutary to remember that even in-house employees have clients.

This is partially related to internal organisational politics (tis simply the way the world works…sigh), because you want to position yourself well for internal as well as external opportunities (i.e. making friends and influencing people).

Creating positive perceptions of yourself amongst colleagues who work outside your business unit gives you 3rd party credibility and enhances perceptions of you to your target audiences. If you are posting useful and insightful information on platforms such as LinkedIn, this will also enhance your credibility amongst recruiters and others within your industry, which may include potential future bosses or those who they work with.

Undertaking this activity provides visible evidence to your prospective employer of your thinking, the effort you are investing into taking the time to think and articulate it and your proficiency in social media. By implication, it also illustrates your familiarity with the important notions of inbound and content marketing.

You will also find, over time, credible professionals will engage online with you (and even spread word of your insights and competence), providing further 3rd party credibility. If you wish, you will also be welcomed in contributing your own content to fellow professionals’ blogs (more 3PC!).

Thought leadership content illustrates your thoughtfulness and helps differentiate you from your potential competition in a new role. Of course, you should also illustrate this thoughtfulness in your assigned role and the  value you can add outside of your role’s specific requirements. A variation on this is the leadership and mentoring you can provide to others who do not report to you and may or may not work within your specific business unit

Risk and reward in personal employee branding activity

There is a risk that by investing in your personal employee branding your employer, and perhaps future potential employers, are going to think you are either being dazzled by your own reflection or are more focused on the marketing of your employee product than the product itself (i.e. the work you are paid to do in your role).

I think it’s a risk worth taking, but it might be worth having a chat with your boss about this at an appropriate time. Not all employers are comfortable with the digital age and the onus this is placing on all of us to invest some effort into our personal employee brands.

Also, at the end of the day, we exist in a competitive environment. Yes, do a great job of what you are being paid to do in your full time role, but you have competition waiting for you when you go for that next role.

The contest for that role doesn’t start when you identify the opportunity.  By then it may be too late. It has already started. Feeling ready?

What is your view on the risks of undertaking or not undertaking personal employee branding activity outside of specifically doing the job you are paid to do? Do you think it’s more necessary to undertake this sort of activity now than it was, say, five or ten years ago? Is all the advice on undertaking personal employee brand building a bit overwhelming and are you unsure of just what sort of effort, if any, to invest into it?

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By |February 19th, 2015|Careers in public relations, Social media|0 Comments