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Try substituting public relations for science fiction in this comment from ground breaking sci-fi author Samuel Delany: “Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be – a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they, and all of us – have to be able to think about a world that works differently.”

Public relations science fiction hero

Delany said this in a recent issue of one of the world’s very best literary journals, The Paris Review. He also implied science fiction warns of issues and opportunities and considers alternative ways of thinking.

Well! If he hasn’t captured some fundamental essences of public relations I’ll eat my Akubra!

Describing public relations

There are five factors relevant to public relations’ capability encapsulated in Delany’s comments:

  • Using our creativity to imagine how organisations and stakeholders can change themselves to better meet their goals – collectively and individually
  • Providing a voice for the oppressed, marginalised and disenfranchised
  • The potential that PR has to make the world a better place
  • Issues management, including this mindset being part of the approach organisations take to marketing communication
  • Taking stakeholder feedback, as well as using imagination, to help conceptualise and consider alternative ways of thinking and operational paradigms.

Public relations is not about putting a foot on the throat of stakeholders, subjugating their views and behaviour. Doing this has the following impact:

  • Ultimately, sooner or later, the foot on the throat will be named and shamed, forcing the organisation into crisis, damaging its reputation and brand(s), leading to a lowering of profits, a difficulty in creating stakeholder relationships (including ones of a financial nature) and reduced productivity due to employee disengagement
  • The organisation will not be in a position to learn from its stakeholders to create more enduring relationships, sustainable profits and, culturally, a more effective organisation
  • It contributes to a negative, solipsistic society, which leads to divisiveness and a compromising of life’s manifold pleasures, both for those within and external to organisations.

Public relations contributing to an evolved organisation

Typically, PR’s creativity is thought of in terms of creating a communication strategy or tactic to gain the attention of stakeholders and influencing them to behave in a desired manner. All a bit dictatorial, really. Not very dialogic or symmetrical.

A more profound level of creativity is required to get organisations and their stakeholders to change so that their needs and wants become more aligned and, eventually, lead to mutually beneficial outcomes.  Public relations can help this occur by advocating both for stakeholders as well as organisations – if it chooses to do so…

One reason why public relations is important in this context is that it is the expert in language, in providing meaning. For organisations and their stakeholders to create a mutually beneficial relationship they need to speak the same language, or at least be empathetic towards each other’s language.

Narratives, motifs, meaning-making are all part of this mutual process, through which the organisation typically has the greatest power to be able to effect – due to its influence, finances and communication reach.

There is creativity involved in understanding and imagining how stakeholders less powerful than organisations feel about the organisation and how their lives are impacted on by it. Whilst this is more empathy than imagination, the most critical aspect is considering all parties through communication and organisational operations. PR pros have an important role in helping these, potentially, marginalised stakeholders interact with the organisation.

Issues management creativity

Creativity is also important in the very strategic issues management dimension of public relations. In this context creativity is applied to the manner in which scenarios are envisaged that an organisation needs to prepare itself to deal with. The imagining that is required through this process is not pure blue sky. Clearly, it needs to be business-relevant. Influencing factors, starting points or boundaries of the creativity include:

  • risk management analysis of an organisation
  • market research
  • the nature of an organisation’s products or services, the processes which help deliver them and stakeholders’ relationships with the products or services.

The value of digression for narrative and public relations

At the risk of concluding this post with a notion that deserves its own discussion, Delany makes the interesting point in his Paris Review interview that there is great value in discursive discourses and narratives. Inherent within this assertion is the depth that language can inject into a discussion. So two elements, really:

  • Not being linear or restrictive in narratives (i.e. get more creative)
  • Utilising language to prompt imagination and help stakeholders map out their personalised version of an organisation and hence determine their own unique relationship.

Some of these notions will be too much to bear for those heavily wedded to the tightly defined notion of professional communication. But I believe there is great value in public relations appealing to the emotions and creativity of organisational stakeholders, whether it is through the use of language or the nature of narratives inherent within organisational discourse.

What do you think? Is public relations, or maybe just the assertions made in this post, science fiction?