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Public relations’ most potent and potentially meaningful* characteristic is its ability to transform organisations so that they are more aligned with their stakeholders’ needs and wants.
Public relations, then, more than any other business, social or artistic discipline, can make the world a better place to live in. It does this in a number of ways:
- Fulfilling its role as a ‘boundary spanner’, conveying the perspectives and behaviours of stakeholders to organisations – ‘peeling the skin’ from organisations’ eyes, facilitating mutual understanding
- Providing value-added insights (probably in consultation/partnership with other parties such as market researchers and/or social/behavioural analysts) into stakeholder behaviours and potential organisational responses#
- Communicating to stakeholders about key aspects of organisations that are relevant and meaningful to both parties (ipso facto: how organisations can evolve to meet their stakeholders’ expectations whilst more successfully enacting their own values).
Organisations often forget two fundamental precepts:
- Communication is a dialogic process. That means if they want their stakeholders to listen to them and to change their behaviours (this making the operations of the organisation ‘easier’ or it more likely that their objectives will be achieved – including profit-related ones) then organisations, too, must listen and respond in an appropriate manner to stakeholders
- No matter how persuasive an organisation’s communication or public relations is, if the organisation is trying to sell dodgy goods/services/ideas then, as sure as rain falls^, its stakeholders will sooner or later smell a rat and take that organisation to task.
Communication, inherently, and certainly public relations, is not being successful if the communication content only serves the needs of the organisation. It is not there for an organisation to simply get on its soapbox and spruke its position/goods/services.
Organisations that insist on doing this without some form of overarching beneficial societal and environmental consciousness will, hopefully, be put out of business. It is no simplistic equation, however, and it would be counterproductive to get overly reductive about this.
For instance, steel making is one of the most environmentally pernicious industries around, but steel itself is fundamental to contemporary living. Bridges, buildings, roads, houses, construction equipment, energy generation – it’s a building block of all of these activities. Steel is also one of the most recycled of materials on the planet.
There are plenty of other equally difficult questions that we face in a modern world about what its ethical to communicate positively about.
But these are questions that public relations as a practice (and practitioners as individuals) needs to face. Importantly, it is the chief role of the PR professional to give organisations a reality check as to stakeholder perceptions and behaviours and what that might mean for the organisation.
The intelligent business person/PR practitioner (tautological, I know, but possibly worth making the point) knows that no bad news should ever be conveyed without an upside/way forward. Not if you want to:
- have a career
- enhance your credibility
- get into the juicy side of PR instead of being stuck in the fluff.
‘Don’t give me the problem, give me the solution,’ is the mantra. Or at least some recommendations for a promising way forward. That is the focus. Smart, insightful, business-relevant. PR all over, really.
*This has multiple ramifications: meaningful in a social, business, personal or cultural sense. It can mean fulfilment or engagement and it can operate on an intellectual or emotional level. If you really want to get D&M (um, this is enough for me), there are deeper, maybe even darker, spaces you can go.
^Pre-climate change metaphor