Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Time for a little blue sky thinking? If public relations has outlived its raison d’être what is its future?

The findings of the latest International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO) 2012 Q2 Trends Barometer[1]show what everybody already suspects – that PR consultancies need to be creative in their client work in order to succeed. Creativity in strategy and tactical implementation are core to any campaign proposal but is this really the only reason we risk losing out to the increasing number of our competitors? 

Richard Linning, Scholar-in-Residence

Blue sky thinking is a truly horrendous management cliché.  But some brainstorming without limits and without preconceptions might actually help to determine what could nudge public relations further towards the standards of practice and public and client acceptance to which we aspire.  To extend our reach beyond our grasp.  After all one of the basic tenets of blue sky thinking is never to assume that something is impossible. 

There is and has been for some time something rotten in the state of public relations.  Reference to any barometer of trust confirms that.  And perception as we know is reality.  PR’s greatest challenge is to slough off the often quite justified pejorative reputation of “spending money to minimize bad publicity” or “hiring someone to help [the government] ‘spin’,”[2]  

Public relations as practiced today is neither what it was yesterday nor what it will be tomorrow.  The origins of public relations are firmly rooted in propaganda.  As Edward Bernays said, "What I do is propaganda, and I just hope it's not impropaganda."   What he did he achieved through third-party endorsement.  As Professor Tim Traverse-Healy – IPRA’s first Honorary Secretary General and President from 1969 to 1973 – recalls “when in 1947 I had just put up my plate what we practitioners talked about were releases, share of voice, column inches, image, identity, deadlines and the familiarity-favourability factor”.  

In 1978, the World Assembly of Public Relations Associations claimed  "public relations is the art and social science of analysing trends, predicting their consequences, counselling organisational leaders and implementing planned programmes of action which will serve both the organisation’s and the public interest".  

   For many an aspiration echoed in the 2010 Stockholm Accords’ call to enhance and affirm the role of the public relations and communication manager in organisational success[3]. Truth to tell in this year of 2012,  nine-to-five, most practitioners are more 1947 rather than 1978. The raison d’être of practice yesterday and today is securing that all-important third-party endorsement; facilitating the “Don’t believe what we say, listen to what the others are saying about us” whether it is in print, hits, likes, shares, retweets etc etc .  

Measurement of success was always been the bug-bear.  The best that the great and the good of the measurement community could agree on in the Barcelona Declaration was that public relations goals should be as quantitative as possible.  But then the turkeys that are the competing measurement franchise holders couldn’t be expected to vote for an industry standard Christmas, could they?   AVE’s still rule, OK!  The International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO) 2011 Q3 Trends Barometer[4] showed continuing strong support for Advertising Value Equivalents (AVE's) as legitimate measurement of PR campaigns. The evaluation method most used – “number of mentions” (75%). 

Despite the implied  limitations of what the 1978 World Assembly of Public Relations Associations called “the public interest”, the previous and new IPRA Code of Conduct are predicated on the right of everyone to air their opinion.  But does the libertarian argument for the exercise of this right in a pluralist, and increasingly transparent world always hold true?  

Cultures are at the core of every civilisation, and from these cultural foundations develop social practices in every domain of human activity.  Doesn’t Islamic civilisation, the community of believers, the umma, include several dozen states? Modern Western civilisation consist of states on three continents? The Hindu and the Buddhist inhabit numerous Asian states?  

How can the competing rights of these competing groups to be heard to be reconciled within civil society when each one is more articulate and more outspoken?   And more likely to turn to public relations for advocacy?  More tolerance, more respect for the opinions of others or less?  On the one hand the Norwegian response to the likes of Anders Breivik has been to advocate more not less tolerance, on the other the British government has responsed to telephone hacking and blagging by the British – not just the Murdoch – media with proposals to tighten controls on what and what cannot be published.  

Since we have been “outed” as message manipulators, cannot agree on how value-added can be measured, yet take the moral ground on freedom of speech ..  where to now?  There are important questions, far more important than those of mere process, of how to exploit for profit the latest advances in digital technology, that need to be addressed :  

+ propaganda is our past, is it also our future?  
+ public relations itself has become the story.  Can Pandora be put back in its box?
+ what really is the added value of pr?  Are there universally applicable metrics?
+ how do we to respect diversity and difference?
+ asked to do something ethical for a client acting unethically, what do we do?
Perhaps if we all engage in some brainstorming without limits or preconceptions – some blue sky thinking - we will come up with the answers.  

Richard Linning




  1. Richard, I firmly beleive that the best lies ahead for PR, described asthe art and science of managing relationships between organisations. It is tuly a professional practice whose age is only dawning. It used to be that powerful organisations could do just about anything they wanted. For a wide variety of reasons (environmental and feminist consiousness; globalization of civil society organisations; growing pressures from advocay groups on shareholders notably) this has been very gradually growing less true every year for at least 30 years now. More and more, organisations quite simply cannot ignore their social environment and this makes us relevant.

    Yo are right about cultural differences. We must look into that.

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