ITL #539   PR and Comms: should they have social impact and social value?

9 months, 4 weeks ago

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Research finds that PR and Comms professionals wish for a more meaningful, socially relevant profession. By Ana Adi.



Whenever social impact or social value are mentioned in conversations related to PR/Comms, the first thought is about PR/Comms delivering impact and value to society and/or stakeholders on behalf of an organization. Even on this platform, contributions by Advita Patel and Polka Yu link impact of PR/Comms in the organizational-goals driven context.

 

This is a result of years of practice and theorizing, where PR/Comms are called upon to demonstrate their value, worth and excellence: in other words, to justify their cost by showing results. More recently, this demonstration of worth has been linked to calls to demonstrate their contribution to the sustainability of businesses on the one hand, and to people and planet beyond mere profits.  

 

While this focus on results is useful – any organized persuasive communication effort should be able to operationalize, measure and evaluate their outcomes – this focus is also avoiding the more challenging questions:

  • what is the purpose of PR/Comms and
  • what is the social of PR/Comms themselves
  • and, in the same vein, what is the PR/Coms own social impact?

 

Regarding the first question, there is plenty of literature showing that PR research, especially North American driven research, is filled with pro-social and pro-democracy ideals. European and African scholarship, on the other hand, gives voice to more critical perspectives that question power, motives, and loyalty.

 

The Future of PR/Comms and their Social Impact study aimed to provide an answer to the latter question. Organized as a 4 rounds (2 qualitative, 2 quantitative) Delphi method study running from November 2022 to April 2023, the Future of PR/Comms and their Social Impact has asked more than 600 practitioners (313 completed the study), academics and educators (people who teach, research and practice in PR) from 23 countries about what the social value and social impact of PR/Comms should be. To facilitate conversation and help identify whether any consensus could be achieved among respondents, a definition of terms was first sought.

 

While there are slight differences in how our Spanish, Turkish and English language respondents understood the questions and thus framed their answers, social value is generally understood as “what society considers, perceives and attributes as valuable from the actions of an organization/profession” while social impact is seen as “the measurable result of concrete, conscious and deliberate activities to generate social benefit, which emerges as the product of socially valuable decisions of organizations”. This means that social value is extrinsic to any organization, stakeholder dependent and perception based, while impact can be organizationally driven. (Thomas Stoeckle and I will elaborate on these conceptual differences in an upcoming article for Organicom - Stoeckle, T. and Adi, A., 2023. PR, post-truth and grand challenges: through better research to social value. Organicom 42 (May - August), in print.)   

 

Considering the ideal, future social value of PR/Comms, respondents completing all 4 rounds of the study agreed as first choice upon:

  • Bring awareness to matters that improve society for the benefit of organization AND stakeholders (English; 50% strongly agree; 41% agree, n=211)
  • Contribute to the common good, including the environment, to dignity in all forms of life, to human well-being inside and outside organizations. (Spanish; 53% strongly agree; 42% agree, n=81)
  • It can direct organizations to activities for the benefit of society(Turkey, n=22)

 

In a similar vein, in order to have social impact participants suggested that PR/Comms should:

  • Assess the implications of PR/Comms’s own activities in the organizational and societal context within which it operates (English sample; 64% agree, 24% strongly agree, n=211)
  • Ensure coherence in the organization between what is done and what is communicated (Spanish sample, 68% strongly agree, 27% agree, n=81).
  • ensuring “that an idea that benefits the society is adopted by the public and action is taken in this direction through information sharing and relationship building” (n=22).

 

Of course, the results of the Future of PR/Comms and their Social Impact study are richer and more nuanced, with regional and national differences present. Yet, as a general line, one major point emerges with major implications on the practice:

 

Respondents of the study wish for a more meaningful, socially relevant profession.

 

This desire for a socially relevant, social good contributor is seen in other recent studies as well (here is one we recently completed at Quadriga University of Applied Sciences with 160 under 35 German PR practitioners). This also means that it is time to leave behind the organizational centric views and embrace stakeholder centricity with all its complexity, vulnerability, and challenges. This also requires a change in the way PR/Comms operate, moving away from the “busy bee” syndrome as I call it (Jim Macnamara calls it organizational “speaking”), and toward listening and insight first.

 

Practically, this change will lead to:

  • A change of role of PR/Comms within organizations and society – from organizational servant to dialogic facilitator and responsible persuader (see some further points that Thomas Stoeckle and I made in this Global Alliance post)
  • A change in set-up – more empowering of teams, more strategic facilitation within organization, more reflective practice and exploration of assumptions and biases
  • A change in skill-set – more emphasis on core research skills, more focus on reflective and critical implementation
  • A change in how PR/Comms is carried out – more complex planning considering for desirable, not desirable and accidental outcomes, be they positive or negative, short and long-term.

 

The Future of PR/Comms and their Social Impact study was supported by the PRCA University Advisory Group and Quadriga University of Applied Sciences.

 

 

 

 

 


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The Author

Ana Adi

Ana Adi is a Professor of PR/Corporate Communications and Vice-President of Quadriga University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. She is the host of Women in PR, a podcast series featuring interviews with women that have embraced PR (as research or practice or both). She is currently editing a book about AI in PR and putting the finishing touches to the global report of the Future of PR/Comms and their Social Impact study.

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