Parable of the Timid, the Uncertain and the Bold13 years, 11 months ago
PR practitioners can lead the way in the economic recovery, believes Daniel Tisch, as long as they have the right analytical skills, a broad knowledge of channels and wide-ranging communications expertise.
There’s a story about a public relations practitioner who is asked to write a biographical sketch of a controversial ancestor. After committing a heinous crime, his great uncle had been put to death in the electric chair. After some thought, the PR professional writes:
"Great Uncle Harold occupied a chair in applied electronics at important government institution. He was attached to his position by the strongest of ties, and his death came as a great shock".
This little parable captures the popular perception of public relations and those who practice it: the view is that we are clever, good with words and fast on our feet, but often less than transparent.
Since transparency and trust are close companions, this perception is a formidable challenge. Add to this the declining influence of advertising, the rapid growth in non-governmental organizations and the dramatic emergence of web-based participatory media, and the result is faster, more widespread scrutiny of our clients than ever before – by a more sceptical audience.
Never have the comments and claims of corporations and institutions been less trusted, and yet never has trust been needed more. Operational risks can fast become reputational risks. This can happen over big issues – such as the short-term crisis in the U.S. peanut industry when salmonella was found at one rogue plant. Even small issues can mean reputational risk, as a Canadian coffee retailer discovered after firing an employee for giving a child a free doughnut. (After a viral storm of outrage, the company wisely rehired the worker).
This creates a paradox of control: never have we had less control over the impressions others receive about our organizations; and yet never has it been more critical that we control our own messages. In the words of Douglas Reid of Queen’s University School of Business: "We own the balloon, but everyone else owns the pins."
Opportunity knocks – in the C-suite
PR professionals also face an internal challenge — in the executive suite. In challenging times, CEOs divide into three categories: the timid, the uncertain, and the bold.
Timid executives pare budgets to cut costs. Uncertain executives succumb to paralysis, using today’s environment as a reason to postpone critical decisions. Bold executives see their competitors’ timidity and uncertainty as an opportunity to gain market share.
Our opportunity is to give executives the strategic vision and tactical tools to be bold.
Strategic imperatives for PR
There are three imperatives to put PR in the vanguard of the recovery: a macro-level imperative, a micro-level imperative, and a messaging imperative.
At the macro level, we must elevate the public relations profession. This means raising standards in ethics, education, credentials and practice. It means sharing knowledge by building bridges between practice and academia, and providing practitioners with research and tools to make the case for PR. It means advocacy for the profession – with the global media and the business community. And it means strengthening professional associations such as IPRA and the Global Alliance for PR and Communications Management.
At the micro level, we must develop people who can communicate with both clarity and concision – whether it’s in 140 characters, 140 words or 140 minutes. We must ramp up our listening and analytical capabilities – paying close attention to mass culture – but developing an ability to engage in deeper ideas. We must be the people asking the "how" questions – not just the what and the why. We must also make a quantum leap in PR practitioners’ business literacy. By the nature of our work, we always get great breadth. It’s time to build the depth, not just in our skills, but also in our services.
Companies have to collect more information than ever about reputational risks, analyze it in sophisticated ways, and take action across the organization. Never has this been more critical. But with many corporate affairs departments decimated by recessionary cutbacks, never has business been less up to the challenge.
The use of research, and audience segmentation based on attitudes, behaviours and values – coupled with smart analysis and action planning – can make public relations practitioners indispensable to business.
Finally, there is the messaging imperative. We need to show management the benefits of being bold: that PR isn’t about spending a lot of money, or taking excessive risks; that PR is about choosing strategies that are nimble and scalable; and that PR is about choosing and using channels to market that are high in creativity, high in credibility, and yet modest in cost.
Helping leaders to adapt
As smart business leaders re-think their interactions with their publics, the rise of social media presents a huge opportunity for the PR profession. These new channels offer speed, flexibility, low cost and two-way interactivity. We must help business leaders adapt to the new paradigm, a challenge when most CEOs remain in the sweet spot of the traditional media demographic.
It would, however, be a huge strategic error to set up the future as a choice – or even a shift – from traditional media to social media.
The real message is one that was well known to the pioneers of our profession: it is about transforming executives’ views of PR from a one-way process, driven by the goals of the organization – to a two-way process of relationship management, driven by both organizational goals and the public interest.
We must not underestimate the ability of traditional media to adapt, just as radio and film adapted to the advent of television. Traditional media sources may yet build new business models that accept the role of the audience as co-creator of content, while leveraging the reach and credibility of their brands.
While some will succeed, some will not. Our profession should be agnostic on the medium of choice, but evangelistic about the importance of applying universal principles and values to guide communications.
Social media can be a boon to our profession, because it provides the enabling infrastructure that allows us to understand, reach and influence the audiences that matter to our clients and our organizations.
The new media environment presents our profession with an unparalleled opportunity to practice what we preach – and to perfect what we practice.
Daniel Tisch, APR is President of Argyle Communications, one of Canada’s leading independent PR firms. He was recently elected as Chair-elect of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management.mail the author
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