Greater globalization necessitates a new agenda for international communication.¹
Today, global economies are so tightly interconnected that companies, governments and industries increasingly are challenged to cooperate in ways we could not have imagined just a few years ago.
Even people who disagree about the value of globalization can agree that a dominant characteristic of the modern world is its interdependence. Some people prefer the term "interdependence" instead of "globalization," which can have primarily an economic meaning. But like it or not, people worldwide are more interdependent today than ever before.
Our interconnected world is enabled by a continuous stream of innovative new communications technologies that are used to build digital relationships and networks of individuals. Culturally, economically, politically, socially and environmentally, our communication and engagement through myriad channels is shaping our collective future.
Thanks to interconnected economies, communications technologies and social media, otherwise disparate populations now have deeply shared interests. Technological change, the Internet, social media channels and mobile communication make it possible for corporations, governments and non-governmental organizations and their publics to engage, in their own countries and globally, more rapidly and directly than ever before.
The need for leadership in communication—to achieve mutual understanding and cooperation—is clear.
Strategic communications and public diplomacy must become an integral part of strategy-setting, policy-making and country-branding in collective efforts to find solutions to complex challenges.
Corporate communications executives, government spokespersons, public relations professionals and public affairs officers, in whatever sectors they work, can, and should provide this leadership. Indeed, the public relations profession today has an historic obligation to assert leadership in communication, build understanding and confidence among diverse peoples, promote advocacy of shared beliefs and encourage appropriate actions.
When billions of people produce and distribute information globally about our organizations, we cannot rely upon casual reactions to capture opportunities and prepare for risks. We must design our messages and communication to be found via search, and shared via social media; we must train, guide and deploy our company’s experts; and apply the insights of data analytics.
Theory and social sciences
Yet what still is missing from many descriptions of public relations is any reference to the impact or consequence of communicating; the behaviors and actions resulting from communication with people. Public relations theory has been drawn primarily from communication theory and from the social sciences and relies heavily on conclusions about the transmission of information from sender to receiver and the methods by which information is delivered.
However, executives must think carefully about the organization’s objectives for communicating and the intended response.
Harold Burson, Founding Chairman of Burson-Marsteller, defines public relations as a combination of social science and commu¬nication with the intent to persuade.
"The principal purpose of public relations is and has always been persuasion; persuading an individual or group of individuals to a specific course of action," Burson says. "Whether to vote for one candidate over another. To vacation in a location deemed to be more favorable than others. To buy a certain brand of cereal or toothpaste or toilet tissue. To gain community goodwill so as to cultivate a loyal customer base."
Burson believes the most authoritative definition of public relations goes back to a classic book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, published in 1923 by the American PR pioneer Edward L. Bernays. Bernays’ work forms the basis of a definition Burson values:
- Public relations is an applied social science that influences behavior and policy, and when applied effectively, motivates an individual or group to a specific course of action by creating, changing reinforcing opinions and attitudes. Its ultimate objective is persuasion that results in a certain action which, to succeed, must serve the public interest.
Communications and establishing relationships are part of PR strategies or activities, but the process must conclude with appropriate, desired behaviors aimed at achieving specific objectives that ultimately serve the public interest.
An emphasis by both academics and practitioners on the strategic nature of communication is a rather recent development in public relations.
The word "strategy" has been defined in a variety of ways, but almost always with the common theme being: A deliberate and conscious set of guidelines that determines decisions and actions toward a desired objective into the future. In this context, strategy can be thought of as a thread of consistent decisions or a pattern of behaviors to achieve a desired objective.
The challenge of developing and establishing clear strategy is primarily an organizational challenge and depends on effective leadership. With so many bureaucratic forces at work against making choices and tradeoffs in organizations, a clear intellectual framework is needed to develop and guide strategy. Strong leaders willing to make choices are essential.
A leader’s job is to communicate about strategy within the organization and to say "no" to actions that deviate from agreed strategy. Clear strategy results in choices about what to do and what not to do.
It follows then that communication—in various forms, across multiple channels and in various sectors—becomes strategic to achieve specific objectives following agreed guidelines and actions developed in collaboration with leadership and then synchronized with other functions for common purpose, ultimately serving the public good.
The role of practitioners
In today’s world, the role of public relations practitioners increasingly must be that of "strategic communicators" – professionals whose job is to reinforce and help implement an organization’s strategy by communicating effectively with key constituencies, and also to interpret the responses in ways that inform strategy going forward.
Strategic communications moves organizations forward to achieve desired objectives.
Furthermore, with conflict increasingly occurring in a population’s cognitive space, sheer military power may be a lesser priority for victory in the Information Age. Said another way, use of a nation’s hard power is inadequate as the sole—or even primary—means to address an insurgency. Instead, national decision makers should create a synergistic approach that also emphasizes a country’s soft power capabilities—including strategic communications and public diplomacy.
Today, nobody can impose themselves, their opinions, or their story on others and simply expect positive response. We can, however, work to better understand what our words and actions mean to people within our border and overseas, and shape our future efforts in a manner to become more effective.
High-level ‘ownership’ of strategic communications and synchronization of public diplomacy is vital. Initiatives must be properly resourced and built on a sound and credible strategy that reaches across government and into individual departments and non-governmental organizations.
Research suggests that the following components are essential:
• Understand the Strategy Objective
Effective public relations, strategic communications and public diplomacy must have a purpose. This means understanding the organization’s strategic goals towards which communication efforts can be directed. A highly detailed internal knowledge of a company, government agency or NGO and the industry, competitive environment or social sphere in which it operates, is a crucial source of credibility and effectiveness for communications executives.
• Make values transparent
The good values behind decisions must be apparent to all stakeholders.
• Be truthful – ethics matter!
Truthfulness is a key component of credibility, especially in today’s information-rich atmosphere. An early and famous proponent of strategic communications, the American, Edward R. Murrow, stressed the importance of truthfulness in a 1963 testimony to the U.S. Congress:
American traditions and the American ethic require us to be truthful, but the most important reason is that truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst. To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.
Actually, Murrow was not speaking solely about American values. Plug your country’s name into his statement and it’s equally true!
• Establish a narrative
A narrative is a story that provides a background and basis for communication. It triggers the thoughts and emotions that should surface within the target audience. Deciding the organization’s story or narrative is a crucial step in initiating public diplomacy or a communication campaign.
• Segment messages carefully
In today’s multi-channel age, where information is shared non-stop, communications strategies need to work for all audiences, all the time. While it is crucial to speak frankly and directly to diverse audiences, in the current environment those messages cannot conflict with one another— because sooner or later, everyone sees and hears everything.
• Master the new channels
The blogosphere or any other social media no longer are "emerging technolo¬gies," experimental or anything less than mature communications channels that must be monitored, measured and interpreted in the same manner as the traditional channels.
• Measure results
Identify concrete results from communications strategy. "High resolution measurement" in the form of hard data on stakeholder impressions of brand attributes or policy positions is essential.
• Maintain a long view (but be prepared to respond quickly)
Most communications professionals are rewarded for their tactical abilities in the short term. Their job, however, is to meet short-term needs but stay focused on the long-term opportunities and issues. In practice, social media demands that communication plans and strategies must be ready and available at all times. As speed of information accelerates, so does the speed of reaction.
¹ For this discussion, the singular "communication" refers to the act of communicating. Communication refers to the process of sharing ideas and information between individuals or groups. Communication is about language, questioning skills, listening skills, relationship building. The plural "communications" refers to the methods and channels used to engage in communication, eg telephone, email, writing, social media, television, etc.
*Porter, Michael E., "What is Strategy?" Harvard Business Review, November 11, 1996, http://hbr.org/1996/11/what-is-strategy
Thought Leader Profile
Robert W. Grupp is President at Grupp Global Partners LLC, a management consultancy with a strategic focus on corporate communications and international public relations. Grupp also is Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Florida where he teaches Global Strategic Communications in the Master´s Degree Program in the College of Journalism and Communications.
He chairs the Strategic Communications Leadership Initiative and the annual National Summit on Strategic Communications in Washington DC. This popular professional conference is focused on sharing best practices in corporate, military and government communications and public affairs.
Grupp has traveled extensively throughout the world lecturing on strategic communications, public diplomacy and global public relations strategy and practice. Grupp is past president of IPRA and co-chaired the IPRA Public Relations World Congress in Beijing with Li Daoyu, former Chinese ambassador to the United States. The IPRA World Congress attracted 500 senior practitioners from 40 countries. In addition to IPRA, he is an accredited member and past chapter president in the Public Relations Society of America, and he is a member of the Arthur W. Page Society.
Grupp and his wife, Jan, have three adult children and split their time living and working in Florida and Michigan.