Time for some Blue Sky Thinking?

8 years, 11 months ago


We in public relations stand accused of being message manipulators and cannot agree on how our added value should be measured. Richard Linning poses some big questions.

Blue sky thinking has become a management cliché. But this sort of brainstorming – without limits or preconceptions – might help to determine what could nudge public relations towards the standards of practice and public acceptance to which we aspire. In other words let’s try to extend our reach beyond our grasp. After all, the tenet of blue sky thinking is never to assume that something is impossible.

To paraphrase Marcellus in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: "There is something rotten in the state of public relations". Reference to any barometer of trust confirms this. And perception is reality. PR’s greatest challenge is to shed the pejorative reputation of "spending money to minimize bad publicity" or "hiring someone to help [government] spin."

The origin of public relations is firmly rooted in propaganda. Consider the words of our founding fathers. Edward Bernays: "What I do is propaganda, and I just hope it’s not impropaganda." What he did, he achieved through third-party endorsement. The same is true for Professor Tim Traverse-Healy, IPRA’s first Honorary Secretary General and President from 1969 to 1973: "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".

Art and social science

Thirty years later, in 1978, the World Assembly of Public Relations Associations described public relations as "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." 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. Truth to tell in this year of 2011, the day-to-day work of most practitioners is more 1947 than 1978. Or 2010.

The raison d’être ofpractice yesterday and today is still securing third-party endorsement. And that means facilitating the "Don’t believe what we say about our business; listen to what the media say about our business" coverage. Ah yes – press cuttings.

Measurement of success has always been a challenge. 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". What was their reaction to a suggested common industry standard? Not likely! The turkeys that are the competing measurement franchise holders couldn’t really be expected to vote for Christmas, could they? AVE’s still rule, OK!

Back to stage one

The International Communications Consultancy Organisation 2011 Trends Barometer shows continuing strong support for Advertising Value Equivalents as legitimate measurement of PR campaigns. The evaluation method most used – "number of mentions" (75%). Oh dear, back to stage one.

The IPRA Code of Conduct is predicated on the right of everyone to air their opinion. But does the libertarian argument for the exercise of this fundamental right in an increasingly diverse and transparent world always hold true? Cultures are at the core of every civilisation, and from these cultural foundations develops diversity. In Islam, the umma or community of believers varies by country and culture. What we call the West is actually composed of different countries and cultures on three continents. Hindus and Buddhists co-exist in many Asian countries. All demand a voice in civil society.

How can the competing desire of these different groups to be heard be reconciled when each one is today seeking to be more articulate? And more articulate means more likely to turn to public relations. Does PR contribute to more tolerance and more respect for the opinions of others, or less? On the one hand the recent Norwegian response to the atrocities of Anders Breivik has been to advocate more not less tolerance. On the other, the UK government has responded to a recent telephone hacking scandal by the British (not just the Murdoch) press with proposals to tighten controls on the media.

Key questions

In public relations we stand accused of being message manipulators. We cannot agree on how our added value should be measured. We seek the moral ground on freedom of speech. So where to now? This is the key question. Let us not waste our time on questions of process such as how to exploit the latest advances in digital technology, but let us ask the following:

-propaganda is our past, is it also our future?
-when public relations itself becomes the story, how can we put this Pandora back in her box?
-do metrics capable of universal application to measure the value of PR really exist?
-how do we promote and respect diversity?
-asked to do something ethical for a un-ethical client, what do we do?

It really is time for some blue sky thinking.



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The Author

Richard Linning

Richard Linning, IPRA Board Member, Fellow Chartered Institute of Public Relations

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