So, is PR dead, as Robert Phillips says? I don’t think so. Here’s why:
Finding ways to engage and cooperate with stakeholders is one task of public relations. In corporations, that task is increasing in importance, and that will hardly change anytime soon.
Why do I say this? Let me start with a definition of PR, from the International Public Relations Association:
“Public Relations is the art and social science of analyzing trends, predicting their consequences, counseling organization leaders, and implementing planned programs of action which will serve both the organization’s and the public interest.”
That bridging function will work best, at a societal level, if companies are clear on their purpose, as Mike Love says. Such clarity of purpose comes in large part from being able to calibrate the respective responsibilities of business and government.
Governments set the frame-works in which business operates. The primary duty of governments is to nurture and protect its citizens and ensure that they have fair access to education, health care, the job market, etc.
Governments must also protect citizens’ right to free expression, social justice and political representation. In too many parts of the world, governments do not fulfil all or even any of these duties. Thieves and bullies rule too many nations.
Businesses exist to produce goods and service people want. Their responsibilities include the responsibility to respect the rights of the citizenry, as well as to meet the needs of their customers.
Too many companies behave as if they existed in a moral vacuum, where only profits count. They don’t understand – or do not want to consider – that their purpose is bigger than “the market”. Greed and blinkered ambition run too many companies.
How can PR act on our profession’s understanding how societies function?
Inside a corporation, a CCO’s job is about culture, brand, purpose, reputation, the narrative and stakeholder engagement. It is about how to shape behaviours, both our behaviours and that of others.
But in good companies, we are also valued for our ability to read and navigate a broader context than, say, those focused on by lawyers, economists or business strategists.
At best, we help business place itself at the centre of society, by playing a constructive role through its stakeholder relationships and overall communications.
At the high end of the scale, we find a few enlightened executives. They will seek to delineate, implement and measure how the company carries out its role in society.
Such enlightened modern CEOs will make sure that societal integration is part of the company’s purpose, values and policy set.
It is usually only once she or he is named CEO that an executive will fully experience this need to think about and act on how to manage the wider societal responsibilities of the business.
PR practitioners thrive in such situations. We have all the tools and processes needed to help match the needs of consumer-citizen stakeholders with the commercial focus of our companies, and must over time help widen the focus to encompass better societal integration.
How do we do that? By communicating, in the true sense of the word.
Communications is the art, craft and science with which we practice public relations. We communicate to create meaning. We communicate to create community. And we communicate to create space for the business to thrive – by meeting stakeholder needs and contributing in society beyond the profit motive.
Four trends, to reiterate my current thinking, stand out for me today in the business-society interface:
We live with more democratized media in a much flatter world. That means audience and message fragmentation and a loss of controllable channels, mirrored by weakened institutional authority. Trust crumbles and leadership becomes more difficult.
Today our companies’ – or clients’ – story is really their stakeholders’ story. We are going from a world of “we are what they know” to “we are what they say and do about us.” Can we co-create a likeable, shareable narrative?
“It’s relationships, stupid!” As we devise ways to help corporations build relationships, it is the context of their stakeholders that really matters. Sounds simple. But try and talk a CEO through that thought. Companies need to learn to better involve, engage and partner with stakeholders. How can leaders become more inclusive?
Purpose rules. In a world of disputed leadership and empowered consumer citizens, companies need to act based on a very clear purpose in order to plot their way. Behaviour is lived purpose. How we are is who we are.
So, good PR practitioners help organizational leaders in one specific way – we help them develop a kind of intelligence not readily available in the top echelons of business.
Business leaders must have three kinds of intelligence to thrive amid the trends I outlined above: a high IQ, a solid EQ (emotional intelligence) and an outstanding SQ.
We know what IQ and EQ stand for, but what’s SQ? Societal intelligence is the ability I alluded to in the beginning of this text, the ability to understand what drives opinion in society and how to navigate in a stakeholder world.
Stitching all this together is the challenge and privilege of PR. PR folk help leaders think things through. We add context, depth, nuance and contrarian views to often very linear decision-making processes.
The accomplished PR practitioner, whether as CCO of agency counsellor, is the integrator of strategic imperatives and societal context – and that is our constant and growing challenge.
And as long as that challenge exists, PR isn’t dead.