Monday, December 10, 2007

The nature of modern PR

Neville Hobson alerted me to Eric Schwartzman’s interview with Colin Farrington in the On The Record Online podcast.

Neville's point is that:

Colin Farrington, the director general of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), simply does not understand the role of social media in public relations.

By chance, I have been involved in an exchange with Simon Wakeman discussing the role of Public Relations and made the following points:

I do not hold with the idea that PR is a 20th century practice. Even Press Agentry combined with lobbying and celebrity was practised by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire in the 18th century but PR goes much further back in forms of diplomacy.

It is not that this is a new idea. I assembled some of the roots of relationship management as a PR practice in ‘Towards Relationship Management’ (2006 Volume: 10 Issue: 2 Page: 211 - 226).

The problem is that we have very little to guide us as to the nature of relationship (which I touch on in the paper) but there is light at the end of the tunnel (as in ‘watch this space’).

It does mean that when we look at relationships and the practice of acquiring, developing and optimising effective and affective relationships, we discover that without relationships the client counts for naught.

PR then becomes the (diverse) pivotal practice ( in the mould of medicine, another very broad range of practice) in delivering, sustaining, ensuring health and vigour of the organisation.

That then is our business and is different from the amateur practitioner (e.g. the CEO) because we have (or should have) the expertise, or reach to specialists, who can deliver such benefits.


The point at issue is where we stand in the post-Bernays era and my contention is that PR practice operates in and with the widest understanding of the social domain in which values are germane as a key to human relationships and Public Relations. I put my case thus:

There is a body of work that examines value systems and organisations have a number of values systems. They might include the values associated with optimising investor returns; they may also include employee related values systems, product, customer, environment values etc. In each case there is a domain of PR practice that encompass and operates among such values.

Public relations management which deploys all these PR domains of practice using a range of tools (including most notably, but not exclusively, communication in its execution) is the practice of Public Relations in its highest form.

I accept that most practitioners are specialist and work almost exclusively in a domain of practice often with no more than a communication facilities role, but that need not distract us from the true nature of PR.

That the institutions like the CIPR, the Universities teaching PR and other institutions choose to exclusively grub around in the undergrowth, does not mean that we should not enjoy ambition among the stars with a wider view of the significance of relationships which is fundamental to the social nature of humanity.

From that perspective, we can better understand the significance of the social media revolution and not be constrained by the narrow view given to us by 20th century agents and propagandists.

If we choose to remain in the undergrowth, our view of ubiquitous interactive communication will be that it is but a channel for communication (to be controlled and channelled). If we choose the higher calling, we unleash the interactive, creative human spirit with the wider human state for each to elect to be of, or contribute to, the nexus of their personal social networks.

For me, that is the vision for Public Relations.

The contribution made by Colin Farrington to Eric Schwartzman is perfectly legitimate for a Bernasian practitioner rooted in 20th century PR. The PR that gave us the proto Bernasian mass media manipulation with consequence manifest in Nazism, Communism.

Command, control, de-humanised, 'one value system fits all' approaches legitimise propaganda and the suppression of diversity in the of human state. Today, because of ubiquitous interactive communication, a process that has been gaining ground for 50 years (telephone, multiple broadcast channels, fax, email, social media are drivers) , there are apologists for the practice of public relations as an extension of propaganda. Among them Kevin Maloney at Bournemouth University.

These apologists suggest that because PR practitioners (by this they mean political and business PR practice) are countering each other's propaganda, then there is a legitimate form of practice which Colin gave voice to in his interview with Eric.

The concept is flawed.

It suggests that the citizen is to be controlled in every sphere of life by an everlasting all powerful elite. In all history, this has never been the case (if so, what was IX Hispana, the Roman 9th Legion, doing in Briton 900 years ago and how come there are foreign soldiers in Iraq) Omnipotence is fleeting and all the more so with the democratising and social reconstructionism brought about through ubiquitous communication.

The difference between the people 'who get it' and those that don't is in understanding the human voice which, as it is liberated, emerges from the shadow of the propaganda veneer and its associated counterpart propagandists (scream) advertising. In post World War society, applying mass psychology to the masses was once effective. Once the masses become individuals and can see, join, create and interact with networks of social groups, the power of the elite is changed in direction from control to engagement.

Today, an elitist view of the diversity of mankind, expounded by Colin a year ago is an example of the Bernasion view of PR which suggests that blogs are the:

...... ill-informed, rambling descriptions of the tedious details of life or half-baked comments on political, sporting or professional issues They read like a mixture of the ramblings of the eponymous Pub Landlord and the first draft of a second rate newspaper column. The concern of some public relations people as they worry about this new media for consumer comment, engagement and reputation destruction is a bit overdone.
He missed the point.

Progress towards ubiquitous interactive communication which briefly gave 20th century propagandist tools for suppression, is, contrary to Colin's assertion, influencing the very fabric of life. To pick one medium (a global news magazines or blogging) is to miss the bigger picture. People do affect political and commercial outcomes (do we already forget 'The Battle for Seattle', the first mass political activist programme driven by the internet?).

The 20th century practice of PR as a form of competitive propaganda war waged through to pages of the monoculture we called 'The Press', is no longer possible. The very institution 'The Press' is now heavily mediated by other forms of public human voice (including blogs).

The lobby practice of PR, and I think of investor relations as well as politics, depends on a well researched persuasive voice. To believe that an elite to elite conversation is not mediated by the biggest (and publicly available) knowledge repository ever known (the internet) suggests an elite that cannot respond by way of engagement. 'Let them eat cake' is not a good practitioner approach for public relations or lobbying.

For these and many other reasons, I refute Colin's version of effective PR and the PR practitioners who continue to subscribe exclusively to Bernasian PR.

All I can suggest to the CIPR, of which I am a Fellow, is raise the sights for your profession. Look to a vision of PR that is able to contribute to engagement and aspirational values systems or, with the people you support, you will cede to the likes of the Taliban.