Moving PR to Public Relationships

The-Kings-Speech With its origins in propaganda, public relations as an industry has continued pretty much on the same path or course for years. That is evident in the prevailing conversations PR associations promote, for example.

I've been a long time member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), ten plus years. As part of the membership, I receive the association's print publications and online links as well as offers to attend the workshops and seminars is sponsors.

Sensational, controversial, and anxiety inducing headlines abound. Falling like a downward spiral.

I'm also not seeing strong evidence that the conversation has moved to public relationships. And that is where it needs to be today. Consider:

  • is your organization prepared to deal with WikiLeaks?
  • does your executive team understand the importance of addressing social and public communications in the business crisis plans?
  • are you working closely with customer service groups identifying and addressing patterns in service issues the business needs to address?
  • most importantly, are you helping your organization behave better in public?

Which in turn have implications in the people you hire, the things you measure, and how you need to think about addressing issues. If you take the top stories hailed as PR blunders in this past year, you can see one or more of these points at play:

1. BP executives pass the buck — the leak here was real and devastating. The organization was not prepared to address communications in social networks and in public. Ultimately, the story was a big PR blunder, because the company didn't behave better in public.

2. Toyota unintended acceleration gave a whole new definition to "moving forward" — personally, I've been unimpressed with the company reaching out to loyal customers like me only to promote new cars, instead of renewing its pledge of reliability. Again, a lesson in learning to behave better in public from the choppy and inconsistent actions and communications.

3. Alaska Airlines flew in the face of its own reputation — a family diaper urgency and late gate arrival, technically valid in excluding a family from boarding, developed into a much bigger story because of an evident lack of empathy and compassion, a public behavior by the airline.

Public relationships goes hand in hand with the role of information inside your organization and with its publics and community. It's not enough to keep working just the publicity angle, or the "brand activation" angle. Has the PR profession become one big lobbying mechanism?

I don't believe it has. Many communicators I have met and worked with over the years understand the need to move to or to develop more solidly that aspect of public affairs that connects organizations to their communities — it should not be shareholders above stakeholders.

Stakeholders are stockholders, too.

We live in the both/and world, not either/or. It's time to step up to the plate. Great communicators are able to handle complexity through a combination of learning agility — you do need to learn the business you're in to be most effective — and ability to help the business scope and accept new challenges.

Last night, I went to see The King's Speech, a movie about King George VI who had to overcome a stammer that nearly crippled him mentally before he rose to power. The screenplay puts a strong focus on how much rode on George leading England as it fought Germany in World War II.

If you think about the themes the movie highlights as lessons for communicators, you will find that it is a great call to action for our times. History has a way of repeating itself.

Think about how you, too, can:

  1. develop your own voice — how can you truly begin a conversation of trust?
  2. admit when you need help — what do you need to bring to the table to earn a seat at the executive table?
  3. put in the time — are you talking with customers, understanding the issues, honing your writing, educating, coaching?
  4. develop expertise from experience — what will take you beyond theory and research? Are you on the front lines?
  5. broadcast your true voice — what is preventing your organization from embracing its own brand? What's keeping it from being real?

Do you want to become a leading brand? Who are you helping? What are you demonstrating? Leading brands lead. Move from the conversation of fear to one of hope, love, and leadership. Move PR to public relationships. Because you can.

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0 responses to “Moving PR to Public Relationships”

  1. I would also add net neutrality and FTC decisions on things that affect our industry. Those coupled with what you list are things not just PRSA should be educating our industry on, but (like you) what we can do as industry business leaders.

  2. PRSA was a handy example, of course. Often, one can do much more as an outsider than they can do on the inside. Greater visibility comes with greater responsibility — and accountability. Which is why that screenplay and movie was such perfect inspiration for this post.

  3. Granted, I’m just a “midwestern girl,” and probably tend to over-simplify, but most of the time I really believe it boils down to common sense and that old “Golden Rule.” And it’s never been more important than in this world of transparency and customer-initiated conversation. Great thoughts from you, as always!

  4. I couldn’t agree more. One area that definitely hasn’t shifted from public relations to public relationships is government. Transparency and engagement do not come easily to most government bureaucracies! As a local elected official I have tried to lead by example, blogging about my work on the school board and engaging directly with constituents. Our bureaucracy is generally so overwhelmed and so under-resourced with technology that we don’t engage with the public as well as we should. And it’s hard to justify more expenditures on people and technology if we are laying off teachers and cutting back classroom budgets.

  5. @Patricia — it turns out common sense is not that common. A confluence of factors are over complicating and confusing the issue; technology and how we create with it, shifts in the way we work or how we collaborate, and opportunity entry points not being linear anymore. Good for another discussion.
    @Rachel — “this is the way we’ve always done things” coming from behind closed doors time and time over tends to teach people what to expect, alas. Right or wrong, it’s a fact that many institutions have inherited too much bureaucracy built in other times and mushroomed unchallenged, while agility and collaboration are needed to thrive today. I shudder every time I need to contact a government office, often bracing for being worse off afterward. Not a good way to have a relationship, is it? Indeed, the global state and direction of education sadden me greatly.

  6. I’ve been a member of PRSA for many years, including president of my local chapter. I’ve heard many conversations and read many articles that stress relationships. I agree that it should be more, but the fact is that debates about what PR really is goes back to the 1920s when the term “public relations” was first employed regularly. There were press agents, who gave the field a bad name for stunts to get publicity, and there were people like Arthur Page who in 1927 was VP of PR for AT&T and stressed relational aspects. See the Page Center for more background. Also, you’d be happy to know that we educators–I’ve met many and there is ample agreement–stress relationships as we teach PR.

  7. Tim:
    And relationship building is a good foundation for when the organization needs to behave better in public. It’s the better behavior that organizations are missing at a moment when their relationships are the most public. Educators are my heroes.

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