Everywhere in the world you can hear the same cries - ‘business is broken’ or, more worryingly, ‘government is broken’. If we are to help assuage these cries, then PR needs to break too - break away from past misconceptions, determine its role for the future and equip practitioners with the skills and understanding they need in order to get things fixed.
Public relations builds and sustains the relationships we need to keep our licence to operate - that is what we do.
Relationships involve trust, satisfaction, commitment, loyalty and reputation. Poor communication undermines and breaks down even the best relationships, so communication (visual, written, oral and experiential) plays a significant part in public relations practice - but it isn’t the only element. There are many facets to public relations practice and to really determine the future and relevancy of the profession, those facets need to be recognised, acknowledged and explained within all types of organisations and at all levels, as well as to wider society.
The profession still has a focus on the tactical - writing this, organising that, measuring something else, handling this crisis, defending that reputation. But all of it is siloed and all the activities are just one part of the whole - they are not an end in themselves. Practitioners get bogged down complying with tactical orders then moan they are not part of the leadership team. They take instructions to provide functional outputs - for example the old-school media release - but fail to challenge (or indeed provide) the reasoning as to why it should be undertaken. The result? We become busy fools actioning much and achieving little.
So let’s look at public relations from a wider perspective. Cast around and you’ll find numerous definitions, interpretations and arguments about public relations - generally starting with the question “What is PR’? At this year's PRINZ AGM, few people agreed on a way to describe what we do - much to my frustration. Over at PR Conversations we started a ‘new’ discussion about that over a decade ago (even producing an early ebook) but the debate rumbles on, there and elsewhere, and I do worry that there are thousands of practitioners who really don’t know what they are doing, occupied as they are by one small part of the greater picture, trying to complete a jigsaw with just three or four corner pieces of sky.
So here’s a graphic, that illustrates what public relations is - and should be - in the years ahead.
At the heart of my PR atom is the relationship - the nucleus that drives our activity. Surrounding, revolving and sustaining the relationship nucleus are the areas of communication, behaviour and understanding - each of which have their own component parts. It may be that your area of operation is concentrated in one of the associated spheres of activity - but that doesn’t make your activity all there is to public relations. You are absolutely part of a larger ‘whole', so don’t limit what you do to outputs - look to the outcomes instead.
This model works just as well visualised as a lava lamp or a solar system - I’ve used both over the years - but I’ve drawn this one up so that it builds on the Continuing Professional Development Wheel I developed for the Global Alliance a few years back (see below) when the World Public Relations Forum explored what it meant to be a communicative organisation. Inside the CPD wheel are the skills and competencies that we need to build now and in the future if we are going to be adequately equipped to provide strategic relationship development.
For the 'what we do' model, I've gone for circles - because I like circles, atoms and all things astronomical - and also because we need to have a rounded view of role, our organisation, society, our stakeholders (the people who grant our licence to operate) and the areas where our issues and activities collide with the world at large. And don’t think that we (or our organisation) are in the middle of the circle. It’s more akin solar system with everyone revolving around each other, each in their own orbit as long as things run smoothly, but when orbits are disturbed or disrupted, galactic chaos ensues. Like space and time it also has different dimensions, which I’ve been exploring for a number of years now, and marries up with a little bit of string theory and chaos theory along the way. Oh - and if you are thinking this is only an external facing model, it isn't. It works equally well inside and outside the organisation.
I have to confess to being on a mission for change as I am so tired of the old fashioned ideas and perceptions of public relations being paraded and rehashed year after year, along with the same old arguments that witter on about one area of PR being more important than another. The fact of the matter is that our atomic power, our DNA, our solar system - call it what you will - is complex, chaotic and more than simple tactical tasks.
I hope you’ll look at the big picture and accompany me on a journey to boldly go where perhaps as a profession, we haven’t gone before.