Old models of public relations practice were framed around the hierarchical organisational structures created in the 19th and 20th Century. Business and organisational models have changed dramatically in the last five years, with new-born organisations/businesses increasingly adopting community-based, value-driven principles upon which to found their commercial or altruistic relationships….
Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations maintained that in making profit, the business person cannot help but to do some good. We have followed that thinking in western economies and followed it somewhat slavishly. Our established methods of communication bear this out – the grip of mainstream media, the dated view of the ‘free press’ as an organ of democracy, when in reality, it is simply another business seeking to make a profit (and if along they way some good is done, well, that’s ok).
The way we do business has changed because the world has changed. Half the world has no water, the other half is worried about obesity. Rich countries impose trading restrictions, poor countries struggle to get their goods to market. More people have not than have and this inequality, this unsustainability, is rightly much higher on the agenda than it has ever been before.
In many countries around the world, there is no access to the press – free or otherwise. Street radio, storytelling, songs that veil criticism of the wrongs of government are the ways that people initiate dialogue and, perhaps their greatest hope, change for something better.
What’s all this got to do with us? As practitioners working within a global society we must be able to use a multiplicity of communications tools and, above all else, be able to understand the way that others invoke and interact within their communities. As a practitioner, I need to be able to create appropriate communications channels with the avatars of Second Life.com as well as a remote community struggling to establish fair trade enterprises in their village. I need to be able to initiate dialogue between the small start up business and its customer communities as well as identify ascendant audience groups for a multinational.
Because of the economic models we have adhered to for so long, the mass media has been the gatekeeper between people and organisations. Much time and effort was put into getting the mass media ‘on side’ so that stories could be told and understanding – almost as a byproduct -could be developed.
Now we can tell stories, create understanding and build relationships without using mainstream media at all – messages are unfiltered, the organisational point of view is put forward and a response is encouraged, listened to and acted upon.
We can identify our communities very precisely, talk specifically with them and maintain a dialogue so that shifts in thinking, attitudes and behaviour on both sides can be communicated well enough to reduce conflict and allow the relationship to develop.
Technology now at our disposal allows us to be more precise when we are building relationships. And this technology is more suited to other cultural communication models like direct storytelling, visual communication, the power of sound, personal recommendation and personal contact – all to be applied with a large dollop of emotional intelligence and organisational patience. They allow us to by-pass gatekeepers running restricted and biased mainstream media and really listen to what our communities have to say.
Public relations is about building relationships and to do this job well, the perfect practitioner needs ears above all else along with a knowledge of how dialogue, rhetoric and ethics have been applied in history so we don’t repeat past mistakes. An understanding of anthropology helps us to understand cultures and contexts and the value of diversity. Psychology, semiotics and linguistics all help us understand motivation, need, influence and the mind. Economics helps us to ground our work in the fabric world so we can participate in existing models while we begin to develop new, more appropriate, sustainable business models. Philosophy helps us to set all this into an ethical framework. Operating in a complex, multi level fabric and virtual environment, such knowledge is crucial. After all, nobody lets a medical student loose with a scalpel until he or she at least knows how bodies work and which bit to cut.
At ground level. there are many tools and techniques that need to be mastered as well as an ability to sense what is coming and work out how to adapt tools to do the job. An ability to assess the operational environment and discern potential and possible next steps. The art will be knowing which tool to choose, and the science will be about knowing when. Which is what makes it such an interesting discipline filled with such interesting people. People capable of seeing the big picture and realise that the devil is in the detail at the same moment.
So in answer to the question at the start of the post – what is our purpose – I would suggest it is this.
Building relationships is our purpose. We work for people, so that those people can do better, get on better, make better decisions and better understand each other’s point of view – and that’s a very powerful job indeed.
this powerful piece can also be read as a comment in another post on this blog. this was its original intention, but I found it so powerful that I have decided to post it also separately in order to stimulate dialogue and debate. Hope it’s a good decision. (tmf)