In not many weeks some of us (scholars and professionals) will be in Milano participating at the Euprera annual Congress, which this year (October 16/17) is dedicated to the institutionalization of public relations.
Although there will be a relevant but small segment of participants from other areas of the world, it is reasonable to expect that most will be European, and therefore are likely to transfer European perspectives.
This is one good reason to review now and in this blog some recent relevant thinking and discussion originated in the United States, to support a framework for a debate which, although focussed on Europe, will also take into consideration other parts of the world.
And this is clearly an open invitation to visitors from Asia, Australasia, Africa, Latin America, Canada to actively contribute to this discussion now, before the beginning of the Congress.
There is a direct rss link to this blog on the interactive website of the congress which you may visit by clicking on the right hand column of this blog, and listen to and view insightful interviews on Institutionalization by Larissa and Jim Grunig, Frank Ovaitt, Betteke Van Rule, Sue Wolfenstholme, Anne Gregory, Ansgar Zerfass and the author of this post.
In recent months and weeks, a heated and stimulating conversation has been developing in the United States between:
°corporate directors of communication;
°leaders of major public relations agencies;
°academics from both business and communication studies.
The focus is an important paper on the Authentic Enterprise, delivered earlier this year by the Arthur Page Society, arguably the most relevant think tank of senior communication directors, and the implications of this concept on the institutionalization process.
This follow up debate has been promoted by the same Page Society, in conjunction with the Institute for Public Relations, arguably the most important institution dealing with research in, on and for public relations.
With the intention of pinpointing a few key priorities from both documents which, at least to me, seem relevant in the context of the Milano congress for this post, I engaged in a friendly exchange Clemente Senni , a senior Italian colleague who now heads Burson Marsteller’s office in Italy’s capital Rome.
I have always cherished Clemente’s opinions as those of a seasoned and critical professional who has the very rare habit of asking himself at least once a day ‘what am I doing?’, and who also likes to conceptualize and rationalize his day-to-day professional practice.
We do have highly diverse political, cultural and social worldviews …but this is only one more reason for you to continue reading this post.
Clemente started his career in PR representing in Italy the Barcellona Trade Fair, and then moved to SCR Shandwick, Italy’s leading PR consultancy across the 80’s and 90’s. In 1992 he moved to Burson-Marsteller which he left two years later to start-up his own corporate and public affairs consultancy. He was back in B-M in late 2005 and now heads up the Rome business of the firm and the Italian energy, environment and climate change practice. Clemente’s experience ranges across virtually all disciplines of corporate PR. He advised leading multinational and national companies, public bodies, NGOs, and prominent politicians. He’s a member of Ferpi, the Italian PR professional association. Presently Clemente is involved in clients in energy, gaming, telecommunications, infrastructures and transport, and leads the Italian campaign for the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Here we go:
The whole concept of managing appears to be changing (the Page papers suggest a transition from public relations directors moving from owning to leading the practice in the organization).
Although it was never so from an academic perspective, in day-to-day practice of the last century, management implied control of the work of others, power to impose values, rules, behaviours of employees and being responsible mostly to shareholders and regulators.
Do you believe this is still so today?
The Page report describes an arena that has changed dramatically due to three major factors – globalization, stakeholder empowerment, and the digital network revolution.
These factors operate in synergy, and pose new challenges not only to corporate communication executives but to the whole corporate world (and, it has to be added, to political and public sector organizations as well).
The report coins the concept of corporate authenticity as what is needed to be successful in this new landscape.
The point raises several questions:
what does authenticity mean?
is it measurable
and, most importantly,
would it be effective from a business perspective?
These questions need to be answered before claiming that PR pros are ideally placed for leading the process.
Coming to your question, it is no news that management functions are struggling with a sense of loss of control.
Egalitarianism, participation, openness – adjectives which fall under the concept framework of the Authentic Enterprise – have been adopted in the management culture due to the inability to maintain control within the comfortable zone of the C-suite.
This authenticity fad reminds me of when in the late eighties Ketchum decided to abandon the concept of image and elaborated and promoted that of reputation.
Not much really changed in their day to day professional practice but the agency succeeded in claiming a distinctive feature which subsequently others even succeeded in transforming into an academic empire… while today, three decades down the line, the reputation school (industry?) has become a money making machine for organizations that do not know better.
One of my students referred to the authentic corporation concept as ‘the corniest of all politically correct buzzwords which public relators like to invent when they believe to be short of arguments’.
Of course I in no way agree with this ungenerous caricature, but what idea have you elaborated on the ‘authenticity’ (if you excuse me..) of this authenticity concept?
We are good with words and love to update the definition of our profession.
Sometimes it actually helps business.
Let me go back to the old fashioned “far bene e fallo sapere” (do well and tell others about it): it is much closer to the authenticity concept than the more recent reputation or perception management fads, at least it puts an accent on behaviours.
The caricature your student gave may be ungenerous but I think he/she is not completely wrong.
We must be sober in spreading out suggestive definitions of our role, especially if 90% of our day-to-day work has not changed that much.
Let’s put in place new methodologies and tools which actually work before telling the world what it should be doing.
Too many times we saw and still see PR would-be-gurus advocating practices they have never experienced or proven to be effective. Let’s, first of all, be authentic ourselves.
Let’s admit that we are also confused, that we are looking for solutions but have not yet found them.
One of the major and most fascinating dilemmas which emerge from the two papers, has to do with the paradox of the institutionalized CCO who, at the same time is entrusted by the dominant coalition to listen, understand and interpret stakeholder expectations as objectively as possible, while operating as the ‘spokesperson’ of that same dominant coalition.
I ask you: have you encountered a company where the CCO really exercises that double role, and how is this apparent contradiction dealt with?
As long as the enterprise is genuine in its wish to be authentic (whatever that could mean) there will be no contradiction.
There could be difficulties.
The main one, as pointed out in the Institute’s discussion paper, is how to come up with a single set of values and positioning statements which could successfully apply to all stakeholders.
A major challenge indeed, especially when working on global scale or in complex arenas. I’m not sure I ever met a CCO who actually fits your description, but is not difficult to find many who pretend they do.