My major takeaways from the Milano Euprera Congress. How our professional community can help bridge the gap between what is really happening in the global market place and what we think is happening.

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While there were few remaining doubts in Milano for me that the institutionalization process of the public relations function is ‘a fact of organizational life’, especially after the presentation of the three research reports in the final plenary session, and the rooted impression that in other parts of the world besides Italy, Europe and the United States the process is even more pronounced, even if no figures were presented at the Euprera Congress…the substantial impression remained strong that, in both the scholarly and professional community, there remains a widespread lack of awareness and acknowledgement of this very ‘fact of organizational life’.

This impression is also confirmed by many of the opinions and comments which have been coming into this blog since Jim Grunig first decided to correct what he believed to be a misrepresentation of some of his views, and subsequently accepted to respond to a number of questions raised by many of PR Conversation’s regular bloggers, also stimulating follow-up posts (this one included).

By the way, it seemed clear to me that Jim, influenced by the many contributions which have arrived in these years by tens of excellent thinkers and researchers from all continents, has accelerated his thought dynamics to the point of a topical level of inclusiveness, well beyond his earlier achievements.

Basically, it seems to me that many of us fail to observe what is in reality happening out there in the market place; or even unconsciously omit to register the many signs which confirm the increasing pervasiveness and alarm for our role in society, as well as the fact that while organizations increase their efforts to improve their relationships with their respective influential publics, we (educators and professionals alike) do not make a sufficient effort to accompany this institutionalization process by identifying, specifying and conceptualizing the principal competencies which are required, for us to play a legitimate role in any organizational decisional process.

For example, it is evident that competencies related to processes -such as ‘messaging’ or ‘publicity’ or ‘organization of events’ and even ‘lobbying’- as much as they are necessary to perform effective communication- do not legitimate us to participate to the organizational decision making process.

Similarly, as much as it is necessary that we need to know, understand and speak managerial language in order to be heard by others in the organization (with the implication of the need to strengthen our knowledge of strategy, finance, project management, purchasing, marketing and what have you..) this is clearly not sufficient to participate at the organizational decision making process.

To the contrary, a participation based on:

a) an acknowledged competency in listening to, understanding and interpreting the expectations of relevant stakeholder groups as well as the dynamics of societal issues affecting the options that management needs to select from, before implementing any decision;
and
b) on the proven ability to enhance, facilitate, stimulate, develop coherent policies, methods, tools and channels in support of other organizational functions when they manage the processes with which each function relates and communicates with its respective stakeholder publics.

These are two specific areas which justify a full participation to the organization’s decision making processes.

If we take the first one (reflective or reflexive?) the professional needs to know, be aware of and able to take a critical look at every well researched and conceptualised aspect of:

° the boundary or environmental spanning process conceptualised in the sixties;
° the issues management process emerged in the second part of the seventies;
and , more recently,
° stakeholder identification; desk, semiotic and network analysis; opinion and behavioural research; participant observation….
° up to the more recent neuroscience and cultural biology stimulations (thank you, David Phillips!) to be able to better understand and interpret specific and constantly changing publics and individuals.

If we take the second one (consultative or educative?) the professional needs specific skills in relating to her/his peers in the organization such as empathy; interest, curiosity and understanding of others’ interests; leadership; group work; coalition building; horizontal network analysis; stimulation of learning without teaching; the infinite forms and ways of inclusive and stakeholder engagement management processes.

These two areas of competencies, well embedded with all the other traditional public relations competencies, lead the public relations function directly to that of ‘manager of stakeholder relationship systems’ which is today even more a corporate governance rather than simply a management function.

For example see what has just happened at Johnson and Johnson. (Thanks to Judy Gombita for sourcing the article.)

Now, let me ask you, how many under and post graduate, corporate university, professional associations, ongoing professional training programs that we know of even superficially touch on those competencies?

This is why there is such a gap (evident in Milano) between what is happening to our function in the market place and what we are actually competent in doing.

This is why, if my friend Richard Bailey allows me to borrow his interpretation, it is likely that soon many of us will be really ‘institutionalised’ and made useless in straightjackets to society as well as to organizations, while more basic and traditional practices such as media relations, advocacy, event organization will continue to be disintermediated from public relations professionals.

2 COMMENTS

  1. There is nothing that Toni said above that I can disagree with. What I want to add is that Milano’s Euprera Congress was a watershed event. If anybody left that Congress without accepting the fact that there is a strategic role for public relations, that this role is currently being institutionalised in many parts of the world, and that educators around the globe need to pay serious and urgent attention to the competencies needed to perform this role, they never will. The presentation of the three research reports from the US, Europe and Italy in the final plenary made it seem like a ‘fait accompli’ (something that has already happened or, if you are less of a believer/more of a sceptic, a trend that is unlikely to be reversed).

    I have experienced one such a watershed conference before—the Bled Symposium of 2002, on the theme of “The Status of Public Relations Knowledge in Europe and Around the World”. That was where five representatives from each continent described PR in their part of the world in a nutshell. That was where the rest of the world stood up (to the US), came of age and demanded to “be counted”. And that was where the Bled Manifesto was introduced, stating that European PR was based on the societal view –a strategic process of viewing an organisation from an ‘outside perspective’. That is, PR’s unique contribution to organisational decision-making is to show a concern for broader societal issues, approaching any problem with a concern for the implications of organisational behaviour toward and in the public sphere.

    It was in Bled in 2002 that I knew that European PR was going to become a force to be reckoned with, that we were actually witnessing the beginning of a paradigm debate between the US (relationships) and Europe (the societal view). In my opinion, the confusion in the field of PR, characterised by the search for an own identity, identifies a pending crisis in the discipline which could signify the first traces of a scientific revolution. But a paradigm shift can only occur when an alternative paradigm is available. And I thought at the time that the European societal view could possibly provide such an alternative. I also decided in Bled that year that the European societal view was the paradigm/ approach I had been looking for in which to position the strategic role of PR (that I had been conceptualising for the previous five years).

    The research presented at Euprera 2008 in Milano provided evidence that the strategic role of PR was being institutionalised. Also in my country a number of research studies are pointing in this direction. For instance, at Euprera 2006 in Carlisle, I delivered a paper based on the research of one of my students, Tery Everett, who verified two managerial roles for public relations amongst 610 PRISA and 200 IABC members in South Africa —the ‘strategic PR manager’ and the ‘operational PR manager’. Of these two, the ‘strategic PR manager’ was the dominant role.

    At Euprera 2008, ‘bridging’ and ‘buffering’ were two concepts mentioned repeatedly. Like Jim Grunig, I believe that bridging is a central concept of the strategic role of PR. Bridging is actually one of the roles of boundary spanning functions. The crucial aspect of boundary spanning is adjustment to constraints and contingencies not controlled by the organization. Organisations that want to be seen as legitimate will ‘bridge’ (rather than ‘buffer’) because they want continual interaction with stakeholders so as to comply with their expectations regarding emerging issues.

    In my presentation during the Euprera 2008 opening plenary session, I provided the following ‘window of opportunity’ for public relations in performing its strategic role (picked up by Anne Gregory as well in her plenary session on the 2nd day):
    –To be a ‘window out’ through which management can perceive, monitor and understand external change (by reflecting on societal expectations, values, norms, standards).
    –To be a ‘window in’ through which society can influence organisational strategy and behaviour.

    Based on the above, my major ‘takeaways’ from Euprera 2008 is a confirmation that the societal view is i) a fitting approach to the strategic role of public relations and ii) a strong contender (vs relationships) as an alternative paradigm for public relations. Furthermore, that within a decade the strategic role of PR will be fully institutionalised as a ‘fact of organisational life’ – representing ‘business as usual.’

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