Report from Lugano (IABC) and Frascati (Cittadinanzattiva): the underwear and the genericity of public relations…

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Rem Koolhaas, the reputed Dutch architect and professor at Harvard has recently launched a new ‘buzz word’: that of generic architecture.
Just as generic pharma simply deliver the functionality of the base-molecule, generic architecture rediscovers its basic function and common sense, overwhelmed in recent years by the many extravaganzas and by the pressures of competition.

Two association of ideas here:
a) you will possibly remember the many posts in this blog dedicated to the ‘generic principles and specific applications’ paradigm as a new framework for our profession-turned-global (if bit by curiosity, please use this blog’s search engine entering the term ‘generic principles’: you will find 12 entries);

b) you might also remember a post interrelating our profession with that of the architect.
Nikolai Ouroussof (the New York Times critic) recently stated that this recession ‘will not kill architects, but will certainly leave them in their underwear and without all their pretty feathers, obliging them to redefine their objectives, being well aware of their social role, its limits as well as those of their available resources’.
This brief intro before commenting two revealing conferences I participated to last week.

The first in Lugano, Switzerland for the annual IABC Eurocomm Conference (thanks to the University of Lugano, its MSCOM program and the vital effectiveness of Nina Volles, Lugano has now become one the very few intense global bridging ‘spaces’ between our profession, culture and education).

The second in Frascati, Italy, for the annual International Corporate Social Responsibility workshop, this time specifically focussed on stakeholder engagement, convened by Cittadinanzattiva (one of Italy’s two or three globally reputed non profits) and its Fondaca Foundation, a partner of Boston College and its corporate responsibility practice. See here.

I will not even attempt to report on the actual proceedings of either, but only voice those stimuli I received which, in my opinion, not only make sense but help converge to a better understanding of the ‘underwear’ and the ‘generic’ metaphors both Koolhaas and Ouroussof introduce for the architectural profession.

What does a professional underwear look like for a public relator?

Well, basically, it has to do with the fact that more that 120 years ago the ‘Robber Barons’ decided they could not do everything by themselves and began to recruit journalists to assist them in relating with a growingly inquisitive media system, and lawyers to assist them in relating with an ever more complex public policy process.
This, to reduce the media impact which pressured Congress to avoid that the latter interrupt or reduce the flow of those public funds needed by the Morgans, the Rothschilds and the Vanderbilts to remain rich and prosperous while completing the building of road, telecoms and railroad infrastructures in the North Eastern States of the Usa.

Both ex-journalists and ex-lawyers based their new activity on two fundamental pillars:

a) relationships with ex-colleagues and comprehension of the media scene (for the media relators) and relationships with elected officials and comprehension of the public policy process (for the lobbyists);

b) the creation of appropriate tools, channels and instruments to attract the attention of either or both publics.

In a word: relationships with publics. If you boil everything down: this is what where we come from and what we are about.

Notwithstanding the denomination, which stands for International Association of Business Communicators , the Lugano IABC event, more than ever, underscored the essence of relationships as the ultimate resource public, private and social organizations need to govern in order to achieve their objectives, while communication (without the s, mind you, otherwise we are mix everything up with telecoms, transport etc… disclosure: I learned this years ago from Margareth Moscardi, the director of Prisa, the professional association of Southern Africa) is, of course importantly so, simply a tool to relate with their publics.

This was evidenced by the excellent opening key note by Martin Eppler (University of Lugano) and Jeanne Mengis (University of Warwick) where, as a result of a well positioned IABC Foundation Project, they revealed the conceptualization of the possible processes an organization may apply to cope with the increasing inundation of employee and customer information overload (but the process applies to all stakeholder publics).
By far the most compelling of the conference, this presentation gave participants highly convincing and attractive rationalizations to ensure sober, bilateral and symmetric flows of communication to enhance relationships.

Relationships as the primary essence of public relations was also confirmed in a highly intense ‘Management Beyond Control’ session conducted by Italy’s Bocconi University Professor Andreina Mandelli, which saw a spirited and dynamic participation of Nestle’s Senior Corporate Internet Manager, Peter Warne; Mathias Graf, head of corporate communications and public affairs of Google Switzerland and Mario Varriale, Digital Media Manager of Italian mobile operator Wind.

Unfortunately I could not participate to the two parallel sessions, was unimpressed by Susan Tesselaars Storytelling second key note, and frankly disappointed by Prof. Cees Van Riel’s third key note on Creating an Aligned Workforce.

I will not dwell on specific criticisms, but will instead note how IABC conferences appear to be more obsessed by stimulating participant networking, rather than carefully concerned of the quality of the contents they deliver.
Of course both are important, but certainly not one at the expense of the other.

The two sessions I mentioned were for me revealing in that:

a) information overload is an increasingly dramatic feature of daily life, and any organisation operating with awareness to develop relationships with its different stakeholder groups (thus improving the quality of its decisions and more quickly achieving its objectives) must formulate a responsible policy, which not only is ever-more-sober in every facet of its one-way communication efforts, but is also aimed at interpreting specific stakeholder expectations and at advising other peer organizational functions in the reduction of their respective information outputs; and, finally, by helping other stakeholder publics to better cope with information overload;

b) although self-critically surprised at how little of our profession’s accumulated body of knowledge was in the (at least explicit) awareness of the four participants in the ‘Management Beyond Control’ session (almost as if the pre-Internet scenario was swallowed in the dark ages..), what struck me most was the ‘fil rouge’ in the conversation that, for public relators, the Internet -much more than that information and communication environment which it undoubtedly is- is a rich and rewarding relationship environment in which savvy and responsible organizations compete by creating spaces (as architects do…) to attract their stakeholder publics, so that these may entertain relevant discourse amongst themselves and, where spontaneous, also with the space gate-keeper (the organization), rather than focus on a top-down or bottom-up command-control conversation which is what normally happens in real spaces. But the latter is definitely not a mandatory jinx, but only the way we professionals have so far unconsciously chosen to operate.

Frascati is a little town near Rome (Italy’s Capital) and since 2001 Cittadinanza Attiva (an excellent non profit) organizes an annual international workshop on the concept, the description and the declination of Corporate Citizenship.
This year, three intense sessions were dedicated to the specific issue of stakeholder engagement, which as it turned out ..

(after listening to:
-Swiss (Ruth Schmitt), Italian (yours truly) and British (Dario Castiglione and Michael Hopkins) scholars;
-German (Thomas Osburg), Italian (Mauro Della Valle, Marco Lami, Filippo Maria Bocchi, Silvio De Girolamo, Luca Virginio, Luca Filippetto), Australian (Rob Walton) and French (Jean Michel Guibert) public relations and sustainability managers from major global corporations such as Intel, Barilla, Unicoop, Unicredit, Gilead, EDF, Autogrill, Pfizer and Hera; and
-CEO’s of non profits such as the Global Reporting Initiative (Ernst Ligteringen), the Global Compact (Marco Frey), Cesvi (Giangi Milesi) and the Romanian Consumer Union (Sorin Mierlea)-

..wiped away any doubt over the increasing feeling I have that most of the con-vincing elements we believe intrinsic to how relationships with stakeholder publics should be implemented by aware organizations, are being dis-intermediated from traditional public relations functions and progressively taken up and practiced by other marketing, financial, human resources functions of the organizations.

Mind you, this for me is a very good feeling indeed, because it confirms the premise of this whole post (the underwear and generic features of public relations, just in case at this point, you got..lost in translation…) and that our generic nature has to do with relationships with publics and our underware has to do with developing tools, channels and instruments to attract the attention of stakeholder publics, as much as with interpreting stakeholder publics expectations to other executive functions and enabling the latter to better govern relationships with those specific publics.

So…back to square one we go, to what is increasingly being defined as materiality: an oxymoron to characterize a profession mostly focussed on apparently immaterial elements.

Ah…once more…the utmost ambiguity of public relations…. so fascinating if one indulges in taking a critical perspective from the inside…..

6 COMMENTS

  1. I want to comment on your “space gatekeeper concept”, which seems an evolution of the Public Relations professional as architect metaphor.

    In one version of that metaphor, the public relations as architect is seen as creating value for the organization by developing internal and external relationships functional to the organizational objectives (obviously, considering that those objectives entail a positive consideration of all stakeholders and do not focus solely on shareholder value). This version has, in its most sophisticated approach, the virtue of explaining that PR can bring competitive advantage for an organization by creating, enlarging and sustaining architecture of the relationships.

    But your approach (I must apologize if you had use it before, but this is the first time I noted it), is somehow different. It is the idea that organizations (also through PR, but not only through PR) “compete by creating spaces (as architects do…) to attract their stakeholder publics, so that these may entertain relevant discourse amongst themselves and, where spontaneous, also with the space gate-keeper (the organization)”. This slightly different version of the metaphor sees the PR/architect as a dialogue enabler (through the spaces it creates). It is obvious that the space conditions the possibility to dialogue so by all means this is not a minor role for the PR architect. But the most relevant difference might be that this PR as architect is aware that he/she | his/hers organization will not be able to develop relationships with all stakeholder publics and he/she tries at least to foster their capability to engage in an informed conversation (and thus monitor them to the moment in which they will become relevant or active publics).

    In a nutshell while in the first metaphor the activity (relationship development) is directly functional to the organizational goals, in the second metaphor the activity (space gate keeping) is functional to the conversation and indirectly functional to organizational goals.

    Does this make sense?

  2. Bang on, Joao.

    You spotted in the two versions of the same metaphor a different, though (to my mind) unaware consequence.

    In the first the value of pr for the organization resides in the quality of relationships as they help improve quality of decisions specifically related to achieving organizational objectives, and accelerate their implementation.

    In the second the value of pr for the organization is defined in the architectural qualities of those spaces in which stakeholder publics are attracted, stimulated, facilitated and nurtured into relating amongst themselves and with the organization.

    In short the second version -where not explicitly driven by organizational objectives- becomes super structural (as a Marxist might say..), somewhat integralistic (as a lay would say..) and fundamentalist (as a relativist would say..) .

    One: We must be very cautious of this risk -which is operative much more than merely conceptual- of valuing relationships for relationships sake.

    Also: and here lies another integralist risk, when operating we must always give priority to organizational objectives, keeping in mind that success for us usually is easier if these objectives have been decided after having listened to stakeholder expectations.

    One more important point: today we tend to get so much carried away by buzz words, to the point we lose our sense of direction.

    Let’s take those of employee engagement or involvement, one of the most recent bonanzas for consultancies as well as for post modernist directors of hr or communication.

    Involvement implies that the organization facilitates and enables stakeholders (who themselves decide to be such) into relating with the organization; while engagement implies that the organization decides which of these stakeholders it must engage into negotiation.

    Quite a different pattern of operations for a public relator!

    Mind you, there is absolutely nothing wrong (and, for that matter, nothing new) in considering that the growing porosity of organizations tend to drive the harmonization and even the integration of internal and external communication.

    The point is that if, we maintain the general aim that we assist organizations in achieving their specific objectives, we need to separate -at least in our minds- those objectives which are related to internal processes and developments of competencies, to organizational improvements…; from objectives which have more to do with improving organizational relationships with other stakeholder publics or the general public.

    The integralist aspect of the blurring of this distinction resides in the tendency of considering employees as a highly influential channel to relate with other stakeholder publics (as they certainly are) and therefore of placing excessive corporate emphasis on this aspect:
    with the doubly negative consequence of
    a- using employees mostly as instruments (they don’t necessarily like this… and might cause negative and adversarial reactions), as well as
    b- deteriorating relationships with middle management levels.

    Only the other day a middle manager echoed with me this syndrome by saying: I am sick and tired of all these communication people who distract my employee’s attention from the material objectives we need to achieve for all this engagement and involvement fuff in orer to transform them into living megaphones of corporate messages.

    We must be always very cautious and avoid integralist syndroms…
    Thanks Joao for calling this shot..

  3. Consider this example: CNN has just admitted publicly that they first heard about the Amsterdam plane crash through Twitter (as likely did many other news organizations). What does this have to do with the point in case? It’s a possible, and very interesting, case of “space gate keeping”.

    A series of TV shows in CNN like “Quest means Business” or “Back Story” are currently and heavily integrating social networking platform Twitter in their communication concept. Specially in the first case, the presenter has a tweet account for the show and even reads tweets as they arrive during the program. People are thus motivated to participate and get an instant and immediate feedback from a traditional one-way mass media. But the bottom line for their business (news-gathering capacity and “be the first to break the news”) is that the network of people they succeed to “involve” become their “eyes and ears” around the world. So, in this case, involving active publics (by facilitating their relationship with the organization) brings organizational advantages. But there’s more to it. Because CNN is also actively “engaging” these publics, consciously deciding (and negotiating?) to use reports from selected representatives of these publics, they are gaining another key competitive advantage: that of being able to tell the story from a different angle.

    Do you agree that this might be an example of how and organization can gain advantages from creating opportunities to engage and involve publics (through what we’re calling “space gate keeping”)? If yes, maybe there are reasons to have second thoughts about your criticism and accept that this is currently a relevant and acceptable challenge for PR professionals. I believe “Attracting, stimulating, facilitating and nurturing publics into relating amongst themselves and with the organization” is a valid (though incomplete)explanation of what PR is all about.

    I know that there are poeple out there who can weigh in on this! I would very much like to hear their views and know more about similar examples that our readers might be aware of from other industries.

  4. Point well taken, Joao and the CNN case on the Amsterdam plane crash is only one of the daily cases we are able to observe from the media.

    However I am absolutely certain, although with little demonstrable evidence, that this concept of ‘gatekeeping’ finds daily applications in many other interactions between organizations and stakeholders which we are not able to see because they do not appear on the media (mainstream or social).

    I did not mean to criticise the issue of involvement and engagement, but only to caution about engagement as the new buzzword which means to include different phases of stakeholder relationships.
    What is increasingly clear to me from these generalizations is that many conceptualists do not ‘walk the talk’ or otherwise they would need to realize that one thing is involving and another think is engaging and there are many other distinctions to make in the process.

    I also would very much welcome comments and criticisms from others…

  5. Dear Toni and João,
    your great dialog gave me a fundamental theoric suport to the work I use to develop with the inhabitants of the brasilian favelas. I loved the concept of PRs creating spaces, as we architects do, to estimulate diferent publics to express their interests, including in creating these imaterial (PR) or concret (ACH) “spaces”.
    Regards,
    Manoel

  6. Manoel,
    how great to hear from you since we last met and how good to learn that our conversations have supported you in the fascinating work you are involved in the brasilian favelas.
    In turn, I was highly inspired by your memorable presnetation both at the Trieste World Public Relations Festival on Diversity and PR in 2005 and at the world’s architecture’s symposium in Torino a year ago.
    To the point that I have added to a list of current studies of public relations practices aorund the world a mysterious Ribeiro approach.
    I am sure that our friends and readers would be fascinated if you took the time to expand on this.
    Thank you.

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