From a PR perspective, there’s a problem with all the discussion regarding the merits or otherwise of paywalls to access online content, the impact of social media or the role of PR versus marketing in this brave new world. It’s all about the media – with little consideration of what we should really be interested in, the public.
New business models for media companies will continue to emerge and be challenged. The bottom line is that someone has to pay for managing the media channels and/or generating news, opinion and other forms of “content”. This has always been the case with issues such as quality, control, cost and access varying in importance at different times, in different places and for different people.
The current buzzwords are all about engagement, experience and influence – which would seem to imply a receiver-oriented approach to public relations. But if you look at most of what is being done in the name of journalism or public relations, it is one-way dissemination of messages seeking to inform, persuade or possibly entertain others in order to achieve return on investment.
So it is classic media relations even if we’ve swapped journalists for bloggers or we’re abandoning the press release for 140-character Tweets. There’s a message we’re trying to communicate and we focus on the medium as the means to achieve this. We aren’t really having mutually-beneficial conversations most of the time.
Even if we’re monitoring and measuring, it’s with a view to getting what we want. We look at what others are saying not to really listen to their point of view, but to relate to whether or not they’re amplifying our messages. Critics need to be engaged with, but just to get them to change their minds or reduce their influence.
Let’s be honest here, organisations are really only interested in this type of media relations. Journalists have been the primary focus because they offered access or third-party credibility – their endorsement was better than communicating directly. This same self-interest is evident in new/social media.
It is also true for internal communications or “relationship”-building with other stakeholders. We look at the messages to be communicated and the media by which this is achieved – whether direct or an intermediary.
If arguments for public relations as a relationship-oriented function are to be credible, we’d need to change our entire approach. Instead of looking at writing skills as the core competency, PR education should consider aspects of communication that encompass listening skills, negotiation and compromise.
Planning models would need to be reconceptualised away from a focus on achieving objectives that are pre-determined from the organisation’s perspective; to be less-linear and more adaptive.
Is this feasible? On current evidence and from a realistic position that organisations exist to achieve their own goals, I don’t think so.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be shifting in the direction of paying more than lip-service to the needs of publics. There will be benefits from teaching, learning and reflecting genuinely relationship-oriented communication skills, not simply continuing to focus on message-creating craft skills and knowledge of media relations (even if that is in its newer forms).
And, we won’t be able to adapt and adopt new skills and approaches in public relations unless and until we abandon our fixation on a media relations style of communication.