For an occupation that depends on freedom of expression to operate, it seems there are many who relish nothing more than imposing rules on the practice – and even the conceptualisation – of public relations.
First we have calls for a licence to operate, regulation, accreditation or registration of practitioners. Even if you voluntarily join a professional body, there are codes of practice, guidelines, “best practice” mandates and a host of other prescriptive instructions on how you should do your job.
Then the academics publish their work, frequently with a modernist perspective of looking for models and concepts to order practice and thinking about PR. If you read almost any standard textbook on PR you’ll find the same ideas, models, historical references, cautionary case studies and normative paradigms.
Perhaps we’ll find the creativity and flexibility of thinking and practice in award winning campaigns? Well, the problem is these are pretty formulaic (albeit that the dreaded AVE is increasingly non grata); working within a particular frame of reference of what is “good” in PR.
If you break the rules – particularly in a crisis situation – there’s a lack of empathy and openness about learning from mistakes, just lashings of online (and textbook) criticism. Of course the next step for anyone who’s been at the eye of a high profile storm is appearing on the conference circuit presenting a case study of their crisis management abilities. Another sinner saved now they have learned to obey the mantra of golden rules and commandments of how thou shalt manage a crisis scenario!
Does any of this matter? Surely it is just evidence of PR becoming more professional and seeking to establish standards? Or does it epitomise an occupation trying to gain status for those who want to play inside the club – and distinguish themselves from those who do not follow the rules. No original thinkers allowed here then!
Should we blame Bernays and Lippman who set us on this road – appealing to PR’s professional ego with the concept of an informed elite being required to mediate between organizations and the media/public? Or Grunig who gave us the feel-good notion of two-way symmetric communications? Our conscience is clear, we are no longer responsible for spin and obfuscation, or if we are, then we aspire to be better.
Isn’t it just good management to plan, prepare and control PR activities – whilst simultaneously demonstrating to the executive suite that we are the ones who can save the day? PR as super-hero anyone?
Maybe it is simply human nature to seek order in chaos – look at the internet. Once this was pioneering territory where change, originality, exploration and experimentation were welcome. Now we have social media guidelines, governmental desire for control and regulation, and numerous books and even qualifications instructing us in how to do online PR.
Let’s take that a step further – and hold up this brave new world as one where the holy grail of symmetrical communications will find its natural home. Of course the reality is greatly different – a great shouting cacophony of one-way Tweets, Facebook likes, LinkedIn connections, must-see YouTube videos, annoying viral emails, automatic tagging in billions of instant photos, pointless Googling of things we never really need to know, and pop-up, personally-directed adverts for everything the marketers believe is just right for your profile.
I forgot, that’s not us – the good PR guys who are only seeking harmony for the benefit of society. We are the organizational conscience – our mascot is Jiminy Cricket rather than lying Pinocchio.
This pursuit of a “best way” to practice and think about PR bothers me because it splits the occupation in two conflicting directions. On the one hand are those who optimistically think all will be well if we just have enough rules and regulations. On the other are those who will do whatever it takes to achieve the client’s goals. Somewhere in the middle is the spirit of PR – neither goody two shoes nor the devil incarnate.
I believe PR needs to reflect an array of capabilities, flexibility and confidence to deal with the ever changing world. We can learn from the past, but only if we have the freedom to make mistakes, try new things and challenge the status quo that lies in prescribed performance.
We do not need to be governed by a rule book – nor to be the naughtiest boy in the class.
We need a variety of role models and case studies from which to learn – which are not simplistically narrated as good or evil.
We need to be able to admit when things didn’t go well – and look for new ways not just apply what some deem to be the only way.
We need to be open about what PR can achieve and what it cannot – most “PR disasters” are actually problems of poor management or operational issues. PR can help address such scenarios – but we are neither to blame nor capable of resolving everything with our communications toolkit.
Indeed, we need to be equipped to apply common sense, a sense of humour, pragmatism, understanding, knowledge, intelligence, integrity, imagination, creativity, compassion, realism and strength of character.
Is that too much to ask for?