Nurturing Knowledge – a job for PR

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‘Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge’ – Wikipedia’s blackout protest statement is a reminder of the value and reliance placed on repositories of online information.  How many of us turn to Google, Wikipedia, digital dictionaries, social media or online news sources routinely when we want to know something? 

The English-speaking student population is apparently distraught that its primary place for ‘cut and paste’ assignments is offline for a day.  The Digital Natives haven’t been so upset since BBM crashed last October. 

This might seem amusing, but does illustrate that knowledge management should be a key responsibility for PR practitioners.  ‘Imagine an Organization without Knowledge – Imagine a World without PR’ could be our mantra.

I came into public relations from a job as a research analyst, so my approach has always been to collate information, turn it into knowledge and gain insight., which I can then translate in communications with the media and direct with publics.  I’ve also sought to build networks of contacts on the basis that if I don’t know something, I know someone who does.  Thirdly, I’ve sought to be a reliable source of knowledge about things, people and public relations.

My belief is that for  public relations to act as a strategic function, it needs to demonstrate competency in analysing issues and opportunities in order to recommend responses that contribute towards the achievement of organizational goals. The knowledge base of PR practitioners will not be respected if it is based predominantly on personal experience, intuition, common sense, methodologically-weak research or habitual practice.

Going further, I advocate that PR practitioners should be managers of organizational knowledge as a strategic resource.  As well as nurturing knowledge internally, we need to look beyond organizational boundaries as knowledge is increasingly co-constructed via the internet (Phillips and Young 2009).

Our knowledge management strength lies in the social capital inherent in the organization’s reputation and relationships. This suggests, for example, the traditional PR contact book has strategic value if developed into an intelligent contact management system. 

Drawing on Bourdieu’s capital typology, the PR function offers value to an organization in terms of:

Knowledge capital

  • practitioner expertise and competencies
  • maintenance of current and archival sources
  • procedural knowledge (eg of financial or political processes or how traditional/online media work)
  • reputation management (professional standing, sector expertise, opinion leadership and competent spokespeople)
  • knowledge of networks supporting co-orientation, alliance building and other PR strategies

Social capital

  • networks of direct and indirect relationships at the individual, functional and organizational levels
  • capital balances built within exchange and communal relationships
  • formal and informal obligations in relationships
  • tangible and intangible benefits arising from enhancing relationships through communications
  • comparative information regarding similar organizations and wider society

Although the value of knowledge is constantly changing (particularly as it becomes out of date increasingly fast), knowledgeable people have organizational value, especially if they are able to interrogate, analyse, and interpret data to create new knowledge.  

Which brings me back to online knowledge.  Technological developments enable others to take information about our organizations and reconstruct it, sort it, represent it, and decide whether or not to use or recommend it.  One issue arising from moves towards providing personalised search results, is that it will become increasingly difficult for PR practitioners to know what information exists online about organizations, let alone what is being provided to users.  How can you correct misconceptions when searches provide information that supports what a user already knows and does online?

According to Hendler and Berners-Lee, the future will involve people, individually and collectively, immersing themselves in “the accumulated knowledge and the constant interactions of humankind”.  My understanding is this involves empowering people whose interactions contribute towards a global information space, rather than them passively receiving information created by others.

I don’t pretend to fully know what this means, but I know that it is something I need to know more about.  I suspect that nurturing knowledge is not going to be worrying about an entry on Wikipedia or even trying to optimise a Google search going forward.  Public relations has a job to do here in grasping what the future of knowledge may be, and how it can help organizations realise the capital that new knowledge contains.  So I’ll end with a recap of that mantra: ‘Imagine an Organization without Knowledge – Imagine a World without PR’.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent post Heather.

    I would like to add that some time ago (2008/2009) the Institute for pr published three different pieces on the relationships between knoeledge management and the personal influence model of public relations ( http://www.instituteforpr.org/?s=kristin+johnson) and that pr conversations held a healthy debate on the same issue (http://www.prconversations.com/index.php/2008/10/kristin-johnson-gets-input-from-industry-leaders-how-knowledge-management-could-support-transition-from-personal-to-organizational-influence/)

    In your post you take the issue of the relevance of knowledge management for public relations even further. Well said.

    A challenge that should go into any academic curricula for public relators and become a major competence for professionals.

    • Spot on, Heather.

      One might add four related terms that are relevant when discussing knowledge management (nurturing): 1) Data = facts and descriptions, 2) Information = captured data and knowledge, 3) Knowledge = our personal map/model of the world and finally 4) Decisions = informed actions. The ultimate goal is of course informed decisions. Data are always constant, but information and knowledge may mutually influence each other to arrive at a different decision with the same data but with changed information and context. PRs role would thus be to nurture knowledge through stages 1 -3 and then deliver it as decision foundation to the C-suite.

  2. We see things differently. What worries me is the trend which points in the other direction to the one you highlight. Knowledge is increasingly being protected and banked in the form of intellectual property and patent protection. This knowledge is then removed from the scene to protect the future of existing products and business models. This roadblock to innovation – particularly to the development of new technologies and industries – is driven by fear of competition and the desire to hold onto market share. This limits our ability to experiment and leverage the social media pool you point to. Google, ironically, is a major patent hoarder. Moreover, the SOPA/PIPA controversy throws up another related dimension to this discussion… so the world is not increasingly free with knowledge and property, and in some respects getting less free as the innovations we are witnessing produce new threats.

    • Paul – I don’t think we do see things differently as I agree with you that there is a counter-balance to what I described (yin and yang maybe). For me, the tension is where the really interesting challenge lies for PR practitioners. On the one hand, they may work for organizations that urge (justifiably or otherwise) a need to protect, control and block information and innovation. On the other, it is those aspects of the organization that have value from a reputation, relationships, publicity and wider communications perspective.

      If I can have a third hand (imagine a card game rather than a human as a metaphor), this conveys the pressures that are emerging from those who are the new kids on the block and so will be pushing the boundaries (until they too become the monoliths that seek control etc). They are supported perhaps by individuals who may be champions of free knowledge eg those who are personally way ahead in technology but not commercially minded.

      Since it’s a card game, I’ll play a fourth hand too. We have the zeitgeist and forces outside any one player’s hand. By that I mean the complexity concept (I know you don’t like this), but how things combine in a Gestalt kind of way so that there’s more than the sum of the parts. I’m thinking about how some governments have collapsed in the past year, and this year we’re getting the toppling of some mighty organizations. That shows us that there are pressures that accumulate against anything that may seem to totally have the winning hand.

      So yes, things are getting more and less free, they are being pushed in different directions and also with a nice little unexpected and maybe unpredictable pressure from a higher force too!

  3. Heather, you’re quite correct, I dont’ like complexity theory; though I’ve no problem examining complexities. On the main points we agree: social media and Web 2.0 have the potential to rejuvenate and redefine how corporates relate to Others – stakeholders, customers etc – by realigning their internal processes and communication flows to match what they encounter in real time from real people across the boundaries of time and space. That opens up new possibilites to build and sustain reputations and maintain meaningful relationships in every aspect of corporate and institutional life based on measured and assessed experience. In that light, the PR pros who prioritize listening, engagement and proactive responses are spot on. Nevertheless, all the talk of democratization and power exchanges just does not stack up. Some very old world issues and forces remain, and they do so for both valid and sometimes not so valid reasons. If we are to be valuable in the future as professionals, my point is that we have to remain grounded and spot how some old-world real-world problems surface in this new environment. Call them the “countervailing tendencies”, if, God forbid, one wants to get all pompous to impress the C-suite.

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