By Toni Muzi Falconi and Helen Slater
Our global professional community has tried to change its public relations nomenclature at least since the fifties of the last century, under the notion that a name change can help.
As Shakespeare’s Juliet Capulet says of Romeo Montagu,
“Tis but thy name that is my enemy … be some other name! What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”
As Juliet found, changing names or words does not ensure a more certain path of truth, actions or outcomes.
In general it seems the heightened buzzy “naming” quest hopes to reverse the consensus stigma that we, in public relations, predominantly work for the powerful to reach out to the weak, so that they think and act as our client/employer wishes.
Let’s dissect why this is so.
Advocacy is a recent term some are congregating under, with its adopters appearing to believe our current incarnation can be taken more seriously if they borrow from another profession—the legal one. This despite how, in many countries, lawyers are perceived to be working in a more dishonest profession than public relations.
Of course, each new buzzword also has implicit motivations.
In this case for advocacy, we presume to argue issues with stakeholder publics on behalf of clients/employers in the “court” of public opinion. The results are deduced to be two-fold. On one hand we lend legitimacy to the idea that in the court of public opinion, all are entitled to a defence—therefore implying that our “work” is defensive (buffering is the term used by Jim Grunig, borrowed from Cees Van Reel), and that we are therefore entitled to work for anyone.
On the other hand, we omit that the dominant concepts of public opinion have at least two roots: Walter Lippman’s US-based argument, based on the media system as its interpreter and, more recently, Habermas’ European line of reasoning, based on the public sphere.
Perhaps both of these concepts are today obsolete and public opinion (Bauman) has turned liquid.
Regardless of its roots, what we do by employing advocacy in our work is often an exercise in a push-communication, dominant since the second part of the last century, when marketing, advertising, and propaganda permeated the expansion of the western political, military and economic power, also brilliantly called the “American Dream”….
Buzzwords are breeding
In this deliberate propagation, words are hijacked into new environments to be overused, meanings muddied, misused then disposed of without compunction, injected into business conversation to impress or confound.
These buzzwords are not necessarily derogatory, although they can be perceived that way.
One’s motivation for using a buzzword is often merely to fill a void regarding new concepts. Alternatively, it simply “sounds good” and appears to simplify often-complicated (not necessarily complex) ideas.
Buzzwords come about because we want to sound “in the know” and au courant; we want to be seen to be prescient, perhaps driven by a need to appear educated or academic. Buzzwords are also used to obfuscate, manipulate and divert attention and focus thoughts on other, less critical, consequences of our activities.
As George Orwell once said,
“Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
The current rubric of public relations and communication management
Is this not our current, so-called language of communication?
Think of engaging with our communities; working with our stakeholders; identifying influencers; creative thinking to achieve innovative solutions to today’s problems….
We are progressive, we socialize concepts to make sure our publics are authentically engaged and motivated and on board, particularly for co-creation messaging efforts. Whether we’re driving transformation, creating change or having dialogues, we are communicating…. Whether it’s truly effective is over to our audiences.
Following is more of our blended cocktail of considered opinion, dissecting buzzwords that are annoying us the most.
Strategy is the path an organization defines to transit from where/what it is today to where/what it wants to be, in a given time frame and a constantly changing operating environment.
Once the path is defined, to act strategically is to identify intermediate objectives and means to achieve them.
Often we are at our most impressive if we call ourselves strategic communicators as opposed to a mere hands-on do-er implementing the strategy. It is at the strategic end of business where we presume to demonstrate our knowledge and competence, forgetting that tactics are often much more relevant and important.
(For many younger professionals, let alone graduating students in public relations, even when they excuse themselves from class for a break they think they are out for a “strategic pee.”)
Influencing our publics, active and potential stakeholders and audiences is part of our raison d’être. Being an influencer implies there is a level of power unavailable to others that will impact upon results. You could call the targeted people identified for deliberate purposes “thought leaders” or “impacters” or “disruptors.”
Let’s just say they are important for what we want at the time.
We also need to recognize a difference: public relators are there to con-vince (in the Latin sense of vincere cum, win-win) and they also achieve this by con-vincing influencers to act as (back to our first buzzword) “advocates.”
We strive for our work and ourselves to be seen as “authentic.”
If we are a (public relations) influencer, are we also authentic if we push only one viewpoint or perspective, not acknowledging there’s more than one truth?
What is it we want to achieve by claiming our authenticity? If we’re really authentic, then we’d recognise that if we have to talk about authenticity, we have a problem as it should surely be self-evident in what we say and do.
What we say and do—we hope—is attracting the attention of (significant) others and keeping them interested.
But it seems not.
Once, one got engaged to be married or had a dinner engagement.
Now, we produce engaging content. We are no longer interested in our work, we are engaged employees. We do not have discussions with (in-person) communities or meet with people to talk, listen and debate.
Instead, we have engagement. What does this mean? Often it’s used when we want to consult or inform. And mostly this implies a pretty one-sided affair, not the two- or multi-lateral conversation it should mean.
How can you have an engagement if there’s only one party involved?
The advertising world has been pitching for work for eons. If cricket is played on a pitch, we pitch a tent, pitch a baseball, pitch coins or pitch something out, how does it apply to PR?
Pitching is convincing (demonstrating incontrovertibly) others of the validity of our ideas and so persuading them to act to our advantage.
Maybe instead we are disguising what is an old-fashioned sales job as something much more sophisticated or manipulating….
Impressing and persuading others is different from convincing (vincere cum, win-win) them.
If manipulation implies only what it means, i.e., using your hands to transform whatever you are working with (fresh pasta of course but also ideas, values, programs, arguments) then of course we manipulate concepts, contents and thoughts as we pretend to communicate.
“Tell me a story, tell me a story, tell me a story before I go to bed.”
If public relations professionals are stereotyped by both popular and elite opinions, as “authentic storytellers” much more than “storytellers of authenticity,” implying that the “stories” they tell are everything but authentic, one wonders why our professional and scholarly community has embraced “telling a story” as a continued and repeated explanation of what we do for a living?
Clearly the intention is to underline that the contents (rather than “messages”) we articulate on behalf of our clients or employers in order to improve their relationships with their different stakeholder groups through the tool of communication that is meant to be captivating, not boring. Also that they integrate reason with emotion and use words, images and creativity to attract the attention of others and involve (rather than engage) them in a conversation (rather than a dialogue).
Eden & Ackerman defined stakeholders as,
“…people or small groups with the power to respond to, negotiate with and change the strategic future of the organisation.”
Bryson extends this to include all those affected by a change.
Judy Gombita has tackled this question of stakeholders, publics and audiences back in this 2010 PR Conversations post, where she demonstrated vividly how these terms risk being muddled and misused because they have become misunderstood buzzwords, rather than accurate terminology for specific purposes.
Finally, leading thinking is a place where many aspire to be.
To be a true influencer on the thinking of others requires new perspectives, shedding light, providing insight and inspiring others less able—a truly powerful position.
Assisting our clients or employers to be thought leaders, to bestow the results of their contemplations upon others and receive their acclamation, has a reflective quality for us as communicators, as we are the initiators, the enablers behind the “thinkers” seen to be the authorities in their industries.
But perhaps 21st-century thought leadership is more based upon opinion posing as new perspectives, analysis and ideas to gain traction and publicity in the never-ending jostle for position in a crowded market.
Buzz us with your thoughts
Do let us know your thoughts on contemporary buzzwords and their use, including your ideas about what we have described so far.
As PR Conversations is a global, collective platform for discussions and resources, we invite you to offer suggestions on others buzzwords to explore.
Here are some potential words we think could be dissected down the posting road:
- public, stakeholder (active, potential)
- integrated communication, integrated marketing, integrated reporting, integrated thinking
- global, local, international, transnational, glocal
- corporate or organizational character/DNA/epigenetics
- content marketing
- content convergence
Your comments will help determine which cocktail to next mix up.
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For a somewhat different perspective, see Stephen Abbott’s The Curse of the Buzzword.
Helen Slater is the director of Strata Communications and is active in the public relations sphere in Auckland, New Zealand. With extensive experience in telling the stories of clients in a wide variety of sectors, including local government, health, property and real estate, Helen is skilled in strategic communication and stakeholder management, as well as developing high-level content to create effective dialogue with key audiences, publics and stakeholder groups.
She operates on a collaborative basis, adding value to her clients to build and enhance reputations with specialties at the strategic level, particularly managing issues and crises and corporate communication.
Toni Muzi Falconi, original founder of Toni’s Blog before it became PRConversations, is a seasoned Italian scholar, professional and teacher. Currently he is senior counsel of Methodos, an Italian integrated thinking, cultural change management consultancy and teaches public relations at the Vatican’s LUMSA University in Rome.
Since 2006 he has also taught Global Relations and Intercultural Communication as well as Public Affairs and Issues Management at New York University. Founding chair of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, and past president of Ferpi, he has written many books, the most recent being ‘Global Stakeholder Relationships Governance: an Infrastructure’ published by Palgrave Macmillan in December 2013.
Although he’s not very active on it, Toni Muzi Falconi does have a Twitter account.
About the image: Thanks to Marketoon™ Tom Fishburne, founder and CEO of Marketoon Studios, whose policy is to allow his cartoons to appear in blogs at no charge–and he even appreciates the reproduction!