An abundant public relations era or its utilitarian autumn?

Flourishing PR Conversations about peaks and valleys, truths and opinions plus the plateau in between

One of my goals for the last few years was to travel west to Toronto’s High Park in time for the “peak” of the city’s blossoming Sakura cherry trees. Not only is the window of this optimum viewing time always small, but for most of this year’s April and May blooming days the weather was unseasonably cool and often overcast or raining. And though various media personalities waxed poetically about the Sakura blossoms’ peak viewing on Thursday, May 15 (other pundits pegged it at May 13), it was followed by days of intermittent precipitation, which was sure to knock down many of the beautiful-but-delicate blooms.

And yet the Victoria Day Monday was dawn-to-dusk warm and sunny; a bloomin’ good omen. So the journey, heigh-nonny-no, was back on!

You have to really want to see the Sakura cherry trees, the majority of which are centred in the middle of this vast park of 161 hectares (or 400 acres), which means a long trek with hordes of other Cherry Blossom Pilgrims from either the northern or southern entrances. Alternatively, one embarks on an extremely slow car crawl and then an often-fruitless search for a “close” parking space.

Readers might wonder was my goal attained and the time invested in the journey worthwhile?

No and yes.

Alas, the main winding walkway and canopy of Sakura cherry trees were already past their blooming prime…hope springs eternal to view the peak next year. On the other hand, further south into the park (close to the Grenadier Pond) I was able to find some isolated cherry trees in near-full elegant bloom, such as the one in the featured photo at the top of this post.

And the magnolia tree was magnificently at its peak, the Canada geese were swimmingly ponded and a microcosm of Toronto’s incredibly diverse population, very young to quite senior, were happily and chattily making full use of this public park in various ways—hiking and biking, fishing and picnicking—on this glorious holiday Monday, which Canadians deem the unofficial start to summer.

It was a beautiful, affective and communal afternoon and the amount of walking ensured a good night’s sleep.

Relating this abundant experience to PR Conversations

One might ask: Besides sharing what I did this past Monday and showing off my photography skills what exactly is the point of this post and how does it relate to public relations and this blog?

It is an analogy related to my ongoing goals for PR Conversations: To be a high point (of reference) for global-local and collective narratives and dialogue about our discipline’s current focus and directions. Yes, even a type of community, per Richard Bailey’s recent endorsement.

Not to mention best practices for organizational public relations and communication management, beyond commercial self-interest and aspirational thought leadership (particularly the type found in filter bubbles of confirmation bias, the current online buzzword relates it to one’s “community” which is the only ick-factor proviso to Bailey’s choice of word—and why I prefer to call PR Conversations a global “resource”).

Ergo, to connect the High Park adventure analogy to this post, I muse about whether we are we in a peak time, a spring of abundance related both to the authority and influence of public relations…or is our profession or craft in a time of decline, pushed out of the way by more-aggressive communication branches?

It was Heather Yaxley who pointed out to me Scott Monty’s very interesting comment in this AdWeek interview (about him leaving his social media role at Ford),

“Looking at the industry overall, it saddens me how social has been co-opted by marketing to become just another mass advertising/marketing channel. I think the promise of social is about relationship development, and I have always said that. All the talks I’ve given about Ford’s progress has concentrated on attention and trust. While advertising can get you the attention by interrupting people, it’s more important to build relationships with customers and other people you want to reach. And I think communications and marketing and customer service have to band together around social.”

I indicated how I thought Scott Monty (and a few others) were great “role” models for the “just right” amount of character/personality as an organization’s social public relations rep, back in my February 2012 column.

But back to the peak or decline concept—or hills or valleys—I suspect to a certain extent it depends upon where you cast your gaze (and affiliations) and spend the bulk of your time. When you look at collaborative documents produced by practitioners and academics affiliated with the Global Alliance—first the Stockholm Accords, later the Melbourne Mandate—even if aspirational, at least there’s the promise of legitimacy, particularly when quietly embraced and instituted by CCOs at major companies around the world.

On the other hand, reading through the chapters Heather Yaxley is reproducing (and commenting upon), authored by in-house and agency leaders from the 1948 book Your Public Relations, it seems that our collective authority, influence and fortunes have waned in the last 66 years and we are in a more utilitarian autumn of our craft. (Of course back in 1948 this was a male-dominated profession, so definitely it wasn’t 100 per cent peak perfect!)

And perhaps some of the decline relates to very vocal (usually smaller shop consultancies) marketers and book authors, relentlessly pushing their concepts of a shrivelled and small autumnal public relations, for example simply being about media relations and “spin” related to tactical marketing PR (also known as integrated marketing communications or marcom).

Oh, and the need to break down company silos and allow employees to be “empowered” in social and turned into an army of mini Marketing Me’s, bursting through the virtual gates that the controlling corporate communications department erected. Of course what these same marketers fail to admit to employees is that feeling empowered to broadcast is not the same thing as having a say in things that really matter or being in control of anything of consequence…. Or that the end result (per the above Scott Monty quote) does anything to help build relationships with consumers and other stakeholders.

But I’ve ranted about these things before on this blog and I’m digressing from my focus today.

First off, whether we are in an abundant public relations era or a period of decline needs not only to be examined and discussed honestly, but researched and measured. And it is my belief that we can’t simply have conversations amongst people who think exactly like we do; much better to debate with someone whose views are quite different, and if the dialogue is thoughtful and respectful, perhaps one or both moves the other’s needle of thought and action(s).

Likewise, this concept of flinging out buzzwords—like advocacy and engagement—as a way of declaring legitimacy for concepts that more likely derive from aspirational, untested opinion than skills, experience or proven strategies.

Per the first example, that’s why we decided to give Alan Kelly the PR Conversations platform to offer his point of view, Honestly, PR is dishonest, to a global readership. Kelly’s Op-Ed (and his responses to some of the commenters) was controversial to many, ruffling more than a few feathers. On the other hand, it has been one of the most-read posts in 2014, with many new visitors to PR Conversations. Plus the current number of thoughtful comments on this post is second only to the all-time leader, Terry Flynn’s (December 2011) A defining moment for public relations. Time will tell whether PR Conversations first half of 2014 comments will peak with this “dishonest” PR post!

Although I don’t think the experience—in particular the reactions—was anything like what Alan Kelly imagined it would be, he has been rather awed at his post’s impact (although less happy with some of the personal characterizations), and has thanked us for the opportunity.

I like to think of Kelly’s Op-Ed as being similar to the magnificent magnolia tree in High Park—although it wasn’t my main reason or first choice to make the journey, it definitely contributed positively to the afternoon’s adventure and to my feelings about High Park in general. And I will also say that I had the most “conversations” with total strangers that afternoon around the magnolia tree (photographed here), both asking questions and volunteering answers.

Dissecting some popular buzzwords

Regarding the concept of buzzwords, this is my advertorial for next week’s post, a joint undertaking between Italian Toni Muzi Falconi and New Zealander Helen Slater. One of the things I like best about their post is how they’ve selected some of the buzzwords that have been the focus (generally of the rant variety) of past posts and lively comment sections on PR Conversations. It’s also interesting that this is a blended contribution—some tart limoncella flavoured with kiwi, anyone?

And we’re also building in a crowdsourcing component, where people can weigh in on future buzzwords to be dissected, as I’m hoping we can convince the two of them to do this on a semi-regular basis.

Whether or not the public relations discipline or industry as a whole is in a declining autumn of influence, I can certainly cherry pick this moment and say that this Spring season (at least on my side of the equator) of PR Conversations posts and comments has blossomed beautifully, being abundantly fruitful and gratifying…even when the posts or comments were challenging.

And although I won’t speak for my co-content editor Heather Yaxley, I believe she feels similarly to me, based on a recent comment.

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6 Replies to “An abundant public relations era or its utilitarian autumn?

  1. I’m pretty sure that the social media obsession will drop off in time – though it won’t happen overnight.

    Social media does of course have it’s place in the modern world of communication, but it should not be seen as the “be all and end all”. As with so many other things, it’s really only a “tool” – and the PR expert needs to know which tools to use for best results depending on the circumstances.

    That said, it can be difficult when clients are *certain* you should be using social more, irrespective of your professional advice…

  2. Judy – at long last here on the North Coast, we have leafed-in trees. The dogwoods bloomed in about a trice, and any flowering cherries hereabouts spent themselves in a matter of minutes (or so it seems…)

    As for the May-September analogies, the existential questions are always philosophically appealing. Perhaps concurrent with the co-opting of PR tactics (content marketing) and the insistence on seeing all communication as serving sales, there is an anti-intellectual bent to criticism of PR generally. I get accused all the time of making things too difficult with my constant navel-gazing. Just get on with the job, they say.

    It’s essential to revisit one’s purpose in life, no? Every few years, organizations should step back and examine, dispassionately, their reason for being and the strategy they’re following to fulfill it. That requires examining the existential questions, considering well-intentioned if fanciful notions, and generally to stop seeing everything as a nail, fit only for a hammer.

    There’s too much “just do it.” and not enough, “just think about it for a while, eh?”

    This is why PRC is so important, it serves a role nothing else does. Thanks for making it happen!

    1. Thanks, Sean. This past weekend was the University of Toronto’s annual alumni weekend. I know you’ve visited the beautiful main campus of my alma mater, and I have to say when we were walking around it, after the BBQ lunch and heading to the Contact exhibit at the University College Arts Centre (a tradition for many years)—this year’s exhibit was by 10 Chinese, female photographers and was quite stunning, and undercut some stereotypes I didn’t realize I harboured—we were commenting that we cannot remember an alumni weekend where the trees and foliage were so lush.

      And the weather perfect—sunny skies, a few fluffy clouds, warm temperatures with a slight breeze wafting just before we became too hot. Ergo, a long and cold winter and a slow coming and wet spring can definitely result in some sensuous bounty. We just need to have the patience until nature nurtures it along.

      Oh, one final comment about the alumni event—the keynote “interview subject” following the AGM was Robert Herjavec—current Shark, former Dragon—whom I discovered graduated the same year as me. Anyhow, when talking about his success as an entrepreneur, besides working hard, embracing failures, he also spoke about the need for a solid corporate culture and values shared by all employees, together with a reputation for honesty, and working relationships/partnerships based on mutual understanding and trust.

      You have such a wondrous way of thinking and such a beautiful writing style. As I’ve reminded you in the past, it was just such “navel-gazing” that first attracted my attention in the old IABC Café so many years ago, so please continue to nurture your inherent nature to gaze down and up and everywhere around that matters, no matter what the season.

      Thank you for helping to make PR Conversations important, with your various posts and comments contributions and your ongoing championing. Namaste.

  3. Judy – I think that the seasonal metaphor in your post is useful but not simply as a Spring vs Autumn reflection. First, the seasons continue to change year after year, and as you’ve noted with your experience of the cherry trees, some years are better than others. That’s in large part due to the external conditions – which sometimes suit the blossoms and other times, do not.

    Secondly, we are fortunate to have distinct seasons in our countries (although having recently visited Manchester – I am reminded that some English places seem always to have rain!). In parts of the world, the seasons are not as variable – but what happens then is that small changes matter. Indeed, looking for the small changes in the weather is a useful analogy for monitoring and being proactive/reactive to emerging storms or more favourable conditions.

    Again, as you’ve indicated, where we in the Northern Hemisphere are experiencing one type of Spring, in the Southern Hemisphere there is a different perspective. This applies in lots of different ways being at the coast, we can look to the sea and the sky for information on weather. Being in cities, there are different signals of change.

    Applying these points to PR, we should remember that this is an adaptable function – not one that can (or should) be defined for all time. That one person’s experience and impression of PR is likely to depend where they are located and their viewpoint. And those who argue there are big seasonal shifts occurring in PR, should remember to look for the small changes which may matter even more.

    1. I really don’t have much to add or comment upon regarding your excellent comment, Heather, although I did keep thinking about my time in the Southern Hemisphere, where every second person I talked to in Melbourne, Australia, seemed to boast—or bemoan—how that city often has “four seasons in one day.” Woe the person who didn’t pack a jacket to wear… On the other hand, being in stinking hot and humid Cairns a few weeks before Christmas was quite jarring, as Santa hats paired with swim trunks/bikinis just seems WRONG.

      I particularly like one of your concluding thoughts: That one person’s experience and impression of PR is likely to depend where they are located and his or her viewpoint. I would add what type and size of organization they work for, as I’ve added to my knowledge base the maturity cycle of organizations and the primary PR role as detailed by Richard Bailey commenting in my earlier “piffle” post!

      I have to say the obsession with social media platform usage to replace just about every communication role, no matter what season, is really raining sticky sweet kool-aid on my otherwise quite content public relations parade. Hopefully these channel obsessions also will pass.

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