Are YOU comfortable with ambiguity? An invective on behalf of The Public Benefit of Public Relations theme of the London 2008 World Public Relations Festival

…in a July 17 column, Stefan Stern, the Financial Times commentator, confesses he is not comfortable with ambiguity, and argues against the recent consultants mantra by which organizational leadership must learn to ‘cope with ambiguity’.

He adds that: ‘my mono tasking mindset leaves me.. unambiguosly.. disqualified for a seat at the top table’, and concludes: ‘leaders need to offer an easily understandable, clear and simple view of the world’.
I thoroughly disagree, and traced back to my ‘Governare le Relazioni’ -a 2002 book (Il Sole 24 Ore Libri) -whose 2005 second edition has since disappeared- where I dedicate a paragraph to the concept of ambiguity as a major indicator of the very dna of the public relations profession which read ( a quick translation of course..):
the theme of ambiguity is highly relevant and we need to address it from the very beginning, aware that we are walking on a very subtle terrain where one may not easily separate black from white, but also -and maybe just because of this- a highly fascinating terrain..at that.
The intention is to describe the characteristics of a fully contemporary yet ancient (thus… ambiguous) profession exercised on the sidewalks of those virtual crossroads where organizational relationship systems interact with the political community (institutions, interest groups, political parties, activists..); the economic community (businesses and their associations, unions, pressure groups, financial markets..); and the information community (wire services, dailies, periodicals, new and social media, cultural and educational institutions…).
These crossroads are indeed highly fragile and thorny, as they are the principal components of contemporary society which, for varied reasons, find themselves in a continuous, fast and unpredictable change, turmoil, overlap and complexity.
And the fact that, as professionals, we do operate along sidewalks, clearly refers to at least one of the many stereotypes which describe us….
It makes sense to talk about ambiguity in pr, to better understand the world in which we operate, to raise our awareness and to better cope with an effective governance of our societal relationships.
It makes sense to talk about ambiguity in pr, because it helps us to recognize the profession when it is performed in our direction, requiring us to open and develop a voluntary dialogue and accepting the option to change an opinion or a behaviour, if and when convinced (…from vincere cum: i.e. winning together); but also -and sadly too often- when our profession is performed against us… by not being explicit or immediately perceivable in its source or in its objectives, in order to unilaterally persuade us to modify that same opinion or behaviour.
Today, we live in a world where rhetoric and hype have replaced what once we perceived as ‘substance’: a world where a piece of news does not exist, if not accompanied by a pseudo event, which in itself turns into news.
It is impossible for public relations to escape its ambiguous essence in a society where organizational communication has recently achieved thoroughly structural characteristics; whose rules and accepted norms determine political, cultural, social and economic agendas of a nation; whose media systems have turned into an impressive concoction where information, advertising, communication, rhetoric, reality and trash interact; where journalists, publishers, advertisers, public relators, politicians, analysts, educators and investors constantly violate each other’s professional boundaries.

No wonder that Geert Hofstede described ‘uncertainty avoidance’ as one of the five principal indicators to understand a country’s socio cultural infrastructure!
And, no wonder that stereotypes -which thrive (as FT’s Stefan Stern would prefer) on a clear, simple and understandable view of the world- are so often severe with our profession.
All this, notwithstanding those daily professional horrors performed by a sizable number of our colleagues from every part of the world, who maniacally cut corners from every possible perspective, in their paranoid attempt to avoid precisely those very characteristics of ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity…which are constant and inescapable features of a profession they unfortunately (for us, as well as for everyone else) chose, consciously or unconsciously, to pursue.
If there is one profession which thrives on the highest levels of ambiguity, uncertainty, diversity, complexity and tolerance (you name it), this is the public relations profession.
Most of the time:
°we sit on one side of the fence but strive to listen to and interpret the other side;
°we convince third parties to give authoritative voice to our positions and yet choose to bypass them when technology allows us to do so effectively;
°we stimulate and nurture symmetrical dialogue in society and yet we shake democracy’s very foundations by mostly advocating on behalf of the stronger powers in society;
°we know the effectiveness of communicating organizational behaviours yet we indulge in rhetorically raising others’ expectations for the future
….and so on.
There is no escaping these embedded ambiguities of our trade… yet we must also recognize that being capable of effectively coping with these, can be one of the greater virtues to be found in contemporary society.
And this because if the world we lived in was easily, simply and clearly describable, we would all be out of a job and, indeed, thoroughly bored!
The quicker we are capable of understanding, adapting and applying our competencies and skills to deal with ambiguity as a value in itself… to defy and challenge our professional community to come to operational grips with these concepts, the sooner we will attract that essential amount of credibility, if and when we affirm that Public Relations is for the Public Benefit.
In recent years I have learned from our South African colleagues that ‘one is because others are’… as simple and mind boggling as that! Further, I have also learned from them that the participatory and post modernist nature of the Ubuntu concept is the most attractive pillar for the foundation of a much needed new global framework of our profession, based on the paradigm of generic principles and specific applications.
Are we ready to challenge ourselves over our own ambiguity?
Food for comments?

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