Benita Steyn tackles “what is the ultimate purpose of PR?”

I’m stealing Toni’s idea of extracting a worthy comment and turning it into a proper post. Benita Steyn, who previously commented on another post about this topic, provides the beginnings of what could be a great discussion on “what is the ultimate purpose of PR?”

“I sat down tonight to answer Catherine’s question on why I find building relationships to be a limited view on the purpose of PR. But then I got side-tracked when I read Judy’s post (again) on what PR is and isn’t, and the comments that followed (especially those of Toni and Brian) and couldn’t refrain from first ‘laying an egg’ here (as we say in my language Afrikaans). I think Judy’s issue is a good preamble before venturing into the ‘mother of all questions’ namely what the ultimate purpose of PR is—something that I hope we can still discuss in length.

With regards to Toni’s reference to Emanuele Invernizzi’s approach (IULM University, Milan) that there are ‘core’ competencies in PR (media relations, public affairs, organisation of corporate events and ceremonials) and ‘extended’ competencies (employee, supplier, marketing, investor and other stakeholder group relations), I see it a little differently — namely that PR has a ’strategic’ role to play in the organisation as well as a ’support’ role.

Potentially, PR can support any other function with its tools. It can organise an event for marketing (e.g. a product launch); or publish the annual report (for finance); or design the website (for information technology). These are activities in pursuit of another function’s goals and here PR is only a support function. My argument is thus that this is not PR, since ideally PR should not be defined by its techniques but by its goals. ‘Whether it is PR’ or ‘when it is PR’ should be determined by which/whose functional goals are being achieved rather than by which techniques are being used. (Do I hear snoring already as a result of this academic discourse? But I shall not be intimidated!!) The question is: Does an event or a newsletter belong only to PR? Is this not the reason why there is such confusion as to what PR is because we are defining it by techniques that are also used by other disciplines/organisational functions?

Performing such support activities on behalf of other functions is not a problem per se, certainly not when PR also has a clear strategic role in the organisation. But when it doesn’t, it could lead to an identity problem–worsened when PR actually reports to another function because its activities are then most often used to support the goals of the other function (as is often the case with marketing). The result is that after a while top management and everybody else sees PR and marketing as one and the same, because they become indistinguishable in their activities/ techniques. (In other words, PR loses its identity in the pursuit of the other function’s goals).

I want to be even more provocative and refer to the so-called ‘integrated communication’ concept, which to me looks more like ‘integrated marketing communication’–i.e. PR activities used in support of achieving marketing communication goals. Nothing wrong with this at all, but are we seeing here the integration of the marketing and PR function, or are we seeing the use of PR activities in support of another function’s goals/objectives? Is this PR? Is this integration? If PR assists with the annual report or arranges shareholder functions—is it moving towards integration with finance? I know this is a very ‘previous century’ viewpoint but I have never yet been able to buy into this integration stuff. Maybe some comments will help to remove the bucket from my head and take me into the 21st century?

Some last clarifications in this regard: I do not hate marketing or any other function. I do not believe in turf wars. It is counterproductive. Actually, I would love to see PR co-operating strategically with other functions such as marketing, e.g. bringing about a service quality culture in the organisation; or with HR, in advising/developing communication strategies/goals for how to prevent the negative effects of downsizing/ restructuring through pro-active management communication; or with information technology, in developing systems/parameters for collecting information on stakeholders through environmental scanning. But is this not ’synthesis’ (where each retains its own identity, sets its own goals in accordance with its own competencies/unique identity, and works together to achieve organisational goals) rather than ‘integration’ (losing own identity and becoming one with the other?)”

And Toni Muzi Falconi’s response:

Benita,

I do not disagree with your rationalization and I think that your support versus strategic role that public relations plays in an organization can be very useful, if not for other reasons at least to clarify the difference between an organization that thinks public relations and an organization that thinks marketing. Both thought are fully legitimate and, again, very much depends on the organization. Also, both concepts (public relations and marketing) are sufficiently fuzzy to allow the use of terms such as marketing public relations, or relationship marketing, or internal marketing, or social marketing…and so forth.

Also your issue about integrated communication is a valid one although I recall having been, in the mid eighties, part of a highly rewarding joint effort by Italy’s Ogilvy and Mather group and my then agency SCR Associati, to develop an ‘orchestration’ approach (this is how O&M then called it), which led:

a) to pr definitley taking the lead of the various disciplines;
b) to the formation of a joint venture (sintonia) which was a great business success for the two years it existed (personality issues broke it up);
c) to the definition of an orchestrated communication model called gorel (governance of relationships)which is today’s most adapted and adopted approach in this country….

This just to say that marketing is as vulnerable as public relations.

Finally, I am intrigued over your definition of synthesis and integration which obviously apply to many fields of thought. Thank you.

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10 Replies to “Benita Steyn tackles “what is the ultimate purpose of PR?”

  1. Hi Raymond, I have written an article in a South African academic journal on ‘The Purpose of Public Relations’. I have also led a master’s dissertation at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology on this topic. If you are interested, I can email these publications to you since it might be difficult getting hold of them. You will find my email address on the homepage of PRC under ‘About the Authors’ or you can access the latter page directly at the following URL: http://www.prconversations.com/?page_id=21
    Which country are you from?
    BS

  2. i have being given an assignment to discuss the Collaboration function and Purpose functions of PR. reading through the above article, i think i have gotten something that could help me.

    can any one give more briefing on what these functions are really about, please.

  3. This is a very interesting debate and the contributions made thus far have been thought provoking. May I propose another perspective to Benita’s original question? Please bear with me – there are so many issues that I think need to be addressed in this debate that on the surface my answer could seem confusing.

    May I be controversial? Perhaps the ultimate purpose of what we are doing, whether it is PR or corporate communication, is facilitating (ensuring, contributing to, call it what you want) sustainability, through communication, in a triple bottom-line (people, planet and profit) environment – whether it be sustainability in business, government or civil society or between these three entities. The sustainability that I refer to would embrace, among others, ethical practices and organisational integrity, stakeholder engagement, issues management etc. PR therefore is not only concerned with the soft issues, but also with the hard issues; not only with the intangibles, but also the with tangibles; not only with people and planet but also with profit.

    In my opinion we should be asking: What is PR’s role in the accountability and responsibility of the board (or the organisation) towards stakeholders; in the organisation’s license to operate; in the “company” as a key component of modern society; in the triple bottom line; in characteristics such as transparency, independence, fairness and social responsibility; in the fact that companies need to be well-governed but also need to be perceived in the market as being well-governed; in non-financial aspects in the organisation; in alignment between the value system of the company and that of society; in leadership; in risk management etc.

    (The theme of the PR Festival in Cape Town recently confirmed my line of thought about the importance of sustainability.)

    O, and by the way – what’s wrong with “doing things right (governance)”. It is because people have focused too much on “doing the right things (strategy)” (from their perspective) that we are in a post-Enron era where society is expecting business and government to do things right as well. You can do the right thing and give money to the poor, but if you do it in a way that is not sustainable, it can do more harm than good.

    Virtually everything we do in PR and corporate communication can be traced back to sustainability – also in terms of relationship management or relationship governance.

    The above is my enlightened approach. My traditional approach to Benita’s question would have been:
    It depends on the situation and the objectives you want to achieve – perhaps that is why it is so difficult to define public relations. In some instances PR will be used to enhance the corporate reputation; sometimes it will be used to uplift a community or it could be used to get people to stop smoking or finding Madeleine McCann.

    If we had asked “What is the ultimate purpose of corporate communication” I would have answered that it is “to manage corporate reputation” (whether reputation can be managed or not is another debate). Elsewhere on this blog Yaryna Klyuchkovska states that: “I believe, pragmatic as it may be, that building relationships with publics is a means to an end, although I do have trouble defining the “end.” Would it be too last century to say, reputation?” My question is: Why would this be “too last century?” “Reputation” is very much alive and well in the business world and the support for this concept is growing steadily. I agree with Yaryna that “reputation” could be regarded as the “end” of our endeavours from a communication perspective. However, from a business, government and civil society perspective we can go even further and regard “reputation management” as a “means to an end” – the end being sustainability (of the organisation etc), whether it is in the public or private sector.

    What makes reputation management an interesting perspective in corporate communication is the fact that the perceptions of all stakeholders of the organisation – even those of customers – make up the reputation of an organisation.

    That brings me to Benita’s question about the distinction between marketing and communication. From what I have read recently it seems as though the marketing discipline is to a certain extent in dire straits – perhaps they are now in the position that PR was before the Excellence Study, although very few marketers would admit this. However, in South Africa there are a few brave souls who are willing to be controversial. On the website of the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science, I read the following last week: “So why then has marketing in South Africa, and around the world, been described by some as “in crisis”? Could it be that marketers have been worshiping false idols?

    “Customer worship seems to be under fire in certain circles. Southwest Airlines, Rosenbluth International and others have argued forcefully that “the customer is not always right” and that being committed to customer service at the expense of your employees can be disastrous. Author Seth Godin even suggests firing a customer “if it’s not worth making the customer right.

    “So perhaps the answer lies not in choosing which group to worship above all others, but to embrace pluralism and balance. Perhaps the “seat at the table” has been vacated because marketers have not effectively embraced the complexity that comes with the organisational boundary-spanning role they now have. Perhaps marketers need to work towards a “triple upper line” that balances these often conflicting purposes and stakeholders.”

    These days I (Estelle) explain to laymen the difference between “marketing” and “communication” as follows: the one has to do with managing the “product brand” and the other has to do with managing the “corporate brand”. Both use the same tactics and both are responsible for managing relationships – marketing for customers (although they are now claiming to also be responsible for “other relationships”) and communication for the rest.

    Another challenge that we need to deal with is the “disintegration” of the PR function: other functions are also now responsible for managing relationships – investor relations (finances), employee relations (HR), customer relations (marketing), government relations (public affairs), community relations (corporate citizenship and CSR). The danger is that PR will be left with media relations – which will not guarantee us a seat at the boardroom table.

    However, the reputation manager could function on a strategic level by taking responsibility for all these relationships in an integrated manner. “Reputation” and “reputation management” have become business jargon that business leaders feel comfortable with. Other jargon includes words (concepts if you like) like “stakeholder engagement”, “corporate citizenship”, “corporate governance” and “sustainablity”. Business people (and even accountants) are talking about and understanding the concepts of issues, branding, reputation management, reputation capital, reputation risk, third party assurance etc.

    Why not use the concepts strategy, governance and sustainability (and related ones) as common ground between ourselves and the dominant coalition in order to ensure a seat at the boardroom table?

    President: South African Communication Association (SACOMM)
    University of Pretoria

  4. Toni, you are too kind.
    Before we begin, perhaps it is significant to identify why this debate is important. We are talking about whether/how public relations affects wealth.
    It is clear that relationship management and the management of relationships is an area of management that enthuses the PR industry (Ledingham et al 2000, Grunig and Huang in Ledingham 2000, Valin, J. 2004, Gregory 2005, White & Murray 2004). Practitioners like to believe that they can change relationships between organisations and their publics in a managed fashion.

    So far so good. But one may ask: so what? What do these relationships do. What do they achieve? What are they for?

    Differentiation is one PR objective.

    “In a mature economy it is increasingly difficult to find tangible resources of differentiation and it is the reputation and relationships which organisations establish with their stakeholders which are the drivers of corporate success,”suggests Danny Moss (Moss in Theaker 2004 pp. 328).

    PR as a business driver is suggested by White and Murry: ‘PR… “definitely involves handling a multiplicity of stakeholders, as well as consistency over very long periods of time. Inclusivity in relationships with all stakeholders is seen as correlated with company performance. The things that really drive a company – these are all around relationships – are not seen as of interest to financial commentators” (White & Murray 2004)i.

    The IABC Research Foundation, concluded that ‘in order for organizations to achieve the most value from their intangible assets they must encourage systematic relationship-building and boundary-spanning behaviour by everyone in the organization. The challenge for communication managers is to understand how they can contribute to this process’.

    In addition: “Stakeholder relationships are intangible assets and there is a significant body of opinion that identifies intangible assets as a major driver in the global economy, corporate survival and success” (Phillips, D. 2006).

    The concept of relationship management being significant in its ability to contribute to worth also comes from outside the public relations industry. British Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt MP has called for corporations to have “successful relationships with a wide range of other stakeholders” because they “are important assets, crucial to stable, long-term performance and shareholder value”iv. In this, the Secretary of State expresses a view that there is a range of stakeholders and, one may infer, domains of practice that are significant.

    I (ibid) argue that “without effective relationships all other corporate assets are at risk. Sources of capital, raw materials and services, valuable intellectual assets, markets, customers and processes throughout the value chain are completely dependent on relationships between people within organisation and their counterparts without.” Once again, the argument favours a range of relationships, internal and external and a range of different forms of PR practice relevant to relationships along the extent of the value chain to influence value.

    The debate is maturing from an argument about affecting a range of publics to one where this effect drives value and the creation of wealth from intangibles. From here, we can move forward to seek the components of this post modern view of PR.

    This is why I am excited about relationships and wanted to explore if and how these claims can be substantiated.

    The actual evidence that communication is at the core of relationships needs to be examined much more carefully. How? Under what conditions? Do we know abbout the effects?

    The evidence is largely built on a bunch of assumptions (Freeman) that just don’t stand up to scrutiny.

    How do we describe stakeholders. Is it that groupd of people who take an interest (stake) in an organisation, issue, event? If so, look at the groups that form in, say Facebook. Strange to see that people with diverse backgrounds, ages and interests meet in such environments that often just do not conform to groups that traditionally would be described in demographic, marketing or typical stakeholder segmentation.

    The old models and theories fall at the point where we can truly see user generated socil segments.

    We have a problem.

    So what is it that brings these people together what is the dynamic behind actual social groupsings.

    You see, even simple definitions are a bit old. Who then is the employee? Is it the person who works 9 to 5? But takes time out to Twitter? Or the person on contract, or working part time from home? Is an employee blogging about work, working, an employee? It is only in an Internet mediated world that these challenges to convention laid bare. It is online we discover that the customer is only a purchaser for a fraction of the time and conversation – a conversation that extends well beyond the traditional interest of the company – that is until Dell Hell brakes loose.

    We have much more work to do.

    Ledingham Broom, Casey, and Ritchey (2000) offer “Organization-public relationships are represented by the patterns of interaction, transaction, exchange, and linkage between an organization and its publics. These relationships have properties that are distinct from the identities, attributes, and perceptions of the individuals and social collectivities in the relationships. Though dynamic in nature, organization-public relationships can be described at a single point in time and tracked over time.”

    This idea postulates that relationships are distinct in themselves and have a mutuality and, through a pattern of linkages, extend their influence. It would also suggest that a relationship has consequences for other actors such that any relationship has, to an extent, an influence on other publics and is surrounded by an arora borealis of relationship interactions among other related publics.

    A lecturer can demonstrate this with ease. By interrupting a lecture to give a rose to a member of the audience, the recipient and lecturer relationship is changed. The rest of the audience immediately assesses the meaning of this action and bring their own concepts as to the new relationship and their own with the actors in an ‘arora borealis’ of assumptions about these relationships. The exchange of the token (the rose) is significant, so too are all the connotations that such a token may have (antecedents and consequences). A similar effect can be archived with a smile, wink or other signal. Whereas the rose is tangible, the smile, wink or other signal is definitely intangible. Quite often, the token has a value that is inferred or is a metaphor. After all, a rose is but a dying flower on the branch of a shrub.

    Here we see a process of relationship in which tokens are used for creation of attention and influence with a by-product of wider influence. It is an idea we can explore from research in many directions from altruism ( Hamilton 1964) to business relationships (Bouzdine-Chameeva, Durrieu, and Mandják 2001)

    Part of this phenomena is explained by communication – the gift of the rose. But what makes the exchange so interesting is that it is the values that are ascribed by the actors to a rose and the values ascribed by actors to the giving of a rose that goes beyond communication.

    This is a form of relationship management that has and deals in values. In some instances this value is financial which can be demonstrated by the financial effects of loosing or enhancing relationships but the financial metaphore is comparatively insignificant.

    A rose cost $1. Try offering the same student 50 roses. A dramatic result. All smiles. Now offer $50!

    Same financial value but a totally differnt set of values. Same communication different effects. Public Relations is about values.

    It is also about dissonance.

    If the lecturer believes that $50 is a great substitute for roses the same value creates huge dissonance.

    If a company has rose values (a value system) that accord with its ‘stakeholders’ it can build a relationships. If it has $50 values, it can create dissonance.

    This takes us to your second point: Managing the communication implies facilitating the understanding and interpretation of stakeholder expectations for all the rational many of argue because it improves the quality of decision making and accelerates the implementation of those decisions. Yes, I agree. But only if the currency of expectations is based on values. Otherwise we have the rose/$ problem. So we need to understand the nature of values and how they facilitate understanding.

    Which takes us to your third stream.

    The professional command of operative and technical tools and processes we adopt are of paramount importance because it has to do with what we deliver to whoever pays for our efforts and how we become accountable to that party as well as to all our other interlocutors.

    This is only true when we have the capacity to identify to the client where there the concord of values is compatible. Otherwise the practitioner is both fooling the client and himself.

    So can we prove any of this?

    We can look to the neuro-psychologists, the philosophers, and, this year I hope to offer a further proof.

    Relationships are based on values. Convergent values create relationships. Relationships can be extended to a wider social groups with similar held values. Relationships are the way that economies are sustained.

    In PR we spend a lot of time tilling the soil and so little time pondering the miracle of our environment.

  5. Benita,
    unfortunately the documentation of the orchestration experience I mentioned is mostly in Italian. The core of it can be found in the book Governare le Relazioni- governing relationships- (Il Sole 24 Ore 2204-2005) authored by yours truly, but I am afraid that even the second edition is impossible to find. Of course I have a copy, and I could send you now that I have learned that you know spanish..(which might slightly help). However, the gorel framework which came out of that work as a working methodology in the mid eighties (so, Benita, the issue of the strong correlation between realtionships and public relations dates at least back then..whereas relationship marketing as a concept,as far as I know, dates back to the scandinavian Groonros in the early nineties, as you correctly say) has been adopted in the second part of the eighties by a number of mncs…american express and (the late) chemical bank to mention just two. In Italy it is quite common for professionals to refer to the gorel method which has also been adopted by Ferpis professional training and accreditation programs.

    My dear David,
    when I see your name on our blog (rarely…) I always smile with satisfaction, as you are undoubtedly one of the leading and most provokative (with the K..) thinkers I have encountered in our camp and your blog at http://leverwealth.blogspot.com/ is a must reading for anyone who is curious and wishes to be provoked…
    I am intrigued by your current thematization of the interdependence between effective relationships and the values system of an organization, and of course would like to learn more about this. Maybe you might wish to send me a post explaining to our visitors more about this concept and I promise to post it!

    This discussion is excellent and I hope it will continue.
    May I suggest that we keep open three parallel conceptual lines as we proceed?

    1.
    Stakeholder Relationship Governance as a constitutional framework of an organization. Whether it is actually called PR or not I couldn’t care less, but the basis is that an organization is a system of relationships which, for it to be successfull, need to be nurtured, grown, cultivated…remember Chance Gardener?
    Most organizational and business school scholars today agree with this, so we have arrived -so to say- at the point in which it is only up to us to convince our interlocutors, but in academia there seems to be agreement that communication is a tool with which relationships are developed and the quality of those relationships along with organizational behaviours are the only two governable variables (albeit to a point…)which form reputation. Of course there are many other variables as well, but they are not as governable.

    2.
    Managing the communication function does not necessarily only imply making sure that programs are effectively executed. It also implies facilitating the understanding and interpretation of stakeholder expectations for all the rational reasons many of us now argue: it improves the quality of decision making and accelerates the implementation of those decisions.

    3.
    Last but certainly not in any way least, the professional command of operative and technical tools and processes we adopt when we listen, when we decide who to listen to, when we interpret, when we communicate (internally and externally of course), when we evaluate etc…are of paramount importance because it has to do with what we deliver to whoever pays for our efforts and how we become accountable to that party as well as to all our other interlocutors.

    Ce n’est qu’un debut…continuons le debat….

  6. Perhaps claiming this or that is public relations we can look at what organisations are and need.

    Coarse says an organisation is the nexus of contracts, Sonsino of conversations and I say it is the nexus of values.

    By the values I hold, I can attract or repulse people and organisations. The Value Systems evident in organisations is all they really have to sell. Values express the product, service, and ethos of organisations. People are drawn to values.

    Values form the DNA of relationships. It is a way of describing what we mean by relationships.

    Relationships aren’t ‘managed’ they are there because of value synergies between people and organisations drawn to each other by values.

    I have suggested a proof and will be testing it this Autumn but early trials suggest this is an approach that works.

    It explains how, with ubiquitous communication the nexus of values inside organisations is no longer at the top of the organisational pyramid. It morphs and changes and from time to time is vested in small groups both within and outside organisations.

    The role of PR?

    To examine the values of organisations and their constituencies and to help those groups understand each other’s values.

    Yes, it is marketing, it is HR, it is finance and Corporate Affairs but at much more profound level that the tool makers and hewers of stone. They are needed but need their sights set on the higher calling.

  7. Toni, do you have any documentation on the ‘orchestration approach’? How well you describe the situation in practice by referring to an organisation that ‘thinks public relations’ and one that ‘thinks marketing’. But I do believe (and I know that you do too) that both functions are important for business organisations and that they deprive themselves by focusing on only one or the other–hence my quest for clearly differentiating between public relations and marketing. It is my contention that this differentiation must take place with regards to the strategic role of each before an organisation’s top management will realise that they very much need both. It is only when the strategic contribution of each is clear, that decisions on working together effectively can be taken. So, in addition to discussing the ultimate purpose of public relations, its strategic role also needs to be defined. (The two is of course closely related).

    My question to Catherine/anybody else is: If relationship building is the ultimate purpose of PR, aren’t we back to square one again with regards to differentiation from marketing? And this time we are on a much more strategic level than differentiating between techniques. (Marketing has been in a relationship paradigm since the early 1990s and, if my memory serves me correct, the first writings on a relationship paradigm for public relations appeared in the late 1990s). The quick answer to a master’s student who asked me this question, was to fall back on Jim and Lauri Grunig’s concept of ‘exchange’ relationships (built by marketing) and ‘communal’ relationships (built by PR). But I sure would like to pick all of your brains on how to answer these very uncomfortable questions asked by students. My answers are beginning to sound unconvincing even to myself. And that is when I started wondering in all earnest about these issues…..

    Catherine, I very much enjoyed your masterpiece before I went to bed last night. If it weren’t for the fact that my husband was asleep next door, I would have clapped (or ululated in true African tradition). Maybe you missed your vocation—instead of this relationship building business, you should consider becoming a writer!!! Or maybe you started your public relations career doing just that? But you are so right—and I am definitely one of those searching for the final (crucial) few pieces of the jigsaw but need somebody to help me shift the furniture! I see that Brian has made a feeble attempt to do so, but I am waiting for him to finish eating his spinach so that he can try again.

  8. As it looks like we are about to cut straight to the philosophical chase of ‘Why am I Here’ (aka in this context: the ultimate purpose of public relations) I thought I might as well go for a no-holds-barred interjection to this strand of the conversation. After all, it has been a long day which started with an 8am discussion around this very theme, so I might as well finish it off as it began.

    In writing, I have a sinking feeling that this might turn into something of a public relations apologia – and I hope that is ok (someone can always delete the comment if it isn’t!) because although I am quite comfortable with what I see as the purpose of public relations I have a sneaking suspicion I will find myself having to defend my comfort zone!

    The latter half of the 20th Century saw public relations defined by the tools it uses rather than – as Benita indicates – the purpose it serves, or its goals. The ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’ if you like.

    Crack open the many definitions of public relations mooted by organisations around the globe and you will find a recurring theme – that of building relationships. Over time, the definitions have ranged from the complex to the lengthy, the convoluted to the really quite creative. In one part of the world, definitions advocate that we are to create mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics while in another the proposition is that public relations should create opportunities for dissent rather than understanding, with the functional responsibility being one of opening debate without forcing consensus.

    The other theme that emerges is one of evolution – the development of an industry into a profession as it amasses a body of knowledge at the academic end of the spectrum and new models of functional understanding at the practice end. Pop into this mix the concurrent development of new business models, greater social awareness (e.g. global warming/requirement for social responsibility) and you find yourself with a body of people who know what they are doing but think they are missing the final few pieces of the jigsaw. Crucial pieces that allow them to show people outside their industry the ‘big picture’ that illustrates just what they do. I would argue that these pieces are actually just lurking under the sofa – we just need to shift the furniture, dig them out and put them in place and we can move forwards on our evolutionary track.

    Part of the difficulty with definition exists because of the complexity of the public relations function – even the best wordsmiths have trouble boiling it down – but a simple explanation doesn’t necessarily undermine the complexity or credibility of a role – it just helps people to first see and understand the bigger picture, which then allows us to highlight the detail. On a good landscape picture, you can first take in the whole scene and understand its position and context. Opt for a closer look and your eye might be drawn to sky and trees, birds and rocks. Scrutinise it further and you may make out the tractor in the background or the cow in the field – all important elements, but only part of the complete picture.

    So why am I here? As a practitioner, I believe my work in public relations is centred on building relationships. That’s the simple bit. Now here come the tractors.

    These relationships are the ones necessary for individuals, communities and organisations to interact with each other at a commercial, social or political level. They need to be sustainable, transparent and mutually beneficial, drawing together the different parties – call them organisations, stakeholders, publics, actors, whichever best fits your meaning – so they understand each other, listen to each other and can move forward in agreeable and sustainable alignment to the degree each party requires.

    The aim of building and sustaining these relationships is achieved through listening (which includes things such as research coupled with understanding and appreciation of meaning), environmental scanning and forecasting, issues management, advocacy and dialogue.

    The implementation involves a variety of communications channels, technologies (stable and disruptive) personal interaction and on many occasions, approaches often associated with other disciplines – advertising springs to mind. Implementation then runs into tasks – writing, webwork, events etc., etc.. There is an extremely clever and talented thinker and practitioner here called Tim Marshall, who, during a conversation today, highlighted the tendency of practitioners to be ‘magpies’ – by which I believe he meant collectors and adapters of all things that might be useful to their purpose. So we don’t limit our toolbox to one thing or another, certainly not now, even though historically, the industry was aligned with media relations.

    Toni has talked extensively (and as always authoritatively) elsewhere on this blog about relationships, sustainability and most recently, the discussion on a global model following his posting of Chiara Valentini’s paper. It seems logical to me that if there is global agreement on the purpose of public relations, the next step in our evolutionary process is to have a global understanding of ‘why we are here’ coupled with a collective appreciation of the necessary ‘local’ models which would be appropriate in individual geographic and virtual locations.

    What I hope to goodness doesn’t happen – and I believe quite passionately that it would be a significant step back towards the Dark Ages if it does – is that the discussion leads to another alignment with, or gets bogged down on, the ‘tools’ we use, even if some of them are snazzier, faster and a bit more fun than the old ones.
    I also think the ‘Why am I Here’ question needs to be answered in conjunction with the ever-popular ‘Who Am I’ (in its public relations context) so that our shared values, ethics and beliefs as practitioners are understood and set firmly against ‘Why am I Here’.

    So, I’m off to bed now and tomorrow’s another relationship building day for me, to be broken up only by a foray into the world of making muffins for my kids (who otherwise will be vociferously debating the question ‘why aren’t you here?’).

    What will you be doing? Purpose or task? What’s your day going to be?

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