Larry Foster: back to real relationships, not only virtual

Please do take a good and quick look at Larry Foster’s very recent acceptance speech of the Alexander Hamilton Medal at IPR’s annual event at the Yale Club in New York.

For those of us who are (or believe they are) ‘geeks’ so-to-say it amounts to a back-to-basics wake up call!

For the others, many of whom remain luddists or, in any case, thorough sceptics on the application of new technologies to public relations (the old soldiers never die…they just fade away… types) -rather than a confirmation of these attitudes- Larry’s comments only underline the urgent need to speed up the learning process and become capable of moulding virtual relationship into real life ones, embedding the two modes as much together as possible.

Yes, thank you Larry for this lucid and sober analysis….another good reason to insist that we ourselves, and the people who work with us, intensify the habit of getting our behinds away from our electronic pc, portable, mobile physical extensions, walk over to our stakeholder offices, residences and coffee shops; listen with them, converse with them, laugh with them and, learn (and relearn) how to develop meaningful, fruitful personal and organizational relationships. And clearly I am not only referring to journalists in any particular way.

Here it is:
by Larry Foster
Yale Club, New York City
November 8, 2007

I was surprised and honored to get Frank Ovaitt’s call about the Alexander Hamilton Medal. When you have been in the profession for fifty years and no longer in the mainstream it is all the more gratifying to be remembered. My sincere thanks to the Institute.
It was fifty years ago that I made a very wise decision to leave journalism, when I was Night Editor of the Newark News, then New Jersey’s largest newspaper, and join Johnson & Johnson to help form its first Public Relations Department. It was a challenge that I could not resist.
For the next 33 years I felt like the luckiest guy in the world – and I was.
This extraordinary company grew forty times larger while I was there.
From the outset the Chairman/CEO declared that Public Relations would report directly to him – and it still does today.
In 1990 Bill Nielsen succeeded me, and three years ago Ray Jordan took over from Bill. For the past fifty years only three of us have held that job. During that same period there have been five Chairmen, which suggests we’re wearing them out faster than they are us.
No question, though, it is a different job today. And that leads me to the single point I want to leave you with in these brief remarks.
I marvel at the wealth of technology that you have access to today, but it also raises a concern. If I am to also raise your concern, I will need your help – and your imagination.
Imagine that I have in front of the podium a very large balance scale. You know, the kind they often use to demonstrate justice. This balance scale has an arm across the top and two large trays suspended by chains from either side. Yours is the left tray – which we’ll mark 2007. Mine is the right one, marked 1957.
Now, I’ll ask you to magically place on your tray the following — all of your access to the Internet — your desktop computers and laptops. Next, your Blackberries and Palms. Your fax, copier, and all of your capabilities related to color television – videotape, DVDs, camcorders. All of your cell phones, iPhones. This would eliminate voice mail and text messaging – and we’ve already taken care of e-mailing.
(I thought I heard the young lady at the third table say: “He’s not getting my cell phone,” and she slid hers under her napkin.)
The other side of the scale is empty, because fifty years ago we had none of your remarkable technology. We relied on what we will call Personal Relationships. So we will place that on my side of the scale. Personal Relationships.
I will not attempt to judge how they balance out – the technology which commands a great deal of your time – and developing Personal Relationships, which took most of our time fifty years ago.
I do know that success in Public Relations relies importantly on developing trust between two people, or two organizations. I contend that the best way to generate trust is through a personal relationship – not by e-mail.
And, therefore, I ask: Are you allowing your fascination with technology – and your reliance on it, to deprive you of developing better long-term personal relationships so critical to success in Public Relations?
The wave upon wave of new technology speeds up the pace of your work and adds to the pressure imposed by a constant lack of time to do everything. It is an ongoing challenge.
But so is the need to build on Personal Relationships.
How many people have you been communicating with online for years, and yet have never once met face to face?
And while technology has significantly increased our productivity, it has also had a paralyzing effect on our Personal Relationships.
I strongly believe that your success in our profession will be judged on the quality of your skills, along with your integrity and your ability to generate trust in your relationship with others.
In failing to focus on the importance of Personal Relationships, you are depriving others of the chance to experience your most important quality, your uniqueness as a person. It is what sets you apart from all others.
It is a very personal decision that you must make. Do you allow the tide of technology to dominate your professional life, or do you find a way to use technology, but also the uniqueness that is you.
Only you can decide . . .

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3 Replies to “Larry Foster: back to real relationships, not only virtual

  1. The chance to meet face to face, preferably with the time to converse over food or a drink, is a great advantage in building relationships. But how many people do we meet with whom we rarely have a connection?

    Online tools can certainly be used to build relationships – and we need to ensure that, as Catherine and Benita say, their value and purpose is recognised. New media isn’t just about saving time and money.

    Two other dimensions, which I believe really helps build good quality relationships are (1) longevity and (2) trust.

    I also think that you should view every contact as the first step in a relationship – even if you are unlikely to come across someone again, respecting others is as vital in the online as offline world.

  2. Catherine–I cannot agree more, especially with your statement that practitioners ‘simply need to understand the difference between tools and purpose’. Technology is not the only or necessarily the best tool in all circumstances. It depends on the purpose of the communication/ conversation/ relationship. But it sure opens up avenues for putting any kind of organisation/ its PR practitioners in touch with stakeholders or other interest groups they could never dream of before.

  3. Building relationships is what we do – it is the purpose of public relations and any good practitioner is going to use a variety of approaches to accomplish this. The technology we now have available to us helps us to connect in many ways and in many places but it doesn’t cement the relationship – simply facilitates the start and development of a conversation that will lead to a relationship.

    This technology also enables and facilitates relationships between people who would not otherwise have crossed paths – this very blog is evidence of that – and because minds meet in different ways in a different place, often very different thinking results.

    As I’ve said all along, the technology is an additional set of very powerful tools that help us do our job and although they are disruptive technologies (where are you Markus?) that neatly cut through hierarchical structures and open up (to some at least) previously unattainable channels of communication, the human connection is always the one we are looking to achieve.

    But – and here is where I might have to disagree slightly with the excellent comments above – technology doesn’t have a paralyzing effect on our personal relationships. On the contrary, it has mobilized many new relationships across the world, allowed people to listen to other points of view and perspectives, talk to each other (don’t limit the use of technology to text alone!) and, by listening to each other’s stories, understand a little better what other people face and the impact our organisations may be having – all of which gives us the power to change for the better (although sadly, some use the tools to change things for the worse).

    From a practical point of view (and again, I’ve said this heaps before so I won’t go on about it), we have to be able to build relationships online and offline and understand how to develop and integrate both sets in order to achieve balanced, workable relationships between our organisations and the communities that emerge as a result of our activities.

    So I wouldn’t think that practitioners need to to make any big decisions as such. They simply need to understand the difference between tools and purpose, have the skills to facilitate understanding and balance and assimilate and master new relationship-building processes as and when they become available – without throwing the baby out with the bath water (as my old mum used to say).

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