Don Bates: turning theory into practice. An integrated software platform.

In replying to a comment by Don Bates to a recent post on this blog, I invited him to write a guest post to better illustrate the reasons why he believes that a specific, existing and comprehensive software program (comPro Executive) can significantly support public relations professionals in adopting and adapting a new global stakeholder relationship governance operating platform which, together with many other scholars and professionals all over the world (although we might call it differently..), I believe is needed to grow and consolidate the role of public relations in today’s society.

Basically, he says, as many old and new professions have changed their conceptual and operative perspectives through the adoption of technology, so can public relations.

Thank you, Don, and here goes

Per your request, here’s an update on the first complete software for the strategic management of public relations and related functions.

Yes, the software is indeed an evolution of the Bütschi-Steyn model. It’s called comPro Executive and will be launched in the U.S. later this year or early next.

I have become an enthusiastic supporter of the software for many reasons, not only for what it can do in very practical terms now, but for what it can do, longer term, to help establish a digital framework for strategically planning, managing and evaluating the full range of public relations and public affairs functions in any organization.

Importantly, the software offers much more than media management and monitoring systems, embracing inter alia issues along with stakeholder management, investor relations, community relations, crisis communication, reputation management, and communication strategy.
It facilitates an organization’s positioning with respect to social responsibility and governance, and the communication opportunities and issues that emerge.
I’m enthusiastic enough about comPro Executive that I recently bought shares in support of its further development and have agreed to assist in its U.S. launch.

For me, the Bütschi-Steyn model (and similar software that I’m sure will surface in the near future) provides a much-needed tool for implementing Jim Grunig’s view, most conspicuously – and the views of other intellectual leaders around the world – regarding how we should practice in the years ahead.
As Jim wrote in one of the documents you referred to in your excellent September 12 post on “What Comes After Grunig”: “Shifting the public relations paradigm from a symbolic interpretive approach to a strategic, behavioral approach is crucial in a global, digital world.”

Introduced in June, 2005, at the 2nd World PR Festival in Trieste, comPro Executive has evolved over the past four years to become a fully functioning software that now includes environmental assessment for identifying strategic issues and risks that need to be dealt with by top management at the enterprise or institutional level. Equally important, the software facilitates the formulation of measurement and evaluation requirements in advance of executing communication tactics. M&E become part of the strategy and planning process from the outset, not slapped on towards the end.

Another evolution is the software’s archive function, which can be used to preserve and index public relations and public affairs plans, evaluation reports, case studies, professional advisories, lectures, articles, white papers, and other documents that collectively represent a customized digital library of strategic content – the historical memory, if you will, for the organization in question. The archives also provide a repository of best principles and practices that can be used for staff development, management training, and other internal purposes.

The software’s stakeholder management has been strengthened to provide a more powerful tool for tracking relevant stakeholder groups and recording the contact history. Most important, the software tightly integrates stakeholder relations and issues management as the pillars of strategic PR management.

Although the two-way interactive stakeholder (engagement) approach is at the core of the software’s structure and deliverables, it can be used to implement the perspective of its user through the goals and objectives that are set—be it reputation management or publicity or persuasion if that it is how a given entity views its communication priorities.

Although the software makes it easy for users to practice what Grunig and others preach, it’s clear that most professional public relations and public affairs practitioners still practice PR from a largely tactical perspective. This doesn’t mean they don’t apply strategy to what they do, or think strategically when they act. Some do. But most depend on serendipitous formation and execution, belying the seriousness with which Grunig and others rightly see the public relations role in the larger world of human relations.

Most resist putting their own and the profession’s feet to the fire when it comes to planning, managing and evaluating in a more organized and structurally integrated fashion that can meet the rigorous demands of today’s CEO’s and CFO’s. Too many practitioners still depend on creativity to make their case for PR/PA’s return on investment, in part because the C Suite and others in top management still view them as publicity specialists and media magicians, not thoughtful communication leaders who are an integral part of the top management team’s search for solutions to organizational challenges.

So, getting practitioners to look at new ways to run the public relations function isn’t easy. They are suspicious of tools that allow them to establish benchmarks by which they can measure themselves when it comes to adding value to corporate goals such as social responsibility, reputational integrity, sustainability, sound governance, transparency, legitimacy, and now authenticity.

Unlike engineers, human resource professionals, attorneys, doctors, and other well-accepted professions, public relations practitioners have yet to embrace technology as a tool for evaluating and improving their efficiency and effectiveness in the larger sense.
But in a very real sense they no longer have the luxury of avoiding the inevitable.
With software like comPro Executive, they can’t duck the fundamental proposition – i.e., if they want to be fully accepted by top management, they need to embrace tools that will help them provide the metrics and reports that top managers are comfortable having as intelligence for their executive decisions.

The public relations and public affairs profession has taken to technology as a tool for media relations and other everyday communications.

The next step is for the profession to take advantage of technology to support its top-most management concerns – to be seen, to be heard, to be listened to, to be judged as much more than media mavens and buffers to stakeholder demands.

Yes, there is a learning curve involved – but public relations and public affairs professionals are among the fastest learners in the world.
I am optimistic that they will do what’s necessary that a new generation of software is available to help lead the way.

(Here is the presentation of ComPro Executive which Don mentions in a comment included in the discussion below..toni).

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16 Replies to “Don Bates: turning theory into practice. An integrated software platform.

  1. As Don says, this is about far more than software. The driving force behind this software is to benefit the PR profession, to increase it effectiveness and efficiency. As such, it needs the input ‘of the profession.’

    The first infant step towards a comprehensive software for PR has been taken—something that looks at the field in its totality, and not at one of its individual parts. Something tangible has been put on the table. The invitation is to tear it apart (like you would in any good class discussion).

    Tell Don and me which important needs of practitioners have not been addressed. Which important theories that can make a real difference to the lives of practitioners have not been ‘operationalised’? Which important approach to PR that can directly benefit the profession can not be accommodated within the software?

    It is answers to these questions that will help us move forward. As Don said, “there are many new thinkers in the PR/PA world who will bring new ideas and concepts to the practice and the pedagogy.” Let us hear from them. But also let us hear about the needs of those who struggle daily to make the PR world a better place.

    There is only one condition. Take a good look at the software — and say what is missing.

  2. You’re welcome Bill. This is about far more than software, of course, but software is a strong beginning. It makes concrete what we talk about every day. It puts our feet to the fire. In the not too distant future we will have our own MBA-type curriculum and it will be because of people like you who think beyond the strictures of today. Keep on keeping on as they said in the 60’s. Action speaks louder than words.

  3. Bill/Benita

    I love the dialogue of smart people. You are both correct in so many ways. You are right Bill when you say:

    “Even allowing that this software serves as a useful checklist and template, who is going to teach users how to fill it in? That calls for original thinking, critical analysis, problem-solving abilities, and –above all—experience and judgment.”

    That is why, as Benita outlines, we have instituted the Capacity Building Workshop on the front end of comPro Executive so that those who are not up-to-speed with all that Bill suggests can learn what they don’t know. All software requires training. Just look at all the time and attention we have had to devote over the years to “standardized” PC products.

    Going forward, any PR/PA software must be more than a planning, management and evaluation platform even though that is its key function. It also has to be a robust training platform that allows for individual and group teaching of users along with archiving of relevant teaching materials, how-to/why-to advice and counsel, case studies, prior year plans, etc., so that the organization in question has a history that it can’t forget. More important, a history that it can use to increase PR/PA’s value and ROI.

    With comPro Executive, I think we have created a forum for a new phase of thinking about the future of the PR/PA profession and the role that software will play in its development both at the practice level and in academia. We all need to tie what is taught about PR/PA with how it is practiced while keeping the bar of professional vision and achievement as high as we can. Jim Grunig, agree with his views or not, has given us the theoretical framework to assist us. comPro Executive would not exist without the research he has done and the knowledge he has imparted.

    That said, we know that there are many new thinkers in the PR/PA world who will bring new ideas and concepts to the practice and the pedagogy. They will certainly refine what Jim has done and many will make their own original contributions to PR/PA theory. You can be sure that we will build the best of this thinking into future editions of comPro Executive.

    Without the researched input of teachers and intellectually disposed practitioners, the profession will never move far beyond the dominant media relations approach of today. As important as media relations is, it limits and often trivializes PR/PA’s involvement in the larger communication issues challenging the future of for-profit and not-for-profit enterprise.

  4. Benita: First, thank you for the clarification and contextual reminder. Points well worth making.
    Yes, I agree the software is better than nothing, but it presents the risk of becoming the proverbial lamp post–used for support rather than illumination. One must still learn how to formulate measurable objectives and realistic strategies/tactics for achieving them. That is often the product of much hard work, reading, research, and thinking about the best application of process to a given problem.
    And good God–I’ve faced rather large classes in introductory courses, but 450? You are blessed with bountiful interest, if not the resources to meet it.

  5. Bill, if you were a PR (or marketing or business management) educator in South Africa and faced university classes of around 450 third yr students (like I did) or 2000 first year students (like some of my colleagues), I am sure you would have forgiven me if I got enthusiastic, even carried away, by the possibility of acquiring a digital tool to assist in the education process.

    Because you would have known that many high school and even tertiary educators (at some institutions in Africa) don’t have the capacity for scientific teaching since they don’t have master’s and PhDs themselves, or the opportunities to acquire it. ANY instrument that can therefore assist in laying the foundations of science in a domain is highly appreciated by both teachers and students—however flawed it may be.

    Anyway, I didn’t say that comPro Executive “will turn public relations into a science”. Rather, I said that “it enables you to follow a scientific approach to public relations without having a PhD or master’s degree. As a matter of fact, you don’t need any tertiary training at all“, (meaning with this) to follow a scientific approach to PR if you follow the guidelines in the software. I hope that you now better understand the context in which it was said. I am certainly not saying that ‘nobody needs tertiary training’—I would be doing myself out of a job if I did.

    What I also want to make clear is that one doesn’t need a PhD or master’s degree or any tertiary training to be able to OPERATE the software. However, for optimal use, it is of course highly advisable that a user initially undergoes training.

    • Of course, to start with, all users always need technical training (in how to operate the system).

    • Further training in the conceptual foundations of the software is advisable, for the reasons you mentioned above. Exactly how much, depends on the background, experience and knowledge of the user.

    • For instance, an experienced PR practitioner will have little trouble developing and implementing PR plans and activities on the software but might need capacity building to contribute to communication and enterprise strategy development. A Fortune 500 PR Executive will however be comfortable with the latter.

    • As I already explained above, the ‘Explanation Mode’ is there for practitioners at any level to teach or improve themselves, if so inclined. For instance, junior practitioners might be reporting to an older, very experienced practitioner but the latter might not be able to provide direction with regards to newer developments. With the software, such junior staff can improve themselves.

    • I do however think that, prior to using it, it is advisable that all practitioners in a PR division undergo training in the principles on which the software rests, to make sure that everybody is on the same page and have a common framework.

    To answer your question on who will do the training: Digital Management offers Capacity Building workshops and consultation to ensure that users understand the conceptual foundations upon which the software rests and can use it optimally. I cannot speak on behalf of Digital Management, but I would guess that Gerhard would be more than willing to speak to any tertiary institution or professional association that wants to get involved in the training.

    One last point—the software is but a digital mirror of the processes you spelled out above. If practitioners were fortunate enough to have received a tertiary education, they were trained in these processes by educators. But who is currently training those thousands that were not so fortunate? Who is correcting practitioners in the workplace who are “confusing tactics with objectives”? In many cases, nobody. Isn’t a software that provides guidance in such cases better than nothing?

  6. Bill, you just saved one hundred bucks (but I’ll demand free coffee the first time we meet….).
    Just received this from Don:

    Dear Toni,

    For further information on Digital Management’s comPro Executive software, your viewers can review the company’s short presentation on the software’s conceptual framework (this has been uploaded at the very end of the original post simply because I don’t know how to do it otherwise..toni).

    They can also visit the DM website (www.digitalmgmt.com ).

    Lastly, they can request an online demonstration.

    If they are in the U.S., they can contact me at batesdon1@msn.com or 917-913-8940.

    If they are in Europe, they can contact info@digitalmgmt.com or +41 43 817 02 52.

    Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA

  7. Anyone who believes that this software will turn public relations into a “science,” either doesn’t know what science is or they are fooling themselves.

    Even allowing that this software serves as a useful checklist and template, who is going to teach users how to fill it in? That calls for original thinking, critical analysis, problem-solving abilities, and –above all—experience and judgment.

    If the communication objectives you set forth aren’t really in alignment with the enterprise objectives, will the program tell you that? If you are confusing tactics with objectives, will it correct you? If your list of objectives and tactics is so long that it amounts to little more than a wish list—will the program step in and force you to make changes? I don’t see any of that in the promotional copy.

    Moreover, if the public relations programs and plans that result from using this software are anything like the vague and generally worded promotional copy for it, they are doomed to failure.

    Nevertheless, I’d pay a hundred bucks for the graphics.

  8. Toni, I think you have hit upon the core of the resistance to change (which includes a resistance to technology). In essence, this is based on fear of the unknown, a very human emotion!

    Borrowing the Institute of PR’s motto, I think a software platform such as comPro Executive represents “the science beneath the art of public relations”. With some exceptions, most PR practitioners have been trained in Faculties of Arts/Humanities, i.e. in the ‘art of public relations’. This has resulted in a certain (creative) mindset, i.e. “don’t box me in” or “PR’s contribution cannot or doesn’t need to be measured”.

    This is a mindset which limits the effectiveness and efficiency of the PR function (whether you are a PR practitioner working in a business or government organisation; a consultant advising such an organisation; or an educator training the people who will work in or consult such an organisation). Whether in business or government, the PR practitioner today is expected to contribute to organisational performance, which in this century translates to keeping your organisation/ client in touch with stakeholder and societal realities.

    If PR practitioners want to excel at this, it is necessary to embrace “the science of public relations” which isn’t necessarily ‘rocket science.’ However, science of any kind presupposes a structured, focused, disciplined approach — in the case of the software platform an integrated, strategic approach to the planning, implementation and evaluation of public relations (which by no means implies ‘rigidity’).

    One of the outstanding characteristics of the software (developed in Zurich by Gerhard Butschi and his IT engineer, Roger Imholz) is that it enables you to follow a scientific approach to public relations without having a PhD or master’s degree. As a matter of fact, you don’t need any tertiary training at all — the ‘science of public relations’ is embedded in the foundations of the software.

    The ‘art of public relations’ is still up to you. The software provides the templates (the skeleton) based on best practice and theory from around the world, but YOU still have to complete and ‘flesh them out’. Technology here is an enabler, a multiplier, but it cannot replace the practitioner and the ‘art’ he or she brings to public relations.

    Few would disagree that we need both “the science and the art of public relations”. The problem is that we usually have either one or the either. In the software, for the first time, Mars and Venus meet and co-habit in a harmonious relationship!

    My interest in getting involved in the software was as an educator teaching PR on the ‘dark continent’. Previously a practitioner, I wanted to bring theory to practice — to see Venus and Mars walk hand in hand, if only for once in my (academic) life! I already knew it was possible because I have seen the ‘lights go on’ in the eyes and minds of master’s students, some of whom had no previous degrees (having entered through the route of ‘prior experience’).

    It was a concern (and frustration) to me that such a very small percentage of practitioners (especially in Africa) will ever be exposed to the ‘science of public relations’. So when I met Gerhard in Slovenia and he showed me the beta version of his software, I thought: “Eureka, this is it” –technology is the way for each and every practitioner to share in the delight shown by students who were advantaged enough to enrich themselves with knowledge.

    Hence, my condition to Gerhard for becoming involved in the software development was that, in addition to the “Data Entry Mode”, there must be an “Explanation View or Mode” containing best practice principles and theory so that practitioners who don’t have the opportunity or finances for study can teach themselves and so that we can have a digital tool for training ‘computer savvy’ students. Thank you Gerhard, for such ‘socially responsible’ behaviour – I know very well that this resulted in the software taking muchhhh longer to develop than anticipated. But I firmly believe that it was worth every minute!!

  9. I can envision no way in which comPro professional might eliminate the creative component of public relations practice. Rather, comPro assembles in one place and makes readily accessible all of the information necessary to implement the process efficiently and effectively.

    Users still are required to fashion messages in ways that will motivate audiences. And intellect even greater than what was required a few decades ago still is essential in selecting media channels, analyzing results, and fine-tuning programs.

    In a world of ever-increasing complexity — in communication and elsewhere — comPro professional can keep practitioners “on track” by making certain they consider all of the variables involved in sound decision-making. The program also creates an “institutional memory” to ensure that organizations remember what has been done before and can focus more energy on improving results.

    A strong argument could be made that comPro Professional will guard against blunders; will enhance performance and productivity; and will make the novice professional “look good.” I can conceive of no circumstances, however, in which it might supplant the creativity that is at the heart of public relations practice. Deteriorating grammar standards notwithstanding, there always will be a marked difference between a good product and a poor one.

    comPro Professional can do many things, and I endorse it whole-heartedly, but it will never turn mediocre writers into good ones, or engender creativity among the conceptually insensitive.

    What it will do is enhance performance in the technical aspects of the discipline and, in the hands of creatively-endowed novices, make them much greater competitive threats to senior praactitioners. This, in my opinion, should be a real source of concern to those whose sole claim to professional status is survival over time.

  10. Not all are aware that, some time back, the Global Alliance had embraced an earlier version of the platform and repeatedly offered it to all its members with steeping discounts for their professional training uses, including a substantive commission for any organizational pick up.

    I don’t know what happened to Prinz at the time, but I can testify that most large associations shuddered at the thought that any of their members might be interested in adopting a platform which, together with many attributes,also demistified and reduced to simple ‘bytes’what many still today consider the ‘art’ of public relations.

    Also, we made presentations of the platform in Italy to large companies, universities and the association. Curiosity, interest but no action. The lame alibi was that the platform is in english (as if SAP was in Italian…). The truth is exactly what Bill Brody says ‘we have never done this, we have always done that’.

    This was way before the current economic discontinuity, and the earlier version (my personal opinion…) was somewhat too swiss-german in the sense of its rigidity (tipical italian sterotypes of course, Gherard….).

    Personally, I can only recall my colleagues faces when, back in the mid eighties, the gorel (relationship governance) process was introduced in Italy…which certainly did not have a software component at the time, but simply relied on a focus on evaluation and measurement.
    Yet, today, twenty four years later, the process is adopted by many, many organizations and universities, and not only in Italy.

    Or, more recently, when Kristen Johnson and I elaborated on knowledge management processes as a tool to capture and allow organizations to add value to their relationship networks by better understanding how the personal influence model of public relations works.
    A very loud silence..at least for now.

    The real resistance to change is not in organizations, but in us…

  11. Thank you Don for this interesting update on the way in which strategic communication theory (which evolved in South Africa from the Grunig’s Excellence Theory) is now applied in a useful tool for practitioners. This seems indeed to be an application of theory in a way that makes sense to the new generation of highly computer literate practitioners.
    As a lecturer of first year students at the University of Pretoria, I know that it is difficult to keep their interest in anything that does not involve new media or digital competencies. I think this platform will make a wonderful teaching tool.
    I am also involved in teaching Strategic Corporate Communication on a Masters level at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. The students in this course are practitioners who decided for various reasons to ‘go back to school’ to upgrade their qualifications. I have practitioners of varying experenience levels in class – sometimes people who have worked in the industry for 15 or 20 years. All of them agree that the knowledge of Strategic Corporate Communication as set out by Steyn (one half of the Steyn-Bütschi partnership) finally give them a way to enter into higher levels of management and to confidently function on a strategic level in their organisations.
    Learning to use this platform should not be that difficult for people who have passed through a course based on Strategic Corporate Communication theory.
    This seems to be an excellent way in which theory meets practice. It also shows how stakeholder relationships can be governed in practice according to the recently published chapter on Stakeholder Relations Governance in the King III report.

  12. I agree with the comments about the need to educate top management … we (PRINZ) are in the process of surveying CEO’s and HR recruiters in an attempt to reinforce the spread of communication expertise needed currently. From my own research in this matter, I found that the behavious of practitoners was the single most important factor in changing perceptions. So, equipping practitioners with new tools which demonstrate professionalism in a wider range of accountabilities would be a great statement.

    It’s also true here in New Zealand that ‘too many practitioners still depend on creativity to make their case for PR/PA. But they are open to new ways of presenting their case. Several senior practitoners turned up to my presentation on business perceptions of PR in an attempt to sharpen their pitches and to see how they were coming across currently. There is interest in change.

    Although some may be suspicious of tools that measure added value I think we would welcome any help we could get in terms of seed planting (and plant development) of social responsibility, reputational integrity, sustainability, sound governance, transparency, legitimacy, authenticity (and you might want to add cultural relevance given the diversity element that we are encountering with increasing force).

    Further to Toni’s comment, I wonder if the PRINZ executive might be a place to introduce the software to New Zealand. That illustrious body contains academics, consultants, and in-house members from across the country …a good range I would have thought.

  13. Bill,
    I like the feedback from your doctoral seminar and I believe it applies also to some participants of the discussion which is going on in the post related to the two recent grunig contributions.

    Don,
    as you know I have long been a fan of the ComPro platform and I am sure that many professionals are curious. Is there anyway you could share with us a link where we might be able to learn more about it and maybe even test it? I remember that once Gherard Butschi allowed me to test the platform for a few days. Could something like this be made available for visitors of prconversations?

  14. Don’s portrayal of comPro Executive is quite accurate. I was privileged to beta test an early version with a graduate public relations class at The University of Memphis several years ago. The outcomes were enlightening.

    The students’ work was orders of magnitude better than what I’d seen in the same course in earlier semesters, but they complained at length over the steepness of the comPro learning curve (the program’s help screens then were in their infancy).

    The current iteration of comPro is superior in too many respects to enumerate here. The program requires considerable input to be optimally productive but the output — especially over time — more than justifies that effort.

    The least experienced of practitioners can do a consistently credible job via comPro.

    Applied across a public relations curriculum and accompanied by adequate documentation for students and faculty, the program also can turn almost any student into a capable practitioner.

    If there is a downside to comPro it will materialize through the human tendency to resist change, as succinctly described to me years ago in a doctoral seminar: “There always are two reasons not to change. Reason One is ‘we’ve never done it that way,’ and Reason Two is in ‘we’ve always done it the other way.'”

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