Back in September, Heather Yaxley launched a fascinating and heated debate on the role of PR under the fairly tame title “A radical view of PR“. One thread of the debate centred on whether the PR professional should be representing external views to management or simply representing the organization’s position.
I would like to revisit the topic by introducing research from two other fields: visual perception and evolutionary biology.
Many of you have probably seen the video of white-clad and black-clad people playing basketball. When audiences are asked to focus on the white-shirted players, a very large proportion of people completely fail to see to a gorilla that walks very prominently into the scene for several seconds. This phenomenon is called “inattentional blindness” and seems to be related to another phenomenon called “change blindness”. In both cases, researchers have noted a striking failure to report an object or event that should be quite visible, if the subjet’s attention is diverted. Such discoveries have caused researchers to totally revise their ideas about how our vision works and help us understand how prestidigitation works, why eye witnesses so often tell differing tales, and how an entire financial system can fail to acknowledge blindingly obvious home truths.
The second point that I would like to raise is the definition of altruism. Our social definition implies doing something for others with no apparent gain for the doer. However, scientists have recently shown that altruism in fact makes us feel good. Brain scans show that the pleasure centres are more active during an act of altruism than they would be otherwise. This is probably because of something biologists already knew: apparent altruism in nature is just another survival tactic. In some cases, biological altruism helps increase the ability of the organism to pass on its own genes. In other cases, the benefit accrues to the community or species. But there is still a payback.
Combining these two things and applying them to the world of PR, I would argue that this is what stakeholder relations is all about: perpetuating the organization’s chances of survival by using stakeholder perspectives to help overcome inattentional blindness. If management is staring at the white shirts, a stakeholder looking at the black ones might hep them see the gorilla before it’s too late.