Marriage of European and North American PR thought leadership
By Fraser Likely
Even for those in the public relations and communication management field who paid the slightest bit of attention to international developments over this past summer, the Stockholm Accords and the Barcelona Principles came as a surprise. Certainly, for those of us based in North America, the surprise may have had an element of shock to it.
I am not talking about the content of each of these documents. There is considerable comment already on whether the text of these documents is:
- simply stating the obvious
- missing in so much substance and breadth as to be meaningless
- badly written; or
- all of the above
I come down squarely on the fence.
For example, stating in the Barcelona Principles that measurement must be about outcomes and not outputs could put many a measurement company out of business. Revolutionary indeed! On the other hand, reference to employee communication in the Stockholm Accords is as if the statements came from a textbook published…in 1970.
Surprises yes, but the shock I am talking about concerns the conceptualization process that led to these draft documents. The shock – for North Americans surely and perhaps for others – is that these documents were a mixture of European and North American thoughts. That is, these documents represent the “coming out” of European public relations and communication thought leadership, not to mention further representing its public marriage with North American thought leadership.
Allow me a few points in support of this hypothesis.
1. Stockholm and Barcelona vs. New York and San Francisco
Why Stockholm and Barcelona and not New York and San Francisco? The short answer might address the levels of provincialism in the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and of the internationalism in the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC).
The long answer might address the source of the profession’s thought leadership today and the role of organizations such as the:
- International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC)
- Global Alliance of Public Relations and Communication Management (GA)
- Institute for Public Relations (IPR)
- European Public Relations Education and Research Association (Euprera)
An even longer answer might explore the continued hegemony of the North American/American model of public relations/communication practice vis-à-vis other models, in particular what is seen as a European model.
If anything, Stockholm and Barcelona represent the acknowledgement of a shift in influence. That is not to say a new dominance: the shift is recognition that there is more than one model.
A few examples of a shift would include:
- the increased international importance of the BledCom and Euprera conferences
- that AMEC is becoming the organization for measurement and evaluation experts
- that the first “International History of PR” conference was held this year on the east not west side of the Atlantic
- that the GA is based in Europe (Lugano, Switzerland); and
- the continued success of Strategic Communication Management magazine (published by Melcrum, which is headquartered in London, England)
2. Denouement of North American public relations/communication imperialism over PR language
The second point is the reflection of this shift in influence on the substance of the Stockholm Accords. In particular, the shift can be examined in how internal and external communications are approached in the Accords. One can see the butting of heads between the American and the European models of practice and the necessary saw-off or compromise.
The American model for internal communication has been driven by its style of democracy, especially its pluralistic perspective on political power. The European model is more affected by a corporatist or societal corporatist perspective on political power, particularly in Germany, Scandinavia and the former Eastern Block countries.
This plays out in real life.
For example, the worker/employee–management relationship in organizations is not the same in Europe as in America. This compromise over substance is also reflected in the language used in writing the Stockholm Accords. From a North-America perspective, if one is not current with European choice of wording (how often have you read the term “communicative organization” in American publications?) – the language chosen for the Accords may grate in places.
The strength of the Stockholm Accords is the attempt to find generic principles that bridge different:
- models of practice
- political systems; and
This same butting of heads may be seen in the Barcelona Principles around the concept of Advertising Value Equivalents (AVEs), a measurement practice employed on both sides of the Atlantic, but one that is much more prevalent in Europe, particularly the UK.
The weakness of the Stockholm Accords and the Barcelona Principles is that for many practitioners and academics, they did not go far enough; namely, in forcing compromise they limited the ability to be far-reaching, to be truly innovative.
At the very least, the Stockholm Accords and Barcelona Principles should be recognized as a first step at universality. For the substance may also be seen as the articulation of the denouement of North American public relations/communication imperialism over PR language.
3. Institutionalization by the extended family on both sides of the Atlantic
Finally, the third point to explore is the idea of input, participation and engagement in the development and acceptance of the Stockholm Accords and Barcelona Principles.
For example, the conceptualization of the Accords was done by individuals, as practitioners and academics working in this professional field, not as members or representatives of a professional association or institution. That is, they spoke for themselves, not as an authorized spokesperson for a particular group.
And, participation in this conceptualization was open to all – no matter where in the world one was located. In other words, if you wanted to be part of the conceptualization process, joining up was easy. Anyone who didn’t participate at the conceptualization stage can only cite one barrier to their engagement in the process: him or herself.
It’s interesting then, that it was a self-selected group of “keeners” who debated and wrote the Stockholm Accords. (For anyone interested, there is an extended electronic trail as to how the wordings of the various sections came to be.)
Isn’t that what modern communication/relationship building is all about –
- diffused power
- stakeholder strength
- influencers who are “people just like you and me?”
With the Barcelona Principles, they were driven more than the Stockholm Accords by an organization, in this case the AMEC, although debate occurred in a forum where members and non-members participated.
However, ratification and conceptualization are different.
The attendees of both the World Public Relations Forum in Stockholm, Sweden, and the AMEC’s 2nd European Conference on Measurement in Barcelona, Spain (both held in June 2010), had the opportunity to first debate and then accept the submitted draft documents. Most importantly, though, attendees represented themselves. They did not speak for nor vote on behalf of any association in which they were a member.
The delegates of the two conferences, however, carry no institutional weight. The Stockholm Accords, for example, remain a “living green” document, now housed for ongoing discussion in its own electronic “Hub” on the GA’s website.
Who actually ratifies the Accords and how it is done are the next questions. If national PR and communication associations only represent 10 per cent of all practitioners in any given country, does this carry the critical mass required if a national (or international) association signs on?
And if individual practitioners, regardless of whether they are an association member or not, voted electronically and 70 per cent of all practitioners in a given country or across the globe voted in the affirmative, how do stakeholders proceed so that the Stockholm Accords are actually institutionalized?
With regard to the Barcelona Principles, AMEC is a growing association, but as yet it does not include all measurement experts, companies or individuals. Again, nothing has been finalized.
And, this is the most important next step: how in fact will both documents be moved forward and made operational? Who will drive the agenda?
- public relations and communication membership associations?
- PR/communication “thought leader” institutions?
- the United Nations?
How does this marriage of thought – or, more aptly, of thought leadership – receive the blessing of the extended family on both sides of the Atlantic?
Again, for those of us based in North America, the Stockholm Accords and Barcelona Principles were a revelation. We now understand and appreciate better that there is European thought leadership – one that has its own take on PR thoughts.
Mixing these thoughts – be they academic-generated scholarly theories and principles or practitioner-generated operational theories, working principles and best practices – with those of North America is at times attempting to push a square peg into a round hole. The Stockholm Accords and the Barcelona Principles are the attempts to smooth down the sharp edges of any square pegs.
Look at the people who worked on both documents; they are a mixture of thought leaders from both sides of the Atlantic. Thought leadership in public relations and communication management is not moving to Europe from its long-standing base on the western side of the Atlantic; rather, it is now a blending of both. Even more so, our disciplines’ thought leadership is becoming a marriage on many levels: North American-European; membership association-research organizations; and even scholar-practitioner. If the Stockholm Accords and the Barcelona Principles are to bear happy children, these marriages must be consummated.
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Thanks are extended to Celia Sollows, APR, for beginning a discussion on a LinkedIn Group about the Barcelona Principles. Fraser Likely commented upon her discussion post (including some of what he’s written here). The comment led to a request for an expanded “essay” by Fraser Likely here on PR Conversations. JG
Fraser Likely, who founded Likely Communication Strategies (PR/communication management and performance consultants) in 1987, is based in Ottawa, Canada. He has been an university adjunct professor at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, is an accredited Fellow of the Canadian Public Relations Society and currently co-leads a major international IABC Research Foundation-sponsored study on the factors that influence the choices of organizational structure for communication departments.