BLEDing-edge public relations research in 2012
Bled Symposium 2012 summary by Toni Muzi Falconi
Ten years ago, in July 2002, some 100 scholars and professionals from many European countries met in Bled, Slovenia, to discuss and launch the Bled Manifesto, possibly the single most important document concerning our profession to date; this document has had a huge impact on developments in Europe and around the world.
Bled is a cozy little lakeside village in Slovenia where, since 1993, Dejan Verčič and his team have been recruiting many of the best world thinkers and doers in, for or about public relations, to attend the conference every first weekend of July.
A decade after the Manifesto was written, some of the same and many new academics and practitioners from more regions of the world met in July 2012 for two days of discussion on the status of the profession.
Bled Symposium 2012 comprised 26 papers, as well as several panels and discussions (including a formal plenary session where Slovenia’s president recognized—in their presence—the major impact Larissa and James Grunig have had on our global discipline). The line up was too rich and diversified for one person to summarize; interested individuals are invited to check out the full program.
Instead, what I’d like to do—following the just-released results of the European Communication Monitor 2012 (ECM) presented by Ansgar Zerfass—is comment on some of its more interesting findings on the state of the profession, also relating them to the contents of some of the other Bled 2012 presentations. One may read and download the full ECM study and its more-recent annual dynamics.
European Communication Monitor 2012 (ECM)
This report immediately and transparently indicates that, by not being able to indicate the universe (composed of high-level professionals in Europe), the 2.185 participants from 42 countries should not be considered a representative sample, but rather a universe in itself. This is relevant, as most of the self-selection online surveys (30 questions to this one) neglect to indicate this caveat. We are so used to interpreting opinion surveys to back our own opinions or “confirmation bias,” that we seldom realize by doing so that we’re fooling ourselves.
The respondents defined themselves as:
- chief communication officers (CCOs) of organizations or CEOs of consultancies (43 per cent)
- managers of a specific discipline in a public relations department (29 per cent)
- with the remaining (21 per cent) as team members or consultants
Of these: 30.5 per cent operate in western Europe, 29.2 per cent in southern Europe, 29 per cent in northern Europe and 10.6 per cent in eastern Europe.
The survey indicates that ethical issues are more relevant today than they were five years ago (57.6 per cent), mostly due to the:
- increase of compliance and transparency norms (77.3 per cent)
- use and abuse of social media (72.3 per cent)
- growing complexity of international communication practices (57.4 per cent)
Specifically, consultants, as well as public affairs and government relations practitioners in organizations, say they encounter the most ethical challenges.
Codes of ethics are hardly ever referred to or used—only 29 per cent of respondents have referred to a code at least once—while 32 per cent believe codes are all outdated. However, 93 per cent believe that a code is needed, while 30 per cent attribute this compliance role to the national association of professionals and 28 per cent attribute it to international associations. (Interestingly, only 10 per cent indicated governments should be responsible for compliance.) Even non-members believe that professional associations are the most suitable providers.
Complementary ethical challenges in New Zealand; CIPR (UK) booklet
This is a first point to comment: scholar Margalit Toledano presented an interesting summary of focus groups she conducted with New Zealand practitioners to understand if the digital environment has substantially changed the nature of ethical challenges. The answer, of course, yes it has, but the specific practices mentioned by participants were not as many as one may have anticipated; fewer than 10, in fact.
SEO practices—specifically, when we interact with algorithms rather than persons, to change the public visibility of specific content in search engines.
astro-turfing campaigns—when we create fictitious organizations to run public opinion initiatives, not citing the real subject who is actually performing and paying for the exercise.
transparency—when we use false identities to intervene in discussions and express opinions or one-sided facts to prove a point for our clients or employee organizations.
Regarding another aspect of the ethics issue, there appears from the survey a blatant contradiction between the claim that ethical challenges have increased, that codes of practice are irrelevant, yet needed, and that the challenges and tasks lie with professional organizations.
A possible interpretation is that codes are nice-to-have Linus-like blankets, in order to give us the ability to cite them with others (i.e., our stakeholders) but we do little, if anything, to apply them.
An ancient issue, I agree, but here the concept is more bluntly stated. And again, repeated, when the study reveals that 70 per cent of respondents believe that national or international accreditation programs can only help improve the reputation and the recognition of the field, but only 58 per cent agree that a global accreditation system will help, and 54 per cent that accreditation as such ensures practitioners receive proper knowledge of recent communication tools and trends.
In short, we do not believe that what we do with our public relations codes or accreditation programs are really useful, but we do them in order to improve our reputation.
If that is the case, aren’t we victims of our own hype? And where is the behaviour/communication link?
As for regulation of the profession only 10 per cent believe this task should be entrusted to government in the interest of the public, rather than to associations in the interest of its members. A very interesting paper presented by Estelle de Beer from the University of Pretoria explained in details the process that PRISA (the Southern Africa public relations institute) has initiated to eventually regulate the profession.
Eighty-four per cent of respondents cite as the major barrier to success the lack of understanding of communication practice within top management. As the second major challenge, 75 per cent also indicate, difficulties of the profession itself to prove its impact on organizational goals.
Once again, it appears that we ourselves complain that others do not understand us more than we complain about our own ineffectiveness to prove that what we do is valuable.
Evaluation and measurement in the USA
This latter point correlates with the data supplied by University of Southern California’s Jerry Swerling, presenting on the USC Annenberg Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center’s seventh biennial Communication and Public Relations Generally Accepted Practices (GAP VII) study of the PR market in the United States, where it indicates that, compared to 2010, American organizations have increased their investments in evaluation and measurement from 6 per cent to 9 per cent of the total investment in public relations activities. See the highlights and/or download the full study.
While I am at it, another interesting data from the GAP study is that, compared to two years ago, PR practitioners dealing with customer relations has jumped from 5 to 15 per cent; this is clearly a consequence of social media.
Where time is spent
Ninety-two per cent of the European responders say that, compared to five years ago, corporate organizational narrative is created by all its members interacting with stakeholders, and 82 per cent say that there are more touch points with their publics.
Although the majority of productive time still goes to operational communication, this is not more than 37 per cent of a typical week, while 29 per cent accounts for planning, organizing, leading staff, evaluating strategies, preparing for crises.
By comparison, reflective activities(i.e., aligning communication with the organisation’s stakeholders) take 19 per cent of the time, while educative activities (i.e., coaching, training and educating members of the organization) take up almost 15 per cent of the time.
Coping with the digital revolution is still the most important strategic issue for 46 per cent of respondents, while 44 per cent say it is the effective linking of business strategy and communication. Thirty-four per cent instead indicate the need to address more audiences and channels with limited resources, at par with helping management take strategic decisions.
Advisory influence (the perception of how seriously senior managers take recommendations of communication professionals) has decreased from 78 per cent in 2011 to 70 per cent in 20012, while executive influence (the perception of how likely communication representatives will be invited to senior-level meetings dealing with organizational strategic planning) had also decreased from 77 to 72 per cent.
The digital environment
As for the digital environment, not surprisingly respondents of previous years had overestimated the growth of social media (online communities were forecasted to increase 82.2 per cent in 2011 versus the actual increase being recognized as 75.8 per cent this year, etc.), but of course this still remains a major challenge for organizations.
If one compares the American data with the European, the former appears to make much more use of online communities (67.7 per cent versus 50.4 per cent), microblogs and Twitter (59.2 per cent versus 39.5 per cent), etc.
Training, professional development and management qualifications
As for training and professional development, the most important providers are national professional Associations, but companies use universities significantly more often (42 per cent) than governmental (32 per cent) or NGOs (31 per cent).
As for management qualifications, while the gap between communication skills development offering is 1.4 per cent higher than the actual need, the gap inverts significantly in management skills (-22.1 per cent), management knowledge (-30.6 per cent), business knowledge (-22.3 per cent) and so on.
I am well aware of the limitations of this guest post summary. I strongly suggest that interested readers look up all the Bled Symposium papers that are due to appear soon on the bledcom.com website.
On the other hand, the integration of the results of the two quantitative reports by Zerfass and Swerling, with the very interesting qualitative effort conducted by Jon White for the CIPR (and also presented in Bled) on “PR in 2020” (read it here), might lead one to believe that indeed there has been in these last 10 years a significant change in the profession and that, at least in part, this change has also been determined by us!
I hope you take advantage of some of this fascinating reading, so that you can better appreciate the wonderful and inspiring Bled Symposium offered in 2012. (Videos of lectures from #bledcom12 are now available on YouTube.)