Information overload: a public relator’s risk, but also an opportunity….

In a report here from an Iabc conference last February in Lugano I suggested a thorough consultation of Martin Eppler and Jeanne Mengis ‘s research paper on informaton overload as the best presentation of that conference.

I attached the paper, but was immediately warned by a Iabc Guardian that the paper was not for consultation by non Iabc members, and was kindly requested to take it down.

I was then (and am today) happy to be a member of Ferpi where any knowledge produced by the association is for open access to anyone interested….because Ferpi’s mission is to satisfy the interest’s of its member’s stakeholders, rather than those of members, which can well be looked after directly by them.

For many years, I have been arguing that we, as public relators, have been consistently irresponsible by polluting the communication and information environment.

This, way before the Internet had appeared on the horizon.

In those times, we were simply not sufficiently aware that many of our contents, normally and historically focussed towards specific segments of influential opinion were -for many other publics to whom these contents were regularly distributed… limited only by the real cost of production and distribution- useless, possibly counterproductive and certainly time consuming.

The Internet has of course greatly increased the relevance of this issue, and we are certainly today one of those so-called knowledge based professions which increasingly pollute, calling for the attention of everybody and their cousin, as our spamming habits have anything but weakened, particularly, but not only, in media relation practices.

The Eppler/Mengis paper (here a brief summary) intelligently sheds some light into this syndrome and conceptualizes processes and methods which help us rethink our own production and distribution processes so that the contents we create and distribute assume more specific relevance for those whose attention we really wish to attract.

In fact, at least in this case, the Internet has actually removed in relevant ‘barrier to distribution’: the economic one.
While costs of regular snail mail and printing are real.
Pdf’s of brochures and papers may be attached for free to any email message, posted on accessible and free sites where they may freely downloaded again and again….

Useless here to underline the enormous mental and psychological waste of all this, as well as the impact on everyone’s (but more specifically, the younger generations’) span of attention which scientists claim is getting shorter and shorter, as if we were undergoing a structural modification in our brainstructure….

And if I look carefully and closely at the two generations of learned humans following mine ( i.e. colleagues, my two sons, my daughter and my three grandchildren) nothing appears to be more likely.

Yet, on the other hand, information overload can be a great opportunity for the savvy public relator.
Let me give you one concrete and practical example:

John is a young college graduate and wishes to take on a career in public relations.
He knocks on many-a-door with no luck.
He is intelligent, wildly curious, well educated and is as comfortable with on line search as he is with twitter writing competencies.
I helped him along his search which went through the following phases:
a- He navigates some and identifies 100 public relations senior executives.
b- He studies each one’s interests and identifies attractive issues each is definitely interested in being updated on, not having the time and energy of doing this by him/herself.
c- He prepares a first draft of a one page note including five 134 character summaries and links to original source.
d- He invents an attractive ‘subject’ heading to stimulate each individual’s attention and sends off the page with a request of level of satisfaction and open comment to improve.
e- He receives back 10 answers.
f- The next week he goes at it again to these and adds another 50.
By the time he got to his fourth week comes he had recruited 10 clients at 100 dollars a week, four thousand dollars a month.
Not much, to be sure, but a good start.

Let me give you a second example:
my client X considers ten journalists as vitally important to the success of his organization.
Journalists today as we all know are constantly under time pressures and have limited capacities to follow their true interests, which are not always (more and more so) the ones they are forced to cover professionally.
A good media relator working with me, who knows all about the interests of those journalists, therefore begins to send to them, on behalf of his client, a highly specialised and individual service along the lines of John’s.
After the fifth week, the journalist calls to ask ‘what happened to my report this week? It hasn’t come in….’.
This is true public relations value added service to the reintermediation of mainstream media and is very beneficial to clients/employers relationships with those journalists.

After all, isn’t this what we have always been doing to improve our relationships with stakeholders?
A similar approach and solution is now being adopted for financial analysts, public policy decision makers, celebrities, opinion leaders, trade unionists, senior managers, ceo’s……..

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24 Replies to “Information overload: a public relator’s risk, but also an opportunity….

  1. Bill, I do not mind that you continue to believe that public relations is persuasion…very much of course depends on what one means by this…but I am sure that we will find an understanding…
    For me persuasion is the art and practice of making someone else behave and act according to your desire deliberately withholding information, exxagerating information or supplying him/her with misleading arguments…

    As for your second point, the situation is not so desperate as you seem to think. And maybe your perspective is shaded by the fact that you, as I, respect an old common friend who is out there to get someone else who seems to be doing much to deserve it… having both parties put themselves in a no exit position since a number of years…

    I can assure you that, for example, the CIPR (of which, by the way, I am an honorary fellow, which grants me access to some of their internal dealings..) has definitely investigated and decided recently on a number of cases which have been kept hush.
    But Colin Farrington (admitting he is reading this) might wish to weigh in on this.

    Also I am sure that other associations have also.
    In Italy for example I myself was recently investigated and in turn required investigation on a colleague on an issue related to the profession and the public interest.
    Most of these cases, as you will surely understand, never arrive to a decision simply because the offender prefers to resign rather than to face a public hearing and decision which would devastate her/his professional reputation.

  2. Toni, We will always disagree on whether public relations is persuasion or something else, SO . . .
    . . . Other than the German association, can you name one enforcement action that’s taken place in the past three years? Five years?
    Codes are fine to have, but if like yellow caution lights at traffic signals they are treated only as suggestions, then they are useless.

  3. Bill,
    may I respectfully yet radically disagree on your recipe?

    1. Body of knowledge-
    likewise many other relatively recent professional bodies of knowledge -and quite differently from the more traditional and consolidated ones who are suffering much more than us from the discontinuity which has blurred all boundaries between disciplines (medidal, legal..)- public relations practice, i.e. how it actually works (as you say) finds itself today in a radical transition from communicating-to to communicating-with; from topdown or bottom up to left-right-left; from manipulation to authenticity; from persuasiom to con-viction….

    Over these last twenty years there has been a huge surge of research, studies, conceptualization and practical experience which are available (also thanks to the Institute as you say, but also thanks to many professionals, scholars and researchers from asia, africa, europe and latin america which are not easily found not so much for language barriers but for sheer lazyness on the part of those who simply cannot stop looking back at the way things were when we were younger and public relations was basically ethnocentrically american.

    The fact that this profile has been, since the nineties, mostly rationalised and stimulated by the initiative of an american couple (of course I am referring to Laurie and James Grunig) in its endless quest to position and consolidate the thinking and the practice of public relations in that centerplace of society where organizations worldwide strive to renew every day their licence to opeate, is ironically one more reason for the benign neglect which seems to refer, both in the Us (what, who in the hell are all these new people who don’t even write in english?) and abroad (what, once again the americans want to tell us what to do after all the disasters they have caused?).

    2. Public Interest-
    I am in fairly line with Judy’s description of the public interest and I am convinced that many associations are working hard to reinforce this pillar of their policies. The fact that some are not, as you say, is also true but this doesn’t mean that one hell of a lot of effrots aren’t going on around the world, again, if we could only stop gazing at our navels…

    you seem to forget that 66 professional associations around the world have signed the Global Alliance Protocol on Ethics in Public Relations. Violations increase of course and enforcement is still a major issue, I agree. But the German case, followed by the Austrians and, now hopefully also by the Italians.. and to this if you add the strong trend towards some degree of regulation of the profession and its many practices in the UK and other areas of the world and take a ‘glass half full’ approach, we can realistically look forward to what is only a natural outcome: the regulation of our profession.

    4. Global standards-
    As for the ethics protocol the GA is working on a number of other issues conerning global standards. This is an edgy area as anything that is global and is not generic, i.e. implying that it must be practiced in the framework of each territory’s public relations infrastructure, is by definition wrong and one more imposition of few to many.

  4. And here’s a brief summary of the state of Judy’s four pillars (worthy goals, all):

    1. Body of knowledge–Shaky at best, with no organizing principle or comprehensive theory that accounts for how PR actually works, instead of how it SHOULD work. The Institute for Public Relations is addressing this, but given the current orientation of academic research, it will be years
    2. Public interest–Strong in some places, practically non-existent in others
    3. Code–Plenty of codes around; also plenty of violations and non-enforcement. PRSA is the worst offender
    4.Global standards–Just a gleam in the eye

  5. Just a point of clarification: my comments have been based on a decade of experience working with a number of trade associations (including the one I mentioned this morning but feel it better not to name for client confidentiality reasons).

    I mentioned IABC (a professional membership association) in response to Brian’s comments, but my comments refer to a much broader selection of associations.

  6. Ummm…Eric’s “remarks” matched one (maybe two) of the four pillars:

    Four Pillars of Professionalism:

    1. [Acceptance in an association dependent upon] the mastery of a recognized body of knowledge, (i.e., research, best practices and training/education).
    2. A focus on the public interest (e.g., similar to law, accounting, medicine or education). In our “profession” I would see it as a principled balance of organizational and public interests, as in corporate social responsibility. (A very critical current and future focus.)
    3. A globally harmonized and enforceable code of conduct and ethics.
    4. Global standards-setting body and regulator.

    Rather than Toni interpreting, perhaps Eric would kindly weigh in, again. I’m most interested in hearing your point of view.

    And on another note, I thought this article published about a week ago in the Globe and Mail was quite timely for the purposes of the exchange: “Sharpen the focus again on corporate social responsibility” (Note that it may not stay freely accessible much longer.)

  7. It’s not about redirecting him to another blog, Toni. It’s more like not reinventing the wheel or misunderstanding my definition of a “professional” association.

  8. Judy,
    let’s wait and see what Eric has in mind before rushing to redirect him.
    The Global Alliance has a very full plate right now, whereas this blog appears to be ‘gasping for air’ and could possibly become an ‘open journal’.
    Depends on what we are talking about….

  9. Eric, the focus is on IABC (in this post), simply because that was the association that Brian Kilgore chose to criticize. I agree with you about the need for a “well defined body of knowledge.” In fact, that was one of the areas I targeted in one of my past posts, “Industry, trade or profession? Some observations on PR associations, present and future”.

    Perhaps the Global Alliance would be the body best suited to taking up your generous offer to help set up an “open journal.”

  10. Toni — I believe that a robust and dynamic membership is the foundation of any health association. Otherwise there are no resources (human or otherwise) to accomplish anything. The very concept of an asscoiation is that “together we are stronger than we are separately”.

    That by no means implies that membership is the sole outcome of the association. The relevant stakeholders must be defined on the basis of the goals and objectives that the association sets for itself. However, an association that only sets itself “noble” goals without taking into account members’ WIIFM (what’s in it for me) motivations is not likely to be around long. Balance is critical.

  11. Eric,
    good to hear from you! As you might have noticed, with one or two exceptions, the ‘usual suspects’ of prc seem to have gone into lethargy.
    I cannot say whether this is caused by tiredness, by the idea that this space is not what they would like it to be, or -as you suggest- because there aren’t enough ‘leading thoughts’ or ‘new ideas with enough support’.
    More likely it is a combination.
    I would like to better understand what you imply when you say that an ‘open journal’ related to strategic public relations (and I will not ask you what you mean with the term ‘strategic’).
    For me, this hypothesis, coming from you, appears highly attractive.
    Would you be so kind as to elaborate?

    yes we are on the same wave leghth, I guess.
    Only one clarification:
    you seem to focus on membership as the principal scope of an association (like breathing air as the principal component of a person’s motivation).
    I am not sure if this applies to iabc (am not a member by choice…of iabc), but it certainly does not apply to any national professional association which purports to advance the creation and exchange of knowledge in society about public relations.
    When you say stakeholders, and I say stakeholders, it seems as if we are not talking about the same subjects.
    For me stakeholders are those who produce and bear consequances to and from public relators… i.e. I mean active citizenship, business, financial, political, cultural and media constituencies who are constantly impacted, for the good and the bad, by our activities.
    My conviction is that a professional association, if capable of focussing its policies and activities on governing relationships with these groups will not only improve the public perception of our role but will, just by doing so, satisfy the expectations of its members and increase its attractiveness for potential members.

  12. It’s a pity that the focus in the discussion is on IABC which I thought merely an example of the underlying more important need for open exchange of knowledge. One of the key concerns of any academic and practitioner is the lack of leading thoughts and a well defined body of knowledge. Papers, books, articles, conferences, etc. seem to be a concoxtion of overly used old paradigms with some new ideas floating around but not having enough support. More worryingly is the lack of access to new materials and thoughts. They are “hidden” in the confines of outdated proceedings, expensive restricted journals and books. The only cheap by all means information is in typical 10-best-ways-to-practice kind of materials that are aimed at reducing the time spend on thinking by emphasizing the doing. It is time for an “open journal” related to strategic public relations. I am happy to help setting one up. Best wishes, Eric

  13. Toni, it sounds like we’re on the same wave-length. We do need to be realistic about which stakeholders we are targetting. As noted above, there’s little point trying to bring on board the hard-core critical fringe.

    But there’s another group that puzzles me: the large number of professionals that categorically seem to refuse to embrace permanent and continuous learning/improvement. The number of times people have told me that they “don’t have time” to look at the association’s online materials, get involved, attend events, reach out to other members through proactive networking, etc. is nothing less than mind-boggling.

    I really don’t know how to achieve breakthrough with those people who seem to miss a really basic point about both professional associations and professional development. I also wonder how these people would feel if their doctors professed not to have time to keep up with the latest medical developments because they were too busy “doing their jobs”.

  14. Please don’t get me wrong, I of course agree with what you say Kristen. T

    o the point that Ferpi has now created a panel of members to develop a zero based business model for its operations and its first heated discussion was on whether priority should be given to listening to the expectatsion of existing members, of potential members or, as I believe, of the stakeholders of both.
    A quality development model in no way excludes market research. Quite the contrary, good research is at the very base of any quality program.

    You will also be interested to know that since its inception in Vancouver the new Global Alliance leadership has undertaken a substantive effort to gather from its 66 national and international member associations useful information on how to collect, understand,interpret and redistribute the necessary information to improve association management practices.
    A very worthy exercise, indeed.

    My personal view is that (leaving aside associations like iabc or even ipra, who do not pretend to be representative of the global community) if these efforts do not acknowledge the 10% barrier and focus on raising the quality, respect, reputation and authoritativeness of the organisations, then there will always be a huge number of professionals who do not seen any real reason to join.

    Of course, the situation would change dramatically and instantly if membership was required in order to practice… But I owuld never stand, as much as I am for regulation of our profession, on such a platform..

  15. Morning Judy and Toni,

    Judy, you are, of course, correct that it is more cost effective to maintain current members than to maintain the current numbers by losing and recruiting new members constantly. Retention is a critical issue.

    But retention alone will not grow the strategy. A robust membership growth strategy must consider both retention and recruitment.

    I do not mean to imply that an oranization should target the fringe of people sitting around criticizing gratuitously. But there is a large middle ground between loya members and hard-core critics. If you want those people to start joining, you need to do some market research to understand what they need and why they haven’t previously joined. And then you need to think about what changes might be necessary.

    The problem with only focusing on what current members want is that a sort of inbreeding and groupthink sets in.

    I can give you the example of a trade association I know that is currently in an existential crisis because of this. A global sector association, for a variety of cultural and historical reasons, it has come to be dominated by North American companies. Which means that non-North Americans don’t want to join because they consider it too North American. But as long as it is only North Americans sitting around making the decisions, the situation is unlikely to change, unless the association makes a concerted decision to become more representative of its global industry: which means making some changes to structure and activities in order to be relevant for the entire industry.

    So I respect Toni’s example of an organization that has chosen a qualitative path of development. But if an organization wants at least part of their strategy to be about growing membership, then it must do market research to find out how to appeal to people who have not yet joined (knowing full well that there will always be a fringe that doesn’t join).

  16. If I am allowed to but in, I entirely disagree on this one, Judy.

    If you accept the 10% rule by which there are at least 90% of potential members out there, the only sensible way in which you can hope to attract these (not having been able to this sofar because focussed only on protecting the direct interests of existing members) is to give priority to the development of an organization which is believed to be authoritative and attractive…and this only happens when you responsibly consider your members’ stakeholders as the primary public of reference.

    When I chaired the Ferpi association in the early part of this century (2000-2003)I convened an eight hour conference of the general council of Ferpi in Florence and, following a huge discussion, the majority arrived at the conclusion that we were much less interested in attracting new members than we were in being respected by other constituencies relevant to our members.

    This satisfies our existing members and attracts new members because of our recognised authoritativeness.

    To be honest, I do not believe we have yet achieved either one of these benefits, but we have certainly increased our relevance and we have not decreased our membership.

  17. (I’ve been meaning to get back to you re: your comment):

    “And actually the opinions of non-members do count if you want to expand your membership…”

    Although I can appreciate taking the opinions of non-members into account when *considering* the strategic direction of an industry association (i.e., whereby membership is optional), I disagree that it is an overly effective way to expand an association’s membership base.

    Generally *recruiting* new members is less of a challenge than retaining existing ones, particularly at the senior levels (and even during challenging economic times).

    I believe an industry association’s time would be better spent contacting individuals who let their membership lapse (“member attrition”) and finding out the reasons why, rather than trying to accommodate the requests of an individual or individuals who have never been a member (and are never likely to join), but feel the need to constantly criticize.

    Again, associations are private organizations, and their primary “stakeholders” are the current, existing members.

  18. I think it’s important work, but Brian’s comment seems to imply he wants advocacy about communications, not about the key issues that communications treats, that’s all. Since part of IABC’s role in the ISO work is to argue that communications has to be integrated into any CSR effort, it seems to be meet his definition (not mine).

    And actually the opinions of non-members do count if you want to expand your membership…

  19. defines advocacy thusly:

    ad⋅vo⋅ca⋅cy  /–noun, plural -cies. the act of pleading for, supporting, or recommending; active espousal: He was known for his advocacy of states’ rights.

    Do you not believe that corporations advocating (and acting) for social responsibility (and primarily through their communicators) doesn’t qualify?

    BTW, hooked up an offline colleague/friend with Tom Keefe, ABC, about putting a case study online (the CSR efforts of one of Canada’s biggest banks, where she works…found out about it just last week, over coffee.)

    Today I find out that a twittermate, Jen Evans, has that same bank/cause as a client (agency). Now she is aware of the IABC SR Link, and is following Tom (as well as Carrie Mamantov) on twitter.

    Maybe this is Advocacy/Connections 2.0, eh?

    (P.S. As IABC and other industry/professional associations are private organizations, the opinons of non-members don’t really matter. After all, membership has its mandate-advocacy privileges!)

  20. Judy, I’m glad that you find the SL Link useful, but it doesn’t meet the criteria Brian defined. He wants advocacy, not resources.

  21. Kristen, personally, I think one of the best things that IABC has done in recent years is the establishment of its Social Responsibility (SL) Link website, which welcomes case studies from members and non-members alike: “A community at the crossroads of communication and social responsibility.”

    (The association representatives in regards to the ISO global CSR standard is admirable, but probably will have less significant impact on the average communicator, in terms of being a viable resource, the way the SR Link can be.)

  22. How about the participation of IABC representatives in the elaboration of the ISO global CSR standard? That’s high-level advocacy for communications.

  23. It is easy for non-members to think that IABC is an organization charged with promoting the interests of its members.

    But that would be wrong.

    IANC is a conference organizer and training course provider, competing with Regan, Meldrum and others of their ilk.

    After years of looking, I still can’t find one example of a good PR effort by IABC on behalf of its memb ers, aimed at those men and women who are the clients and employers of IABC’s members, and other people in the communications business.

    Can anyone tell us of a good presentation to a board of trade, economics club, annual conference of business leaders, etc., anywhere in the world, by a senior IABC international leader?


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