‘Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge’ – Wikipedia’s blackout protest statement is a reminder of the value and reliance placed on repositories of online information. How many of us turn to Google, Wikipedia, digital dictionaries, social media or online news sources routinely when we want to know something?
The English-speaking student population is apparently distraught that its primary place for ‘cut and paste’ assignments is offline for a day. The Digital Natives haven’t been so upset since BBM crashed last October.
This might seem amusing, but does illustrate that knowledge management should be a key responsibility for PR practitioners. ‘Imagine an Organization without Knowledge – Imagine a World without PR’ could be our mantra.
I came into public relations from a job as a research analyst, so my approach has always been to collate information, turn it into knowledge and gain insight., which I can then translate in communications with the media and direct with publics. I’ve also sought to build networks of contacts on the basis that if I don’t know something, I know someone who does. Thirdly, I’ve sought to be a reliable source of knowledge about things, people and public relations.
My belief is that for public relations to act as a strategic function, it needs to demonstrate competency in analysing issues and opportunities in order to recommend responses that contribute towards the achievement of organizational goals. The knowledge base of PR practitioners will not be respected if it is based predominantly on personal experience, intuition, common sense, methodologically-weak research or habitual practice.
Going further, I advocate that PR practitioners should be managers of organizational knowledge as a strategic resource. As well as nurturing knowledge internally, we need to look beyond organizational boundaries as knowledge is increasingly co-constructed via the internet (Phillips and Young 2009).
Our knowledge management strength lies in the social capital inherent in the organization’s reputation and relationships. This suggests, for example, the traditional PR contact book has strategic value if developed into an intelligent contact management system.
Drawing on Bourdieu’s capital typology, the PR function offers value to an organization in terms of:
- practitioner expertise and competencies
- maintenance of current and archival sources
- procedural knowledge (eg of financial or political processes or how traditional/online media work)
- reputation management (professional standing, sector expertise, opinion leadership and competent spokespeople)
- knowledge of networks supporting co-orientation, alliance building and other PR strategies
- networks of direct and indirect relationships at the individual, functional and organizational levels
- capital balances built within exchange and communal relationships
- formal and informal obligations in relationships
- tangible and intangible benefits arising from enhancing relationships through communications
- comparative information regarding similar organizations and wider society
Although the value of knowledge is constantly changing (particularly as it becomes out of date increasingly fast), knowledgeable people have organizational value, especially if they are able to interrogate, analyse, and interpret data to create new knowledge.
Which brings me back to online knowledge. Technological developments enable others to take information about our organizations and reconstruct it, sort it, represent it, and decide whether or not to use or recommend it. One issue arising from moves towards providing personalised search results, is that it will become increasingly difficult for PR practitioners to know what information exists online about organizations, let alone what is being provided to users. How can you correct misconceptions when searches provide information that supports what a user already knows and does online?
According to Hendler and Berners-Lee, the future will involve people, individually and collectively, immersing themselves in “the accumulated knowledge and the constant interactions of humankind”. My understanding is this involves empowering people whose interactions contribute towards a global information space, rather than them passively receiving information created by others.
I don’t pretend to fully know what this means, but I know that it is something I need to know more about. I suspect that nurturing knowledge is not going to be worrying about an entry on Wikipedia or even trying to optimise a Google search going forward. Public relations has a job to do here in grasping what the future of knowledge may be, and how it can help organizations realise the capital that new knowledge contains. So I’ll end with a recap of that mantra: ‘Imagine an Organization without Knowledge – Imagine a World without PR’.