On Jack Odwyer’s call for a new definition following Der Spiegel’s recent attack on pr

In every country, the public relations profession is being constantly and increasingly criticized by mainstream media and social critics for its buffering mode of action.
Most recently it was Der Spiegel in Germany, but all one needs to do is keep a close eye on http://www.prwatch.org and most of the arguments used by our critics can be easily traced.
Personally, I do not believe that a new definition, as Jack O’Dwyer seems to imply in a recent piece on his website, can help our purpose. ….


But, by the way, what is our purpose?
To protect the reputation of our profession?
To distance serious professionals from those who actively contribute to such poor reputation?
There is no doubt that criticisms grow, at least in substance, because the function increases its clout in many private, public and social sector organizations…. otherwise, if our activities were only fickle and useless, why would they bother?
Also, there is the basic fact that in a majority of recent cases, these criticisms have been factual and based on arguments I would agree with.
I don’t wish to be too sour in my comment… but if one considers that in this very minute our global professional community is formed by some 3 million professionals; that only 10% of these are sufficiently responsible to belong to a professional associations; that many of these associations do not even bother to even monitor, let alone advocate, the day-in, day-out introduction by the public policy processes of every country of new constraints and restrictions to our practices; that most research efforts amongst our peers candidly reveal that respect of the public interest is the least of their preoccupations…why be surprised?
In my view, the 20th century US centred public relations model based on rhetoric, persuasive, marketing oriented and asymmetric communication-to, while it certainly achieved many objectives and was exported in all western and many developing countries, has also led to major collateral and undesirable effects we must recognize.
What is now needed is a radical review towards a new global public relations model based on -as my friends the American Jim Grunig or the Indian Sriramesh Krishamurthy or the Slovene Dejan Vercic or the South African Chris Skinner or the UK Anne Gregory would say- generic principles, valid throughout and specific applications founded on major political, economic, cultural variables as well as on the status of activism and media systems in each country.
Most of all, this model assumes that effective communication implies communicating-with rather than to, recognizes that each public (and each individual) is diverse and that an organization’s decision making process may be improved both in quality and in time of delivery if decisions are taken after having listened, understood and interpreted stakeholder expectancies.
Theory? Bull Shit it’s theory!
It can be done, it is being done, and it will be done…. more and more.
It is up to us professionals, associations, educators and major industry groups to make sure this bridging, rather than buffering, mode of practice reaches the necessary critical mass to really make a dent into that prevailing stereotype.
After all, coherence obliges us to say that people judge what we do and not what we say.
Or not?
For one thing, the World Bank, also in partnership with the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management (http://www.globalpr.org), will be holding its first ever global summit on communication for development (www.devcomm-congress.org/worldbank/macro/2.asp) in Rome, Italy from October 25 to October 27 where public policy makers(including the World Bank’s Paul Wolfenson, UN’s Molloch Brown, EU’s Manuel Barroso, Italy’s Premier Romano Prodi and other leaders from many countries) will meet with some 500 development communicators, ngo’s and public relations researchers from all over the world to better understand how public relations adds value to an organization if it is employed before rather than after it makes a decision.
For second, the European Commission under the leadership of its Swedish vice president Margot Wallstrom(http://ec.europa.eu/commission_barroso/wallstrom/press/key_en.htm) has recently issued Plan D, a five year detailed and precise public relations plan based on stakeholder Dialogue and Debate and the communicating-with paradigm in order to improve the quality of its policy making process and therefore increase public acceptance of its achievements.
These are only two of the many, many cases of effective public relations practices that we should be also considering.
Or not?

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7 Replies to “On Jack Odwyer’s call for a new definition following Der Spiegel’s recent attack on pr

  1. dear toni and writers/readers,
    let me just say one word (but more will follow…): ethics; and let me be provoking and (a little) paradoxical.

    In my opinion, we public relators have a unique opportunity. it comes from the relatively young age of our science and “academic dignity”.

    Teaching how to be “ethics-compliant” is somehow simpler for us if we manage to insert ethics in the “pr kit” and to convince our students and young practitioners that pr have to be ethical because non ethical relations (can exist, but) simply cannot last. Put in simpler but paradoxical words, either pr are ethical or they’re not pr.

    Then, are we pr practitioners better than others? of course not! and articles like the one we’re commenting on prove it along with a long list of prejudices against the profession.

    However, we should be supposed to know how to manage lasting and mutually fruitful relations with our publics: it’s a good start, provided that we’re allowed to – and want to – enter the power room and to sit at the table.

  2. Catherine,
    these comments you make are of great value and I am grateful for your insight. Please send me a post of your own, I would really love to stimulate a debate on any of the points you make. Actually, you know what I will do now….I will extract your comment and put it up as a post by itself. It is well worth it and please do not hesitate to cooperate with me on this effort.

  3. In answer to your question, ‘what is our purpose’…

    Old models of public relations practice were framed around the hierarchical organisational structures created in the 19th and 20th Century. Business and organisational models have changed dramatically in the last five years, with new-born organisations/businesses increasingly adopting community-based, value-driven principles upon which to found their commercial or altruistic relationships.
    Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations maintained that in making profit, the business person cannot help but to do some good. We have followed that thinking in western economies and followed it somewhat slavishly. Our established methods of communication bear this out – the grip of mainstream media, the dated view of the ‘free press’ as an organ of democracy, when in reality, it is simply another business seeking to make a profit (and if along they way some good is done, well, that’s ok).
    The way we do business has changed because the world has changed. Half the world has no water, the other half is worried about obesity. Rich countries impose trading restrictions, poor countries struggle to get their goods to market. More people have not than have and this inequality, this unsustainability, is rightly much higher on the agenda than it has ever been before.
    In many countries around the world, there is no access to the press – free or otherwise. Street radio, storytelling, songs that veil criticism of the wrongs of government are the ways that people initiate dialogue and, perhaps their greatest hope, change for something better.
    What’s all this got to do with us? As practitioners working within a global society we must be able to use a multiplicity of communications tools and, above all else, be able to understand the way that others invoke and interact within their communities. As a practitioner, I need to be able to create appropriate communications channels with the avatars of Second Life.com as well as a remote community struggling to establish fair trade enterprises in their village. I need to be able to initiate dialogue between the small start up business and its customer communities as well as identify ascendant audience groups for a multinational.
    Because of the economic models we have adhered to for so long, the mass media has been the gatekeeper between people and organisations. Much time and effort was put into getting the mass media ‘on side’ so that stories could be told and understanding – almost as a byproduct -could be developed.
    Now we can tell stories, create understanding and build relationships without using mainstream media at all – messages are unfiltered, the organisational point of view is put forward and a response is encouraged, listened to and acted upon.
    We can identify our communities very precisely, talk specifically with them and maintain a dialogue so that shifts in thinking, attitudes and behaviour on both sides can be communicated well enough to reduce conflict and allow the relationship to develop.
    Technology now at our disposal allows us to be more precise when we are building relationships. And this technology is more suited to other cultural communication models like direct storytelling, visual communication, the power of sound, personal recommendation and personal contact – all to be applied with a large dollop of emotional intelligence and organisational patience. They allow us to by-pass gatekeepers running restricted and biased mainstream media and really listen to what our communities have to say.
    Public relations is about building relationships and to do this job well, the perfect practitioner needs ears above all else along with a knowledge of how dialogue, rhetoric and ethics have been applied in history so we don’t repeat past mistakes. An understanding of anthropology helps us to understand cultures and contexts and the value of diversity. Psychology, semiotics and linguistics all help us understand motivation, need, influence and the mind. Economics helps us to ground our work in the fabric world so we can participate in existing models while we begin to develop new, more appropriate, sustainable business models. Philosophy helps us to set all this into an ethical framework. Operating in a complex, multi level fabric and virtual environment, such knowledge is crucial. After all, nobody lets a medical student loose with a scalpel until he or she at least knows how bodies work and which bit to cut.
    At ground level. there are many tools and techniques that need to be mastered as well as an ability to sense what is coming and work out how to adapt tools to do the job. An ability to assess the operational environment and discern potential and possible next steps. The art will be knowing which tool to choose, and the science will be about knowing when. Which is what makes it such an interesting discipline filled with such interesting people. People capable of seeing the big picture and realise that the devil is in the detail at the same moment.
    So in answer to the question at the start of the post – what is our purpose – I would suggest it is this.
    Building relationships is our purpose. We work for people, so that those people can do better, get on better, make better decisions and better understand each other’s point of view – and that’s a very powerful job indeed.

  4. Margaretha Sjoberg is a highly respected figure in european public relations. She has been directing with excellent results the activities of the Swedish PR Association for many years (www.sverigesinformationsforening.se/InEnglish/) and, more recently, has been elected President of Cerp (www.cerp.org), the confederation of european public relations association, which has become the european ‘head and arm’ of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Managament (www.globalrpr.org).
    The Swedish Public Relations Association, by the way, has the highest number of members in respect to the country’s population and is one of the most active.

  5. This is the first paragraph of our Professional Standards.

    Professional Standards of the Swedish Public Relations Association

    1. Professional communicator
    A professional communicator carries out professional information and communication tasks, either as an employee at a company or other organisation, or as a consultant for a client.

    A professional communicator manages and develops the reputational capital and credibility of organisations.
    Through provision of relevant information, a professional communicator aims to ensure that target groups and stakeholders receive a correct perception of the operations that the professional communicator represents.

    A professional communicator has the knowledge required to analyse and assess relations, attitudes and opinions, and to predict the reactions of the surrounding world.

    A professional communicator ensures that the surrounding world has relevant information on and understanding of the organisation and its operations, and that the organisation has relevant information on and understanding of the surrounding world.

    Margaretha Sjoberg

  6. very forceful arguments, Anne.
    on the journalist-public relations issue when you chaired the chartered institute of public relations in the UK, you had addressed it with highly creative dialogue and debate methods. what happened? why did it not continue? what results where you expecting and what did you achieve? do you care to share your thoughts with us by describing your approach and what happened?
    of course,as you suggest, I sincerely hope that this blog might attract others to tell us about examples of good practice also considering the public interest so that we may help to spread the word..
    thank you for your comment. tmf

  7. I agree with most of what you say. Public Relations finds itself in an Alice in Wonderland land. Yes, it is mocked, called ‘fluffy’, not a serious profession on the one hand, but increasingly it is being recognised as entirely the reverse. Every FTSE 100 company in the UK has a public relations department – that wasn’t the case 6 years ago. Just about every charity, ngo, public sector body and celebrity you can think of has one too. There is a dawning realisation that organisations are defined by communcations – other people’s communications about them.

    In the UK, recent research by the Chartered Institute of Marketing confirmed that the number of Marketing Directors on Company Boards was decreasing. However, the number of Communication Directors is increasing, and guess what, many of those Directors come from a public relations background. The fact is that what is required is an understanding of the subtleties of a communication environment: recognising that you must be a contributor and listener to the public discourse and a partner in its creation alongside a host of conflicting and disparate stakeholders. Public Relations professionals understand that the ability to create the public discourse along with their gate-keping role is what gives them power. I agree it is the power of public realtions that journalists fear, not its weakness. That is one reason why they mock it – despite many in their ranks crossing the divide to join the despised.

    The key question for practitioners is how they use that power. It has to be admitted that this is not always for the public good. However, the profession itself must be more pro-active in providing the evidence for how it does contribute to the good of society. The World Bank summit is one such example, perhaps this site can begin to show more examples.

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