Public, private, community, individual

I received a friendship request today on a social networking platform for communicators.  I have no idea who this person is, and I suspect that he is a consultant randomly inviting other people to be his friend in order to expand his prospect list. His message basically just says hello and provides no info on why he wants to be my friend (and after looking at his profile, I still have no idea).  In the past, when I’ve accepted such requests, I’ve found myself inundated with announcements about the other’s speaking engagements and book releases.  It’s more like social spamworking.  So what’s the etiquette?  Is it ok to just say no?

I did a web search to see if I could find guidance and stumbled on a really interesting post about the blurring of public and private spaces.   Richard Bailey talks about the public space becoming privatized, but I’m not so sure.  Isn’t it more a question of private space becoming public?

I think this tension between public and private, community and individual has always existed.  The balance we find shifts from one era to another and from one culture to another. It used to be considered normal for any adult in the community to punish any child’s infraction.  Now, even the power of teachers to punish their pupils is limited because it would be interfering in the parents’ child-raising approach.

When I first moved to Europe, I was bothered by all the closed doors and fences.  I come from a village where no one locks their house and a culture where people just drop in when they are in the neighbourhood.  I took some French friends to the US six years ago and was struck by one of their observations: In Europe, fences are to keep the neighbours out, while in America, they are to keep the dogs and children in.

I moved to Paris from Brussels about seven years ago.  I never quite adjusted to the different mentality. When I was in Brussels, people would call to spontaneously propose activities or would even just stop by and ring the bell to see if I was in. In Paris, everything occurs by appointment. If a man’s home is his castle, here it has a drawbridge and a moat. Then I moved to the suburbs this summer and found myself in a different world. Neighbours pop by, spontaneously invite us over for drinks, give us cake and other goodies, etc. (I’m in heaven.)

These are just a few examples of the different ways people navigate the tension between the collective and the individual. In the metro, everyone listens to their music, does their own Soduko, reads their own book, but rarely do we interact with others. I’ve come to believe that this is a coping mechanism for being forced together like cattle. Since we have no physical space, we are forced to create psychic space around ourselves. Something will occasional happen to break the ice and allow people to talk to one another. It may be the driver warning passengers about the pickpockets who just boarded car 3. It may be tourists asking for help getting to their destination. It may be a child or a dog. But these events give us a safe way out of our isolation.

To come back to the first point and public relations, my open-ended question is: What are the consequences from this perspective of the blurring of public and private spaces? If we have reacted to cities by retreating into our invisible bubbles, what will happen to us as we are increasingly hemmed in by different communications media? And what will be the implications for public relations?  Since I don’t even begin to have any answers, I would be really interested to hear other people’s views.

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13 Replies to “Public, private, community, individual

  1. Thanks to everyone for the interesting remarks. To come back to my question about public vs. private spaces, there is an old saying, taken up by an excellent Robert Frost poem (“Mending Fences”) that says “Good fences make good neighbors”. The point is that taking an interest in one another and being mutually supportive is all fine and good, but so is knowing when to back off and how to signal the boundaries of one’s territory. With regard to social media (as opposed to good old neighborhood relations), I think we are still trying to figure out what materials to use and how best to build our fences.

  2. I am with Benita on strategy – provided its meaning is really understood and not simply confused with a programme or plan.

    Other concepts I like for PR practice are co-orientation (which helps us think about common ground) and facilitate (defined as making things easier,to be of use or increasing the likelihood of something happening).

    BTW, I teach holistic communications to ensure PR practitioners consider more than words as Toni considers. This ranges from source credibility to body language, visual imagery to aspects such as timing of communications. Words in terms of content are important, but not the entire scope of communications.

  3. I think both communicating ‘to’ and communicating ‘with’ are grammatically correct but they mean different things. From an academic point of view, they also represent different theoretical approaches to communication. If you communicate ‘to’, then you are transmitting information or thoughts or feelings ‘to’ somebody else. I would think that asymmetrical communication is ‘communicating to’, i.e. one gets the feeling that one person or group (e.g. management) is talking (and the receiver is listening). However, if you communicate ‘with’ someone, then there is the feeling of interaction and dialogue, i.e. that both persons/ groups are parties to the communication exchange. This is the classical case of 2-way communication — the approach that all of us at PRC adhere to. It is thus logical that we prefer communication ‘with’ rather than communication ‘to’.

    However, we still have to think what the particular circumstances and the objectives are. If we are conducting an information campaign to the whole population of a third-world country to stop smoking or stop causing wildfires or obtain immunisation to polio, we are probably still communicating the message ‘to’ since the medium will often be radio or TV in this instance (no online tools here). Although an effort should be made to supply telephone numbers or addresses of relevant government departments or community clinics, etc. where more info can be obtained, there is no feeling or possibility of interaction between the communicator and the receivers of the messages (in any case, not in countries like mine where most people don’t have access to the internet). But if we are conducting a PR campaign on behalf of an organisation with its stakeholders from a 2-way symmetrical point of view, we will hopefully make sure that it is communication ‘with’ even if it is in the 3rd World. It is here that oramedia (traditional media) come in such as industrial theatre, village theatre, puppet shows, etc. However, oramedia is just not practical and too expensive if the message has to reach the whole population in an information campaign.

    Heather, the same probably holds true for love. We send our love ‘to’ somebody, but we make love ‘with’ somebody!!

    Toni, I agree with Judy that I prefer manage to govern. However, it might be that govern is stronger in English than in Italian. In English there are strong overtones of ‘ruling’. To me, strategy has a different meaning than program or initiative or tone of voice. An initiative, for instance, can be most unstrategic. But for the rest of the terms, I agree with you wholeheartedly.

  4. Judy, you may be right about management.

    Only, I am reminiscent of a recent discussion on this-here blog between peter walker,ursula stroh and joao duarte in which the term management seemed to shape a connotation of top-down and control practice.

    On the other hand, the term governance, in itself rather recent, seems to have filled from an organizational perspective the subtle difference between traditional top down and control oriented management and the increasing need of a more symmetric approach.

    It also true however, as peter walker pointed out in the discussion (I am afraid I don’t know how to link to our own blog from this position but if you are interested in reviewing this fascinating discussion it is post number 78)that quote
    Mary Parker Follett (a social scholar who wrote on the topic in the early twentieth-century-see wikipedia) defined management as “the art of getting things done through people” NOT controlling them unquote.


  5. Toni, why do you think “govern” is preferable to “manage?” It sounds more Draconian to me.

    Particularly when you run through the synonyms for govern:

    Synonyms: administer, assume command, captain*, carry out, command, conduct, control, dictate, direct, execute, exercise authority, guide, head, head up, hold dominion, hold office, hold sway, lead, manage, master, occupy throne, order, overrule, oversee, pilot, regulate, reign, render, run, run things, steer, superintend, supervise, sway, tyrannize

    This one was found on, specifically the Roget’s New Millennium™ Thesaurus citing

  6. You have to start somewhere…

    I have been using these terms and explaining the reasons to my staff, my clients, my students, my colleagues (both professionals and scholars) since a couple of years now.

    Today, I see and read the terms applied by others whom I have never met, but who have probably come in relationship with either one of those publics (though I certainly would never claim ownership….can’t remember who first inspired this in my mind, but it was probably my first boss, John Verstraete director of communication of 3M Company back in 1963…).

    I was at a briefing the other day by a leader of a major advertising agency and she was explaining to a client how contemporary advertising (she actually said post-modern…Benita I hope your ears don’t scream to much..)is picking up on the whole birectional and tendentially symmetrical dialogue growing fad, and said something like ‘ we do not communicate to any longer, we communicate with’.
    If advertisers can claim this and survive others’ laughter, why can’t we?

    Maybe if all of us of pr conversations(posters, commenters and visitors) decided to adopt this terminology constantly (obviously only if we agree with the reasons and implications) we could spread the word.

    It does no harm, it makes others think (which is never a bad thing) and it might even actually help….

    After all, I am sure you are all well aware that the term reputation (which, as some of our commenters seem to think, is so much more convincing than public relations), was early-adopted by a major pr agency in the late eighties in the USA in a conscious attempt to distance the firm from the term ‘image’ which, according to its leadership, had accumulated too many negative overtones…and has since not only become another buzz word but has also started an international avalanche of theory, books, research companies, academic positions and power games…
    Many even state that one can govern (manage?) reputation, although when confronted, and if they are not fundamentalists, they will quickly accept that most of the variables which create reputation cannot be evaluated nor measured…. and therefore not governed (managed?).
    Of course all of our attempts (whatever we do or say) finish in the reputation basket (waste basket?), but the most we can really try to govern (manage?) are relationships (evaluable and measurable they certainly are…).

    Other terms from our traditional lingo that I try not to use in order no to give a bad example, are manage (prefer govern), targets (prefer publics and even stakeholders), strategy (prefer program or initiative or tone of voice…), press office (prefer media relations or relationships with the media or even better journalists), persuade (prefer con-vince in the sense of winning together, or even better dialogue, converse, even negotiate is better).

    Of course words are words and very much depends on the contents and on the rest of the sentence…but words are what most of us fill our mouths (in the literal sense of food we buy with the money we collect by using words).

    And, a propos….
    what about the role of graphics, images (still and moving)and other visual representations we never seem to consider seriously enough to debate and converse about amongst ourselves because we do not consider them sufficiently serious, although we are always ready to pay lip service to the concept when we agree that one image can communicate more effectively than a thousand words…

    what do you say?

  7. Heather, fully agree with your comment, this is exactly what I meant. The filtering is so much tougher but once we’re in, we have a much better chance to make an impact. It’s probably the beginning of the end of mass communication, versus one-to-one communication. Unless this whole process works in a cycle or as a pendulum, which will eventually swing back to “public over private” mode.

  8. “It more a question of private space becoming public?” you ask.
    I guess it is 🙂
    Somehow I believe it is unavoidable – the world is growing closer, everything and everyone mixes up. It is the evolution!

    In this particular case I would decline the invitation (I acutally declined an invitaiton to facebook from a distant friend because I do not want my participation there. At least at the moment). So there is nothing wrong with it.

    I believe that the personal freedom and good will are still more valuable than any sort of artificial etiquet.

  9. This is interesting, and Yaryna provides an additional dimension that I hadn’t considered previously regarding closed organisational cultures as a response of increasing chaos and perceived lack of predictability of the world.

    I don’t see this as necessarily negative though, if we can help move our mindset back to one of understanding and facilitating private relations (which existed before the wider need for public relations).

    It may be harder to get in the inside, but once there, the rewards can be much greater. If you think about the types of personal relationships you discuss, some people may be harder to initially get to know. But aren’t those very often the people who make the best friends, once we build trust?

  10. This is an excellent question, and a very applied problem. One would think that we as professional communicators should develop some sort of immunity to invasion of our personal spaces – after all, we spend so much time in the public domain. However, this type of thing bothers me immensely, and I feel a touch of guilt every time I press “ignore” in response to some random requests to “make friends” or “connect.”

    In terms of our publics, this seems to be a huge issue. Recruiters routinely check out social networking sites to weed out “inappropriate” candidates, and companies have become more vulnerable, since every disgruntled customer or employee has access to a hugely loud megaphone. In my experience, as companies catch on to the fact that their acts generate more and less predictable repercussions, they develop the same sort of a defence mechanism as you described – by shutting their doors and leaving a tiny flap door that opens only one way – out. These attempts at controlling the information flow are doomed in the long run, which breeds additional distrust. Sometimes I find it very difficult to sell the idea that in this new environment shutting the door isn’t the answer.

    To sum up, lack of trust and increased selectiveness of sources of information – these are the more obvious things that are on the rise. In my view, this concerns both, organizations and individuals. For us it means that we will need to try even harder to earn permission to enter those private spaces.

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