Public relations remains focused on media relations

From a PR perspective, there’s a problem with all the discussion regarding the merits or otherwise of paywalls to access online content, the impact of social media or the role of PR versus marketing in this brave new world.  It’s all about the media – with little consideration of what we should really be interested in, the public.

New business models for media companies will continue to emerge and be challenged.  The bottom line is that someone has to pay for managing the media channels and/or generating news, opinion and other forms of “content”.  This has always been the case with issues such as quality, control, cost and access varying in importance at different times, in different places and for different people.

The current buzzwords are all about engagement, experience and influence – which would seem to imply a receiver-oriented approach to public relations.  But if you look at most of what is being done in the name of journalism or public relations, it is one-way dissemination of messages seeking to inform, persuade or possibly entertain others in order to achieve return on investment.

So it is classic media relations even if we’ve swapped journalists for bloggers or we’re abandoning the press release for 140-character Tweets.  There’s a message we’re trying to communicate and we focus on the medium as the means to achieve this.  We aren’t really having mutually-beneficial conversations most of the time.

Even if we’re monitoring and measuring, it’s with a view to getting what we want.  We look at what others are saying not to really listen to their point of view, but to relate to whether or not they’re amplifying our messages.  Critics need to be engaged with, but just to get them to change their minds or reduce their influence.

Let’s be honest here, organisations are really only interested in this type of media relations.  Journalists have been the primary focus because they offered access or third-party credibility – their endorsement was better than communicating directly.  This same self-interest is evident in new/social media. 

It is also true for internal communications or “relationship”-building with other stakeholders.  We look at the messages to be communicated and the media by which this is achieved – whether direct or an intermediary.

If arguments for public relations as a relationship-oriented function are to be credible, we’d need to change our entire approach.  Instead of looking at writing skills as the core competency, PR education should consider aspects of communication that encompass listening skills, negotiation and compromise.

Planning models would need to be reconceptualised away from a focus on achieving objectives that are pre-determined from the organisation’s perspective; to be less-linear and more adaptive.   

Is this feasible?  On current evidence and from a realistic position that organisations exist to achieve their own goals, I don’t think so. 

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be shifting in the direction of paying more than lip-service to the needs of publics.  There will be benefits from teaching, learning and reflecting genuinely relationship-oriented communication skills, not simply continuing to focus on message-creating craft skills and knowledge of media relations (even if that is in its newer forms). 

And, we won’t be able to adapt and adopt new skills and approaches in public relations unless and until we abandon our fixation on a media relations style of communication.

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46 Replies to “Public relations remains focused on media relations

  1. Ernest – as well as the advice provided by Judy, you might like to check out a post I wrote a little while ago on gaining work experience in PR:

    One specific thing that comes to mind is to think about what advantages you would bring to a PR agency and focus on these – rather than the lack of the media contacts (although you could certainly work on developing those if that’s the area of PR you feel is where you’d like to work).

    For example, have you thought about approaching consultancies that take an integrated approach – so more on the consumer PR side where the primary aim is achieving marketing objectives. That means more than thinking about the understanding of media you may have from your advertising expertise – for example, in areas such as advertorials or promotions. Although I feel this is more advertising than PR, many clients (especially smaller ones or those in the B2B sector) will be looking at such opportunities and your experience may actually benefit an agency.

    Or what about honing on creativity skills? Is this something you have from your previous experience – can you show consultancies where you can come up with creative ideas that would in themselves generate media attention? As I’ve suggested in my post, working pro bono with a charity or other community group may enable you to show that such ideas work in practice.

    Remember that advertising is different from PR – although it does seem that the media relations approach you’ve encountered is itself a narrow view. Look perhaps at the bigger consultancies where they may appreciate someone who could demonstrate more hybrid understanding. Maybe even take a few courses in PR too so that you can show how you have knowledge and some skills alongside the strengths you can offer from your existing experience.

  2. I’m trying to get hired in PR (I’m an account manager in advertising and I want to branch out into PR), and I’ve found that everyone is looking for people with connections with the media. I have many transferable skills, which i think would be great in PR.

    My question, is why are PR agencies looking so much for media contacts? Shouldn’t they be looking for people who are able to tell stories that are interesting and worth sharing? Once you have these great stories, don’t they spread by themselves?

    1. Ernest, I suspect that is because the prevailing concept of public relations (public, agencies, trade publications) appears to be that your main role is to do media relations, particularly in the marketing PR area.

      Check out this recent article in US News, in particular “Best Careers 2011: Public Relations Specialist”. I saw this section eagerly pointed to in trade publications and on Twitter (with a #PR hashtag), even though the article’s author actually demonstrates a very limited understanding of the public relations role, particularly the concept that it is so tactile and focused almost entirely on media relations. Which is pointed out by many in the comments section.

      Ergo, it’s this type of article and understanding (embraced by so many who claim to be a PR practitioner) that makes having media relations skills (and contacts) an apparent “must” for agencies doing the hires.

      Perhaps you’d have better luck at making use of your various skills in an in-house PR practitioner role? Good luck.

    2. No, the stories don’t spread by themselves, but someone who can tell stories that are interesting and worth sharing will be effective regardless of the current state of his media contacts. Media move around so much that today’s contacts are tomorrow’s history (and some of them move into PR themselves, so what are their media contacts?).

      Anyone who wants to hire you for your media contacts is a craven and lazy fool you wouldn’t want to work for in the first instance. So keep looking, and emphasize your skills, not your media contacts

  3. Just thinking about the discussion over persuasion – this raises a number of issues in respect of the role of PR and organisational communications. Firstly, Bill writes that persuasion relates to how people process information – which I support in the sense that people persuade themselves on the basis of information received, existing opinions/beliefs/etc, past behaviour, motivation and so on… So persuasion is an active process on the part of receivers.

    However, those proposing PR/organisational communications as solely, or at least primarily, persuasive in nature seem to lose this understanding and see persuasion as something done to people. Hence, there is this search for the way of making others do what we wish them to do – ie to meet those pre-set corporate objectives. The latest notion being neuro-marketing, whereby organisations (particularly business and government) believe that they can map our brains and hey-presto, ensure their persuasive messages stimulate a response (just like Pavlov’s dogs) each and every time.

    To come back to my original point – even if we accept the aim of PR/organisational communications as being persuasive (and I believe there are other objectives beyond and besides this), then the focus still has to be on the public – as active participants in the process.

    Fortunately the attempts at neuro-marketing are doomed to failure as people are rarely predictable and consistent in forming and maintaining their opinions or behaviours. In fact, that’s just what we rely on if we wish them to change in our favour.

    Which brings me to another issue over persuasion – it leads professional communicators down the deadend street of control. It implies that we can be the masters of the universe and command others to do our bidding. Whereas if we recognise the marvellous fluidity and variation of humankind, we can get beyond this narrow type of communication.

    One final point (for now) – let’s not confuse the vast majority of press agentry work that is evident in the mediated approach to PR with persuasive communications. If you’re sole aim is to generate coverage (as seems to be the case with the focus on media relations), it is a huge leap to presume that this alone with be persuasive. Particularly without real commitment to evaluate (ie listen) to whether or not the press agentry has achieved any persuasive outcome.

    1. Heather, I believe the linear models of persuasion along the traditional lines of AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) do suggest that persuasion is something done TO people, and that people move in a straight path from one stage to the next. That is why I proposed a non-linear model which posits that people move into and away from messages and media over a continuum of time. The central spine of my helix-shaped model is time, which none of the linear models account for. As we all know, however, persuasion takes place over time, The implication for communicators is that communication must be consistent even if adaptive to changing conditions. Many organizations are attuned to the “campaign” mentality and turn communication on and off according to budget conditions, new initiatives, managerial whim, and a host of other factors.

      1. Bill – I agree and am very happy to support non-linear models, particularly as you say when there is a key consideration of how persuasion generally takes place over time. There is rarely a magic bullet that PR people can fire – although there can be Eureka! moments.

  4. Toni, here is the said text from the Stockholm Accords blurb (but let this end the matter in this chain, please…and agree to disagree):

    “Therefore the communication leader of the organization plays two fundamentally strategic roles:

    “an ‘ideological’ role by supporting and providing the organization’s leadership with the necessary, timely and relevant information which allows it to effectively govern the value networks as well as an intelligent, constant and conscious effort to understand the relevant dynamics of society at large…”

    Neither PRs nor CEOs govern value networks ideologically, is my point….moreover, they don’t even govern them in any form if they don’t own them or employ them.

  5. Bill, you make a good point. The difficulty for me as an opponent of neuro PR is to reconcile how a) all communication is rooted in psychology (PR and marketing more consciously so than normal discourse) and b) neuro marketing and the politics of the brain is a load of trendy pseudo scientific crap, and even it it were real; I’d still oppose it for very good reasons of principle. The happiness debate is another side to this whole sad affair. I shall come to this issue. But Heather Yaxley and me both wrote about this neuro PR stuff critically one year or so ago on our personal blogs… BTW: spiked online has launched a campaign against the politics of the brain:

  6. Paul, I suppose it is at least partly neuro, in that persuasion has much to do with the manner in which people process information. As I discussed in an article proposing a new persuasion model constructed along the lines of a double helix, people process information in a non-linear fashion, coming into contact with mediated and non-mediated communications and moving away from them at various points along a continuum. This helps to explain Toni’s observation that “the only behaviour that publics maintain constant today is that they change their opinions.”
    For further elucidation, see Huey, Bill (1999) “Advertising’s Double Helix: A Proposed New Process Model” Journal of Advertising Research, (May/June), 43-51. …

  7. Bill Huey was, of course, right to suggest that nobody needs PR unless they need to influence opinions. Toni says “persuasion aims at changing opinions” but that is one-sided. It can equally be used to maintain the status quo and to rebuff alternative choices. Toni is, of course, spot on to observe how confused the opinions of most people are. When he talks of listening to track behaviour, he is also on to something real: people say they want action on global warming but their behaviour says otherwise; Obama gave America the soft liberal agenda it voted for and got kicked in the teeth at the opinion polls etc.. But even behaviour, as every brand manager knows, is fickle. We might want to look deeper still and think about motives, culture, principles and other issues. But there’s another bunch of PRs who think they can climb inside our conflicted brains in Orwellian 1984 neurological fashion:
    I’m no fan of neurological PR. The Stockholm Accords, of course, position PRs as “ideological governors of value networks” which is, in my view, another authoritarian alternative to peaceful persuasion and a natural ally of neuro PR.

    1. If only for the long tail, I will reiterate once again that Paul’s statement that the Stockholm Accords positions PR as quote ideological governors of of value networks unquote is not only a reiterated falsehood but a grotesque reading of a very simple text.

  8. Toni: Thanks for your clarification. The clarity of your explanation does not however mean that the suggested process will be adopted. I am course thinking of the famous knowledge/doing gap. The risk is having well researched reports that are never implemented. But that’s well, an occupational hazard.

    Hope you’ve the stamina to take on Bill’s querry about the abscence of “persuasion” in this thread.

    1. If I recall correctly, Bill and I have already discussed the issue of persuasion in earlier bouts here.

      My personal view is that I clearly dislike the term and, although at least 40 of my 50 years of professional activity were bedrocked (as Bill says) in what I then believed to be one of the primary objectives of my work, I have not only reviewed my vocabulary (with some slips here and there, I have abandoned message, target, communicating to or at to name but a few) but also my entire approach to public relations.
      At least one of the reasons is embedded in the persuasion issue:
      I frankly do not believe that our clients or employers are really interested in our changing the opinions of their publics if those changes of opinions do not translate into behaviours (commercial, political, social..).
      Persuasion aims at changing opinions and I have serious doubts that, in today’s society, publics behave according to the opinions they are persuaded to express.
      To be even more specific, the only behaviour that publics maintain constant today is that they change their opinions.

      Can I prove this?
      Like all sweeping generalizations, yes I can.

      For example, in terms of opinions on sustainability in metropolitan areas I had only a couple of years ago samples of publics express different opinions the same day according to which of the three behavioural profiles they were behaving : pietons, public transport users or car drivers.
      Fifteen years ago this was unheard of…

      I will not use the argument about twitter users that constantly modify their opinions during the day. It’s much too generic and easy.

      What I think is that the lack of continued trust in once revered opinion leaders or institutions makes it so that we bend our opinions according to the latest gush of wind.

      Up to a point of course… and this is why the listening I talk about very much includes participant observation that aims at tracking and understanding behaviours.
      From this perspective of course online observation has much more to do with behaviours than opinions.
      With a click you buy, vote or enact a social behaviour.

      Bill is correct in the sense that if persuasion is less useful than it was (I do not contend that it is not useful…) we need to reintermediate ourselves.

      This is a major challenge of course, and this is what I have tried to stimulate and foster through the stockhom accords process.

      It’s a different (not necessarily new) game:
      the rules and the cards are in the process of being changed and if we are aware that this is happening then we can attempt to co-shape our own future.

  9. If you did a word search of this entire thread, the word “persuasion” would only appear a time or two.
    I saw it only once.
    And yet persuasion is the bedrock of PR, the sine qua non of its value regardless of the business or organizational setting.
    Models built without persuasion as paramount are constructed on shifting sands, likely to collapse when the next new thing comes along.

  10. Heather, my point is that you are pushing at an already open door and one that should be pulled ajar. The problem is not that we don’t listen enough, it is that we have got to the point where we are being led by the nose, or by our earlobes. Over the last few decades PRs have been engaged in aligning their clients with zeitgeists in the media and their research findings. Given all the challenging problems business faces right now, in terms of reputations etc., there’s a tendency to draw exactly the wrong conclusion: we need to listen more and in the past we didn’t listen enough. Contrariwise, I argue, PRs should do more advocating on behalf of clients, not less, and that requires us to start taking the lead when it comes to setting agendas.

  11. Don, the young Google that transformed the internet didn’t bother with market research or bother assessing what users might or did need. There was no local, global or universal demand to search for information before Google created it and made it accessible. So there was nothing of substance to listen to. Google’s innovation was in its mind and in its algorithms and vision. The execution of its potential took leadership, guts and risk. Of course, Google got carried away and should have listened more or cared more about certain issues, such as privacy…about that I agree (and I’ve said so on my blog and here on PRC). Hence, I’m not against listening, market research or against polling opinions. I’m against the “cult of listening” that has led PRs to sell their clients short on a grand scale. For anybody who is interested, this week sees the publication of a book by The New Culture Forum entitled “A Sorry State: Self-denigration in British Culture”, there I explain my points in some depth, in one of ten essays.

    1. Paul, Whilst I am happy to offer you a chance to promote your chapter (using the medium of PRC), I think you have misappropriated the content of the post in doing so (ironic, huh?).

      I was not advocating any “cult of listening” in the sense that you mean (based on your previous writing). However, if we are to help organisations resolve issues they face, promote their products/services, build relationships with relevant publics or understand the pressures of public opinion, then listening is a core competency. My primary point is that this valid dimension of communications is missing from the focus of the profession on writing skills, from traditional planning models and from the syllabus in PR education (where research is largely framed in persuasive terms).

      Of course there are times when organisations engage in rhetoric and put over their point of view (which may or may not relate to launching products etc – although that isn’t necessarily a PR function, or as Don alludes, the only cause of organisational success – although it did contribute towards the failure of many dotcom puff-only businesses and numerous other initiatives we can probable never even recall).

      We are all entitled to a one-sided opinion, but even those will have been formed in most cases by listening, even if just to reject what the other person is saying.

      Reading and writing are taught in schools – and abilities expected of professional communicators. Why shouldn’t listening be given the same profile as a core skill?

  12. Heather, I think we disagree quite a bit here. I think that listening is an over-hyped mantra in PR. More often than not it boils down to being led by the audience. I’m more inclined to rate the abstract skills of thinking, planning, messaging, positioning, writing and speaking over listening, though, of course, all of them require very sensitive ears and good inputs. My point is that strategy trumps tactics….the starting point is the objective.

    Case studies: Apple, Google and Microsoft are examples of companies that created their markets rather than being defined by them. The outcome or path for all three companies could never have been assessed or mapped by opinion research – it took vision, guts, risk and leadership to achieve what they did (they created a new reality; top down not bottom up…as did Facebook). In contrast, IBM missed the PC revolution because it researched existing market trends and audience opinions at the micro level; it got too close to the audience. Compaq, in contrast, just went for it and helped to transform the world. Of course, not every company is an innovator…. and the less you have to offer, perhaps the more you need to listen and align to the crowd

    1. With all due respect Paul, your argument is fallacious. You’re appealing to good consequences without sufficient evidence to prove that Google, Apple succeeded because they didn’t listen. You’ll agree that their success isn’t only due to their “not listening” as you seem to infer above when you write: “But my point is that our primary role is not to listen, negotiate or even to compromise.” The implication is of course that their success (good consequence) is a result of not listening.

  13. Heather, salespeople, PRs and spies listen, as do marketing folk and line managers, if they are any good. But it is not correct to say that listening is their primary function: first or highest in rank, quality, or importance. Listening is a means to an end.

    1. Paul – I did say “a primary role” rather than being the only one (or first/highest in rank, quality or importance). Of course, listening is a means to an end but so is speaking or writing. My point really is that you shouldn’t think of opening your mouth as a professional communicator without using your ears first. So I’m proposing shifting the competency of writing (or distributing a message via the media) down the rank of our roles – whilst accepting that both “out and in” have a purpose – which may not always be persuasive (although it often is!)

  14. Excellent Heather. Smart, to the point, provokative.

    If anyone is interested in cooperating, we might attempt to define the competencies, the knowledge, the skills that we consider essential for an effective listening process as a consubsantial and essential feature of any communication process.

    This effort could help us all to agree on what we are talking about when we recite the listening mantra and maybe assist curricula planners in universities and professional associations in accelerating their catching up process.

    A first distinction is if we listen to an organization’s stakeholders (whether active or potential) or if we are listening to societal expectations (detectable or presumable).

    A second distinction is if we listen to either of the former general expectations towards an organization’s overall action and behaviour, or if we listen to a stakeholder group specific expectation related to a specific organizational action or behaviour.

    Other preliminary distinctions you can think of?

    Then what?

    Granted that one has mapped and acknowledged the organizations publics according to the above suggested distinctions, I can think of three distinct listening phases:

    a) collecting all direct and indirect data and information related to a specific public’s fundamentals and previously expressed or presumed expectations ‘moving out of oneselves prejudices, previous knowledge and experience’;

    b) interpreting all the collected data once more ‘out of oneselves prejudices, previous knwoledge and experience’, but this time putting oneself in the shoes of the analysed public to check coherence and sense from its perspective;

    c) returning into oneselves prejudices, previous knowledge and experience, integrating the organization’s reasons and objectives that led to the listening process, and then proceeding to interpret all the data collected in the previous two phases and rationalize the short, medium and long term consequences of alternative courses of action.

    Does this make sense? Of course in this context ,to reach the objective of indicating skilles, competencies and knowledge we need to draw on what we have and identify what we do not have and seek where we could take it from to be able to perform affectively.

    Interested in continuing?

    1. Toni – there is definitely merit in pursuing what Judy has called a PR 3.0 skills set and educational framework. As you indicate, looking at competencies, knowledge, and skills for effective listening would be useful (not sure that I’d use the term process, but that’s because I try to avoid linear thinking!)

      You indicate some useful aspects of listening – and I suggest that should be at a variety of levels, so from the individual to the group (stakeholder/publics, etc) to the wider society – and even in terms of anticipation by listening to what isn’t being said, but appears to be emerging sentiment “between the lines”, if you like.

      Likewise, I think that what is being listened to would be open so may include expectations, but other aspects that are not so formed in the minds of others. The term “expectations” seems to imply that others want something of the organisation and hence, keeps our thinking in the persuasive dimension of communications.

      What I’d like to see as part of any discussion is learning from other areas – whether as Kevin suggests from flexible planning models or indeed, from diplomacy, sales negotiation and other disciplines. I’d like to see practical focus as well as conceptual. In the same way that we look at writing skills, what are the essential listening skills.

      You seem to look more at ideas around formal research with information gathering as a concept of listening, where I was thinking more in terms of basic human skills of being able to listen, hear, reflect and discuss with others.

      Perhaps a first starting point should be looking outside of PR and listening to what others are doing or have been doing in this area as any listening competencies would not be exclusive although they may need to be adapted (as well as adopted).

      1. Suggestive indeed, Heather.

        The listening agenda (preferred than process?) I suggested is of course only a starter and derives from the psychoanalytic body of knowledge as was very clearly explained to some 500 avid pr professionals, scholar and students from 32 countries gathered in Trieste for the GA’s 2005 WPRF dedicated to communicating for diversity, with diversity, in diversity by contemporary philosopher Pier Aldo Rovatti in a touching eulogy of Franco Basaglia, one of Europe’s most notable psychiatrists who, before his death some 30 years ago now, had exercised his profession in Trieste.
        The proceedings may be found in the special issue of the Journal of Communication Management published at the end of 2005.
        I was so moved by this description that I have since forced myself (now it comes almost natural..) to adopt the method and, believe me, it is highly effective.

        I agree that it is only one aspect of listening, but an important one.

        For example… the conversation that has been going on in this post is, if necessary, a very clear demonstration of the effectiveness of listening in one wishes to improve relationships.

        A barking, press agentry, unilateral, asymmetric, late nineteenth century model of public relations practice is advocated by some, attributing little (if any) value to understanding and dialogue.
        This -certainly legitimate and still very common practice-is one of the fundamental motivations that lie behind the dismal level of our global reputation, that has sparked the need for the Stockholm Accord initiative.
        No wonder the aprioristical dismissal and negation of the Accords tends to reflect the same barking culture.

        1. Toni: Could the methodology be simpler? Your suggested process conjures up images of Freudian psychoanalysis, and although it may be well-founded maybe inappropriate for the task at hand. Kevin indicates above that a PR plan may take a long time to implement, what you suggest is even more complicated. Sometimes less is more.

          Would a simple straight-forward “stakeholder analysis” with emphasis on the communicative
          matrix do the job? The analysis would seek to reveal current knowledge and attitudes, desired behavioural change, communication gap between current position and desired outcome. And mutual communication/behavioural change needed to move forward. This is indeed an oversimplication, but focuses on communicative aspects of listening and adapting.
          Stakeholder analysis has also the added advantage that it is familiar in the social sciences.

          1. Don,
            when one performs a stakeholder analysis:

            a) you understand organizational aims and specific objectives;

            b) you identify specific stakeholder groups affected by or affecting those aims and objectives, or both (segmenting them between active and potential);

            c) after some intense desk homework, you involve at least some of these groups into a relationship that allows you to interpret their expectations (related either to organizational aims and/or to relevant specific objectives) and understand how these relate with to societal expectations;

            d) you interpret those expectations so that management may improve the quality of its decisions and accelerate the time of their implementation.

            Plus or minus, with more or less sophistication according to the available time and resources, I imagine we agree.

            My idea is that this can be much more effective if we adopt the listening agenda (?) I suggested to avoid (as much as realistically possible) interpretation along one’s own personal and organizational agenda, thus ending up listening to ourselves, the capital sin of all decision making processes.

            This is not particularly complicated once you have learned how to do it, and it can be learned in college as well as in professional training environments, as long as we are con-vinced that listening carefully to our interlocutors today is more relevant for an effective communicative process than yesterday, because it allows organizations to improve the quality of their decisional processes considering the increasing pressures of the external environment.
            If we were not con-vinced of this, we would probably be doing another profession..

            In no way this implies red carpet treatment to stakeholder expectations.
            Quite the contrary!

            It allows management to make better decisions i.e. more rapidly implemented (the time factor rather than a quantitative variable as it used to be, has now become a major qualitative element of an effective decision).

            The persuasive advocacy effort directed at (underlined) influential publics certainly does not go away, but this normally follows and accompanies the implementation of decisions, whereas I am elaborating on what could/should happen before (underlined) decisions are taken and that is becoming one of the more intense requirement of organizational leadership.

            Hope to have clarified.

  15. Indeed. To use another analogy, it’s like nails on a chalkboard (for me) when people (from various disiplines and industries) interchange a company’s products or services with the company’s “brand.”

    They are not synonomous.

    Anyone who has been through an intensive branding exercise knows that researching, monitoring and listening to what external (and internal) stakeholders has to say comprise “the brand.”

    And that this same brand can’t be broadcast (like a news release or other corporate messaging), because often it is constantly evolving.

    Even if the actual product or service has remained the same.

    I like your PR 3.0 education/skill set encompassing listening skills, negotiation and compromise.

    1. I always like the concept that identity is what is controlled by an organisation and image is what others perceive of the organisation. Likewise that reputation is what others say about you and it is earned – whereas brand seems more to be a promise that an organisation makes. These remind us that PR if it is to be involved in managing reputation, image or relationships needs to be reflecting the PR 3.0 skills set that moves beyond crafting one-way messages.

  16. Hi Heather,

    Thanks for a timely forward looking post. Very few would doubt the utility of a stakeholder relationship based PR approach. Problem is that PR is still populated by influential “stakeholders” who migrated from journalism to PR without the necessary theoretical foundation and tools. Their “mental models” are frozen in the “press agentry” PR model.

    All hope is not lost as long as academics keep the conversation about “listening” alive and let your students know that press agentry belongs to the past. The press agents will sooner than later be confined to the dustbin of history — where they belong.

    1. Don – it is interesting that the legacy of the journalist into PR is a one-way communications approach. One would expect journalists to be good in many aspects of listening and hearing different perspectives. Is that something that gets lost in their move to PR do you think?

      1. Heather — Journalists that migrated to PR were primarily hired for their message production and message placement skills — hence press agentry. And in journalism the listening employed is geared towards story production and isn’t adaptive.

        Though much reviled salesmen that your refer to above have a more adaptive talking/listening style. This is because the consequences of loosing a sale are greater. An obnoxious journalist can always carry his/her story without the cooperation of a difficult source.

        1. Don – just to say that I don’t agree with dismissing either journalists or salespeople. Not all journalists make successful PR practitioners, but I’ve met many who do (and there are case studies of those on PRC who fall into this category). Also, sales is a necessary aspect of any business and those who are skilled in this area show the real benefits of listening – often to lose the sale if it isn’t right in this instance. Of course the obnoxious can be found in any job – but I wouldn’t label any particular field in that way exclusively.

          1. Heather: Sorry for the gross generalization about journalists. The important qualifying term “some” is missing in my posts. My mistake. My own professional origin is from that profession

  17. Heather, you are smart and on the money here with insights galore. Except that I fear you might be going nowhere when you say PRs must have the skills to listen, negotiate and compromise. Of course, in principle, I agree with you, PRs must have such skills by the bucket load (or even the supertanker load). But my point is that our primary role is not to listen, negotiate or even to compromise. The challenge you address is – it’s time for PR to come clean.

    1. Paul – I tend to feel that if we don’t have a primary role to at least listen, then we are never going to be effective communicators. The best sales people know the value of letting the other person talk in closing the deal – the ultimate in persuasive communications. They also apply the processes of negotiation and compromise – albeit within the boundaries of still returning a profit (or walking away from a sale). It seems rather odd to claim to be professional communicators when most PR practitioners are focused on mediated communications, largely in the print arena, where they start from a premise of what we want to say and achieve rather than seeing it as a discursive or iterative process.

  18. Like Kevin, I find your critique of planning models useful:

    ‘Planning models would need to be reconceptualised away from a focus on achieving objectives that are pre-determined from the organisation’s perspective; to be less-linear and more adaptive.’

    This is a timely debate (and I even have an undergraduate student looking at this for her dissertation).

    1. Richard – nice to hear that undergraduates are looking at such topics. I’d love to see us promote more of such work from dissertations – perhaps a new feature we could introduce here at PRC.

  19. Hi Heather,

    Some PR people do practise relationship management that incorporates listening, negotiation and compromise. For example, many years ago, I was involved in a major stakeholder engagement initiative at a blue chip UK corporate that was all about discussing the issues stakeholders were concerned about and then feeding these into the strategic review process. And corporate changes were made as a result.

    Yes, the balance should shift away from media relations much more towards relationship management, but the two go hand in hand. It is entirely reasonable for organisations to have objectives that require different approaches to PR. It’s the integration of communication and relationship management across an organisation, tailoring different approaches appropriately to different situations, that is what effective Chief Reputation Officers of the future will need to do well.

    I agree that traditional PR planning models are part of the problem and a new approach to planning that is iterative and flexible is required. We could learn a lot from the IT world that is using agile planning techniques that focus on interactions rather than processes, responding to change rather than following rigid documentation. This is one area that PR education could lead on.

    1. Kevin – I agree it is a holistic toolkit that we need, but at present we seem to treat most problems as requiring the media relations solution rather than using other options that may be more effectively. Interesting that you note IT is leading in agile planning techniques as it is from such routine dominated disciplines that the more rigid approaches have derived. Definitely an area that I’d like to explore further.

      1. Hi Heather,

        PR plans that take months to research, that turn into grandiose wordy documents that get filed away and forgotten, and that are not collaborative are no longer fit for purpose.

        The agile software development approach is summed up as:

        Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
        Working software over comprehensive documentation
        Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
        Responding to change over following a plan

        That is, while there is value in the items on
        the right, we value the items on the left more.

        I like this approach. The world moves too quickly now for old style planning. We need a new 21st century model based on agility and collaboration.


  20. You’ve captured some great thoughts that will be part of PR conversations for the next few years Heather as we evolve PR, especially in view of these two statements:

    “It’s all about the media – with little consideration of what we should really be interested in, the public.”
    “Planning models would need to be reconceptualised away from a focus on achieving objectives that are pre-determined from the organisation’s perspective; to be less-linear and more adaptive.”

    I think it starts with each one of us as we educate our respective organizations on the benefits of shifting our perspectives. Change won’t come quickly – it never does – but it has to start somewhere.

    1. Diane – thanks. I am interested in the momentum that seems to be behind slaughtering AVE at present and wonder if we could use that for a wider debate that gets away from simply focusing on persuasive objectives. I’m not saying that those aren’t important much of the time, but just that the idea of getting others to do what we want predominates most PR thinking. Even the revisions of AVE into matrices and other approaches still relates to traditional planning models with changing the behaviour of others as the ultimate goal.

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