I sometimes think that we get a little obsessed with what PR is and isn’t, and I am not always sure that these conversations do anything more than keep us busy navel gazing. What I’d like to think about is what PR is becoming…and that’s everything. My personal belief is that formalized communications evolved because it was the only way to manage as organizations grew in size. What is happening today, in my opinion, is simply restoring the conversations that used to happen around the fire or in the high street. Communications technology today has simply allowed talking to catch up with organizational structures.
Organizations don’t get much bigger than states. And even they are being affected by recent trends. The United Nations caught on to the importance of PR a very long time ago, with its programme of goodwill ambassadors. What the French call the people-ization of politics is interesting. The new French Foreign Minister is a well-known international figure, for having established a major humanitarian NGO, not for having climbed the diplomatic ranks by attending one mind-numbing international negotiation after another (and for anyone harbouring any illusions about international negotiations, trust me when I say they are mind-numbing!).
Bono and friends raised the profile of the impact of high levels of debt on low-income countries. Angelina Jolie has brought home the difficult life of many children around the world. Using a star’s reknown to raise the profile of a good cause is one of the oldest forms of PR. What is interesting is to see how widespread the practice is becoming and how much it seems to be overshadowing official processes.
Corporate celebrities are also ambassadors. Who doesn’t associate MacDonald’s and Coca-Cola with America?
On a trip abroad, I recently discovered the delightful BBC series Absolute Power, which is centred on a London-based PR agency. The episode I saw dealt with a situation where the image of America was suffering. An opposition MP thought he had cleverly mobilized an innate anti-Americanism in the British people, which triggered a backlash against a number of American companies. Concerned, the American embassy contacted the PR agency in question and sought help in improving America’s image. The point is not how they did so (through a humorous campaign reminding people what life would be like if there were no America), but the close relationship between the image of private companies and the government of a country.
The rise of private sector diplomacy has even caught the attention of the establishment itself. The Paris-based Académie Diplomatique Internationale (ADI) and the International Herald Tribune will inaugurate the Forum for New Diplocy on 6 December. The first evening will explore the theme “Exploring Innovation & Impact in Global Affairs”. The first personality to appear will be Bernard Kouchner himself, the aforementioned Minister of Foreign Affairs. ADI, established in 1926, originally fulfilled its mission of promoting intercultural dialogue by training diplomats and is now repositioning itself to be relevant in a world where official negotiations are just a small part of the global dialogue.