News that celebutante Kim Kardashian is to produce a ‘reality’ show on public relations sent shivers of dread down my spine this week. More than anything else, it highlighted (for me) the fact that as a profession, we are in the midst of a cusp catastrophe that requires attention from us all.
For several months now I have been pondering this phenomenon, evidenced by the multiplicity of practice ‘realities’ that surround us – of which Kardashian’s subjects will demonstrate just one. Sadly, my hunch is that it will do our professional reputation no good whatsoever.
I know nothing of Command PR, the named subjects of the show, other than their gatekeeper website that invites phone calls but gives no other information. I also know nothing of the intention behind the show other than the boys are reported to be Kardashian’s TBFs (true best friends), but in my experience, reality shows have less to do with reality and more to do with creating controversial stereotype-driven telly that sets out to wreak as much reputational damage as possible, something Heather Yaxley discussed on her own blog a while back. Put it this way, I am not expecting an accurate reflection of today’s public relations profession.
Analysing thousands of blogs and conversations on public relations I have found so many perceived realities of what we do that a cusp meltdown would not surprise me, an occurrence that would leave the profession directionless, aimless and, us, well, jobless. Not a good place to be mid-recession.
Before the news of Kardashian’s latest escapade broke on Friday, I had actually been contemplating the Roman god Janus (of ‘January’ fame) as an illustration of where we are. The reason he came to mind – not just because he also served as god of gatekeepers, gates, beginnings and endings – was because of the memorable image of his two faces pointing in opposite directions. I also thought of Batman’s long-time foe Two-Face, but more on him later.
Public relations is without doubt on the cusp of a new beginning as well as the ending or abandonment of older approaches and styles (like celebrity publicity). Any cusp catastrophe worth mentioning sees the direction jumping from one solution to another – and back again – in an increasingly unstable environment. There is no mistaking the instability of our environment or the variety of public relations practice models, from the ‘celebrity pr’ to those stuck in an old-school media relations rut, to some still sending out one-way information and others who see the main purpose of public relations as building and sustaining relationships.
The CPRS definition that Judy Gombita posted here some weeks ago was very cheering because it acknowledged the business of building relationships (although I still have reservations on the wording), but, as in many walks of life, official recognition of purpose and outcome often lags behind the reality – or maybe just sits in the middle somewhere.
Because for many practitioners, the reality of today’s practice is not banging on about booty in the celebrity mix or servicing mainstream media. In today’s socially driven world, it is not even enough to build and sustain the relationship. The cusp, if you like, is the position where the practitioner determines and sets the values for the organisation on which the future relationship will be based.
We know the consequences of actions instantly reverberate around the world. We know that, as never before, individuals can create a collective voice loud enough to demand and affect change – only this week in New Zealand, Cadbury went ‘Fairtrade’ (much later than elsewhere in the world), just days after bowing to consumer pressure to remove palm oil from its Australasian product. Thankfully, as the long neglected art of listening gains credence, many organisations are facing the reality of change based on stable values supporting consistent ethical practice.
If we are charged with building the relationships and navigating the reputational tides, and if we are to be ‘institutionalised’, surely the practitioner must be involved in auditing and setting the organisational values? This in itself creates further points of motion on our cusp catastrophe. If an organisation proves resistant to ethical operation, then practitioners could find themselves simultaneously in breach of and adhering to the majority of ethical codes. What do they do? Maintain confidentiality or whistle-blow in ‘the public interest’ and (I’ve asked this question before) in which ‘public’s interest’ do they make the noise?
Once upon a time and certainly when following older approaches to public relations such a situation might have seemed impossible. However, if the practitioner is setting values and acting as the ethical conscience for the organisation, such a situation becomes a distinct possibility. Suddenly, like Janus, we face both ways at once.
Equally, the social media environment demands absolute transparency from an organisation. Failure to tell the truth or obfuscation of the facts results not only in instant and far-reaching reputational damage but in a failure of trust and engagement – and ultimately, the relationship. How then does the young practitioner deal with a situation in which immediately telling the truth conflicts with the clause in the code of ethics which forbids confidential information to be revealed?
When explaining the social media environment to clients and organisations, it is apparent that once leadership understands the implications of direct unfiltered channels they opt to become either a closed system or an entirely open one. Where they opt for an open systems approach, the first step is internal change, most frequently navigated by the public relations practitioner. This means that we must not only equip the practitioner with the skills necessary to advise and train others, but provide them with the skills needed to deal with the complexities of change.
Which brings us back again to our cusp, with its curve peppered with co-existing points of practice. Each has its own perceived reality, but few peer over the curve with any sense of vision as to where we are headed next. The new practice reality that sees the ethical practitioner guiding organisational values has already begun and is being driven by rapidly evolving technology. Take augmented reality. Only this week, further applications for the iPhone were released, so we can overlay our absolute image of reality with computer generated information and ‘improvements’ to real-life places. The communications technician charged with implementing such augmentation will need clear ethical practice guidance if realities and reputations are not to be distorted or embossed.
I don’t know if a universal reality of the Janus practitioner will ever come to pass; after all, the challenge of simultaneously looking deeply inside and outside the gate, then applying the wisdom of the gods to determine the nature and values of the organisation, and then getting on with the job of building the relationships is a big ask. It might be, like old Two-Face, who flipped a coin to decide whether to undertake a good or bad action, it proves impossible to do without distorting one vision or another. The value-setting ethical practitioner does exist and, even if it takes some time, I think that is the reality that lies ahead. If we are not to be left flipping coins, or to be ever viewed through the lense of older realities, such as might be evident in the E! programming schedule, then I suggest we review all the codes of ethics, be precise in our determination of ‘the public interest’ and then use the reviewed codes to guide us away from the cusp catastrophe deeper into our new beginning. Otherwise any future reality we find ourselves inhabiting may leave us uncertain as to which way we should face in order to enact social good.