Are you listening?

I’m irked by how frequently the term public relations is used to mean publicity and associated with profile-raising antics designed solely for headline impact.

This week the New Zealand Herald carried a piece about an Auckland property for sale, belonging to that renowned world statesman Siaosi George Tupou V (a.k.a the King of Tonga). Bayleys spokesman Scott Cordes was quoted as saying: “We would love to have done a PR campaign and show you around (the house) but we are under strict orders (not to).”

Now, I may be wrong here but I’m assuming Scott really meant: “We would love to have publicised the hell out of this and milked the royal connection for every column inch of ink possible…”

I’m pretty sure that when he referred to a “PR campaign” he didn’t have in mind a long-term, multi-channel communication programme designed to create enduring, meaningful two-way communication and mutual understanding between the seller and potential buyers.

Also this week, transport minister Steven Joyce referred to a “communication” programme that would accompany proposed changes to the ‘give way’ rules on our roads.

Again, I’m pretty sure such a programme won’t involve communication as I like to think of it, which is usually a two-way affair involving some degree of meaningful dialogue.

It’s true that ‘public relations’ is a mighty big tent covering a multitude of evils facets. Publicity, public affairs, media relations, internal communication, investor relations… you name it, for better or for worse it’s in there.

I’m just a wee bit concerned, though, that some are starting to lose sight of the relations part of public relations. That what we do is defaulting to a sort of marcoms/publicity hybrid.

The proliferation of social media, with its focus on ‘conversations’ rather than ‘campaigns’, means we really do need to be listening at least as hard as we are talking.

This isn’t a new issue, by any stretch of the imagination. The big consultancies saw the writing on the wall more than two decades ago – was it Burson-Marsteller who first coined the phrase ‘reputation management’ to describe what they do? Whoever it was, they wanted to put clear blue water between themselves and the hype merchants and publicity seekers.     

But it seems worse now, somehow. It feels like we’ve developed an entire generation of senior management, marketing and ‘communication’ gurus who believe that public relations is all about blasting out Key Messages through reams and reams of ‘free publicity’ garnered through dubious surveys, carelessly-interpreted statistical analysis and increasingly outlandish attention-grabbing stunts.

Recently I blogged about an increase in consumer intolerance and growing distrust of business and authority. I asked what might have created this. Was it too much ‘spin’? Too much ‘presentation’? Too much corporate nonsense-speak? Too little real and meaningful (for this, read ‘two-way’) engagement between organisations and the people important to them?

MBA courses the world over now cover PR as just another way of pushing the organisation’s message out to its long-suffering stakeholders. Many overlook its crucial role in giving the organisation a human face and in giving voice within the organisation to what key audiences are thinking and telling each other.  And they largely ignore the part PR should play in a protecting an organisation’s reputation by having some involvement in every aspect of its operation.

Little wonder, then, that PR practitioners are constantly asked by bean-counters and even marketing chiefs to evaluate and quantify their work in terms of widgets sold or the ubiquitous AVE.

Little wonder, too, that organisations of all sizes right around the world shunt from crisis to crisis with varying degrees of success and that crisis management now figures so prominently in most large PR consultancies’ lexicon of core offerings (check out this 28-day review of corporate bleeps and blunders).

The proliferation of social media, with its focus on ‘conversations’ rather than ‘campaigns’, means we really do need to be listening at least as hard as we are talking.

And the threat posed by citizen journalism – which can make any person, company or product a global star within minutes, for all the wrong reasons – means it’s more vital than ever that we spend time and effort generating real relationships with our stakeholders. Meaningful relationships, based on solid, factual and sober two-way communication.   

My dad used to tell me: “you’ve got two ears and one mouth – use them in that proportion”. How right he was.

This entry was posted in business, citizen journalism, corporate communication, crisis communication, internal comms, marcomms, reputation, social media, spin, the human element, trends and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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