Rethinking PR with Leo Messi and Joseph Nye

“Always useful to look backwards before looking forwards.” Exploring this thought while surrounded by boisterous Argentines in an “Irish” pub in Bologna, I’m irritated.


It won’t go away.


That freaking noise again, the vuvuzela, drowning out all else and testing the limits of my enthusiasm for watching Argentina toy with South Korea. My world cup venue’s multi-national nationalists capture my last two weeks in Bologna down to a tee: In our fiercely local globalized world, how can my voice break through the constant hum?

Most professionals want to stand out but for PR professionals it’s our very raison d’être.

It’s why we’ve taken this course, Public Relations and Public Affairs from a European Perspective at SAIS campus in Italy. Our professional prospects depend on learning how PR strategies can guide our potential clients and future employers through the din. Moreover, how can we as budding PR professionals stand apart from our peers?

We should, I suppose, as university graduate students, be primarily motivated by an academic curiosity for all things PR related; mere instrumental career goals should pale far down our priority list. Yeah, right. At around three thousand dollars before a gelato has been licked, academic curiosity is an expensive luxury few of us can afford exclusively indulging in. This trip’s lessons better be “operational”, “usable” and “applicable”. How will I sell this learning?!

My food is late as I watch Messi weave through futile Korean tackles; a master craftsman so confident in his ability he patiently awaits his moment doubtless it will come. What a colleague he must be.

Should I feel guilty, standing in the oldest seat of learning in modern Europe, is my instrumental mentality sacrilegious – a concrete example of divergence between American and European worldviews? (And is this Irishman going native?!) No. Frankly, my mentality is ideal if not idealistic. This is, after all, exactly the mentality my future clients and employers will evaluate PR and my own PR skills with: “Isn’t PR just hot air?” To ask their question is to be halfway there: I’m already emphasizing. Sorry Madame L’Etang, that’s score one for US instrumentalism.

Argentina is now 2-0 up and starting to buzz, they know they’re on to a winner. I am starting to feel the same way about my PR prospects. I’ve spotted an opening ripe for new ideas and insights – some of which could be valuable to employers, even interesting to academics. It is the 88-12 trend.

There has been some fabulous discussion here this week but the 88-12 statistic has stood out. 88-12 presents a threat to PR’s professional and academic credibility and, by extension, to my own PR-related employment prospects. What is it? Of all the public relations organizations engage in (consciously and intentionally, or not) only twelve percent is attended to.

This statistic is as shocking as it is striking and I am positively teeming with thoughts on how to transform this threat into an opportunity for some new and broadened PR thinking. After all, if eighty-eight per cent of organizations’ PR is either neglected or uncontrollable, isn’t the conventional business and academic literature focusing, to some extent, on the equivalent of whether Ms Lincoln enjoyed the play other than the incident? Sensing my opening, I am hoping so.

I look around the bar while considering which unconventional PR paradigms may offer clues, insights and even case studies for addressing some of this 88%. The barroom is pungent with lager and sweat, laughter and camaraderie and inevitably I flash back eight years to home.

“Let’s deedle-lee-diddle the bastards”.

I’ll never forget that phrase; uttered in jest by a Belfast barman while he cranked up traditional Irish music upon three stout Orangemen entering the premises. This was my first lesson applying international relations scholar Joseph Nye’s soft power theory. The patriotism unleashed by the world cup all around me reinforced the theme.

What can soft power theory offer PR theorists and practitioners determined to affect more influence over the neglected 88%?

Nye’s sobering illustration of the collapse in many forms of power hierarchies following the rapid and gargantuan drop in the cost of information production, dissemination and consumption since the seventies, provides essential reading for all modern PR professionals. Targeted towards international relations grand strategists, Nye’s strident critique of the limits of hard, i.e. military power, in an information age, inadvertently resolves PR debates concerning Grunig’s symmetrical model versus asymmetrical models. Nye’s logic suggests both models exists simultaneously, both models remind one another of each other’s limitations and are, therefore, both required in any responsible PR strategy or academic analysis.

“In this new world of transnational threats and the information age, it is not just whose army wins, it’s whose story wins…When our policies are formulated in ways which are consultative, which involve the views and interests of others, we are far more likely to be seen as legitimate and to attract others.”

Rather than challenging contemporary PR thinking, Nye’s perspective validates conversations concerning “license to operate” and “sustainability” already initiated by Tony Falconi’s draft PR Accords. Nye, I believe, anchors Falconi’s ambition for PR’s increased validity and value in cold and stark ROI terms: Woe behold the “Goliath” country – or company – who neglects to invest beyond reputation and towards zeitgeist synchronicity. Conversely, clever are the “Davids” who “punch above their weight” by identifying with the interests of others.

Most relevant still for PR practitioners, following the impact of the information age, is Nye’s attention to foresight. Eventually the broad current of public conversation will sweep you up no matter your size and power. Preparing to exploit and protect against this unstoppable “soft” force should – to my mind – reorient PR’s priority goal-setting towards influence and away from outcomes; being a respected, valued and credible partner in issues of public concern should be the new arch-goal. Sustainability is achieved by prioritizing the relationship itself rather than any specific profits or benefits it produces.  

Some PR practitioners will inevitably dismiss this perspective as too vague and intangible. To paraphrase former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson, you do not rip up your tomato roots one day after watering them simply because you have no tomatoes yet.

Unruffled by the vuvuzelas, Leo Messi would instinctively understand this. As one of twenty-two he’ll rarely have the ball but he is constantly available for it and, once in possession, he never wastes an opportunity to redirect the flow of the game.

Suddenly affecting that 88% appears much less intimidating.



PR police arrest beautiful women at world cup


Why does PR get bad PR? Possibly because it’s paymasters too often react like this merely to potential asymmetrical rivals:

Beware what you wear or risk being mistaken for an “ambush marketer”!

What next? Oaths of brand loyalty from ticket purchasers? Color schemes allocated to supporters?

If this was indeed “ambush marketing” then its designers should be congratulated for their creativity. At worst, scolded. Arrested!? For orange mini-skirts. Seems like the marketplace of ideas has an entry fee – and an exit fee.

PS – how many people have now read of Bavaria beer because of the police action?

 – Ruarai

Global standards, local networks

In conference at Edelman

We received a warm and professional welcome at Edelman’s Milan office on Friday.

The visit showed the strength of global systems and standards, driven from the US. We saw something of the complex map of Europe – many countries, many languages, a network combining wholly-owned businesses and affiliates and a blurring of regional boundaries (at one point, I noted Greece linked with countries of the Middle East).

We looked at different models of communications coordination across Europe designed to suit a client’s best interests and avoid duplication and conflict.

We discussed the role of the public relations consultant and considered the enduring place of media relations in the public relations toolkit.

We also gained an insight into some Italian assets. Client relationships appeared exceptionally long-lasting, and Italy’s strength in areas like design, food and fashion were apparent.

Milan makes a statement. It’s a historic city that remains an important commercial centre – and one of Europe’s grandest cities. We noted the willingness of people on the street to help us find our way, switching easily into English to do so.

– Richard

Lagging Behind

One of the primary concepts we are discussing in this class is an American perspective on corporate communication in the European Union. That is, how should an American organization setting up shop in the EU approach this series of complex, diverse and unique publics.

Based on my experience – and, even more so, my two roomates’ experience – in Italy thus far, one approach I would suggest is to take a moment to adjust. What I am specifically referring to is Jet Lag.

Now, I’m well aware that corporate communication is a long-term strategy. So I’m only half serious when I say that arriving from the States a few days before any important dealing with a European business is an important communications strategy. But given the havoc jet lag, combined with some less than superior bed quality, has wreaked on one roommate in particular, it’s something to keep in mind.

In fact, Jonah Lehrer – fresh off his own recent trip abroad – blogged late last week about the cognitive and physical effects of jet lag.

The problem of jet lag is also an interesting case study of stress. Hans Selye, the great Canadian endocrinologist, defined stress as the bodily response to any demand (stressor) that throws our body out of allostatic balance. (The response is an attempt to get that balance back.) Unfortunately for the globalized world, jet lag is one of those things that knocks us off balance. The end result is a large stress response, even if we don’t typically associate duty free shopping, bad plane food and cabin boredom with stress.

This was made clear by a series of clever studies led by Kei Cho, a neuroscientist at the University of Bristol. He compared female flight attendants working for two different airlines. One company gave employees a 15 day break after working a transcontinental flight, while the other company gave employees a 5 day break. After controlling for a slew of variables, Cho found that the cabin crew working for the second airline – they were given fewer days to get over their jet lag – showed higher levels of stress hormone, impaired spatial memory and temporal lobe atrophy. This difference remained even when he controlled for the total amount of jet lag, suggesting that giving the mind time to adjust and recover is the crucial variable.

What are the implications of this for the CEO or communications official traveling abroad? Well, it’s probably important to avoid andy media appearances within the first day or two, especially if the subject is of a contentious nature*. Important negotiations would probably benefit from a few days rest as well.

Understandably, in our fast-paced world adding adjustment time for jet lag isn’t always a possibility. Still, it may be useful for a communications practitioner to keep in mind the very real effects of the time change when prepping either an organizational official or ones’ self for a trip abroad.

-Zack Sherwood

*of course, a case can be made both ways too – for the European going to the States. This doesn’t help explain BP CEO Tony Hayward’s numerous gaffes in the wake of the Gulf Spill, though, as most of those were made from his organization’s home office in London.

“Under the Plane” courtesy emrank via Flickr Creative Commons

Salaries of special advisors revealed

Public sector salaries are a contentious issue at this stage of the economic cycle, especially as there are several who earn more than the British prime minister David Cameron.

We now know that Andy Coulson, the former newspaper editor who is the prime minister’s public relations director is earning a salary of £140,000 (compared to the prime minister’s £142,500).

Cameron, himself a former PR director, has pledged to cut government spending on communications.

Because it’s worth it

Toni Muzi Falconi meets our class

These are challenging times for practitioners in the public and private sectors – but there are opportunities too.

In speaking about the drive towards the Stockholm Accords, Toni Muzi Falconi described this as part of ‘a long-awaited public relations program for PR’. His bold claim? ‘This is the first profession in the world to attempt such a global program with short and simple performance indicators’.

Clearly, in recessionary times, proving the value of a professional service is essential and the Stockholm Accords address the need for public relations to prove its value. Hence the managerial language. (For a more detailed discussion of where to make the cuts – or how to defend against them – see Heather Yaxley’s post at PR Conversations and the resulting comments.)

Providing a text that resonates around the world and reconciling the different perspectives of academics, practitioners and critics is another major challenge. But who better to attempt this than a half-Irish Italian PR practitioner (with half a century of experience) who teaches in New York and who seems to know everyone in our [strike out: industry] profession?

Thank you, Toni, and good luck!

Reviewing the Stockholm Accords

On Tuesday we welcome Toni Muzi Falconi, the driving force behind the Stockholm Accords.

In preparation for his visit, you should take a look at the draft document, set to be ratified next week, and consider the comments posted below.

Here are some questions to consider: Why might the public relations industry need an agreed global statement of principles? Who is the main target for the accords? Are these universal principles, applicable in all countries?

You might also consider some of the discussion around this document from other practitioners and thinkers: David Phillips is largely positive, but Paul Seaman is critical (part one, part two).