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.



Europe Has A Problem

Perhaps one of the strongest messages our esteemed professor has stressed is that there is not a single European perspective.  There is a European Union, sure, but it is no where near a One Nation movement towards a United Europe that a communications professional can approach strategically.

In fact, in many of these countries, there isn’t even one nation. For example, I’ll point to the elections this past weekend in Belgium. A Flemish separatist party became Belgium’s largest on a platform calling for reform of French and Dutch speaking factions that, if not resolved, will result in the Dutch faction splintering off.

[New Flemish Alliance Leader Bart De Weaver] has made no secret of his belief that this is only a step to full Flemish independence, but his genius was to position himself as the most radical of the mainstream leaders, pushing the status quo as far as it can possibly go without triggering an existential crisis. He dangled before Flemish voters the idea that, armed with a thumping mandate from them, he would have the power to demand a constitutional structure that finally reflected the Flemish view of reality: that Belgium is made up of two societies, in which a thrifty, centre-right, Dutch-speaking north should no longer have to subsidise a poorer, welfare addicted French-speaking, socialist south.

Internal division rearing its head seems to be a trend. In elections last week  Slovakia produced moderate gains for their center-right parties, but produced a huge backlash of nationalism. Jan Slota, the head of the country’s nationalist party warned that “Homosexuals and Hungarians will begin to rule this state.” Similarly, Geert Wilders anti-Islam Freedom party showed strong gains in a recent election that nearly ended with the controversial extremist who wants to end all Islamic immigration to the Netherlands in a prominent ministerial position.

To keep with the tone of personal experience we have flourishing on this blog, I’ll point to three examples I have seen in the three weeks I have been in Italy.  In Florence, my travel companion and I were approached in a butcher shop by a woman who began a long and protracted declaration- in Italian – of the heartbreaking sadness she has witnessed in Florence over the past two decades.

My companion – who understands Italian quite well – and myself – who does not – can conceivably pass as Italian, so we nodded our heads politely and added the occasionally sympathetic “si” and “perche?” Afterwords, my companion explained that the woman complained that the tourists and foreigners have taken her once beautiful city and overrun and destroyed it – with graffiti, excrement and general filth.

At a hotel along my journey the proprietor explained a run-in with a German customer. “From now on, no Germans. No!”

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, I add a simple observation. Who are the beggars is Italian cities? I have seen no obvious Italians – only Indians, Africans and Roma (Gypsies to be un-PC). I found this startling.

Contrast this with the homeless or those asking for money in the United States. It is largely African American and Caucasian. I can not, for the life of me, ever remember an instance of a Hispanic, Asian or African asking for money in the United States.

My observation is that immigrants (both legal and illegal) have a status in the US that doesn’t appear to transfer to Italy. And their presence in Italy seems to put a strain on traditional Italians.

Now, any good sociologist will tell you that the plural of anecdote is not data. And I’ll agree. But this is a trend. And taken with the political gains (votes, however, are quantifiable) in Belgium, Slovakia and the Netherlands it adds up to a very real and very significant problem that must be taken into account when dealing with Europe from a public relations standpoint.

It would appear that there isn’t one Italy, one Belgium, one Slovakia or one Netherlands. So how could there possibly be one Europe. If there isn’t one Europe, there certainly isn’t one European Perspective.

So while I have learned a lot about Europe and its individual countries in this class, and a lot about public relations and corporate communication, I can honestly say that I haven’t learned a lot about the European perspective on anything (short of football). Except that it is more intricate and has vastly more layers than the countries themselves. And maybe that’s the lesson after all.


Bonn-EU Flag courtesy Revers via Flickr CC

Nosing around Bologna

In a city that’s a quick train ride from Milan – a destination considered by many the fashion capital of the world – it is not surprising that women are getting nose jobs. (In just two weeks here in Bologna, I have seen a handful of otherwise fashionably dressed women with large white bandages taped over their noses.)

What is surprising is the role that Bologna and one of its residents played in the development of the nose job – or rhinoplasty – over 400 years ago.

Born in Bologna in 1545, Gaspare Tagliacozzi was a talented surgeon based out of the University of Bologna who expanded on existing surgical methods to develop the ‘Italian method’ of rhinoplasty at a time when those who survived battle often had their noses cut off or damaged.

Anatomical theater in Bologna where Tagliacozzi lectured.

At the end of his career, Tagliacozzi helped standardize reconstructive surgery techniques by publishing a 700 page book that some consider the first text on plastic surgery in the history of medicine.

Examining plastic surgery through the historical lens of Tagliacozzi and 16th century Italy, it is interesting to consider the reasons women get plastic surgery in Bologna today.

In a country like Italy where feminine beauty is sublimated in the media and even exploited in the opinion of some, it seems plausible that women face a new kind of battle. A battle with beauty standards and objectification.

Ironically, this new battle, which is fought not with swords and shields but with images and symbols, articulates yet another threat to the human nose…a body party that has suffered well into antiquity.

–Aaron Ginoza

Taking A Piece of Bologna Home…

“What are you mastering exactly?”  These were the innocent, yet thought-provoking, words of my 16-year old cousin who responded to my email updating her on my Master’s program studies abroad in Italy.  Even if she may not yet grasp the concept of graduate education, her question made me think, what am I mastering?

Instead of trying to break down my last 2 years as a Hopkins grad student, I focused on the Bologna experience which has fast-tracked me to what I am specifically hoping to “master” upon completion of this program.  My elementary Italian (ok, just hi, bye, toilet and wine) vocabulary is now perfected, I have clocked time in over eight cities in just two weeks where I experienced a plethora of sights, cuisine, art and culture (with over 400 photographs as proof), and have come to find comfort in the soft hum of Vespas.

So, really, what have I mastered while in Bologna?  To most reading this, you would probably argue craziness due to gelato overdose.  But, besides returning to the States with a few extra pounds courtesy of the heavenly fresh bread/Nutella combo and a bag of new shoes, Bologna will allow me to return home – recharged as a graduate student and as a working professional, with a much-needed, new perspective on my education and career ahead.  The past two weeks have given me a fresh outlook on life, learning and opportunity, a renewed appreciation for intellectual, yet enjoyable conversation, a substantive understanding of the ever-changing European political and economic climate and ultimately a better understanding of cultural and international communication as a whole.

Living in a foreign country, where you don’t speak the language or understand simple mannerisms, forces you to break down contributing factors of public relations to the bare bones of communication.  This simplification allows individuals from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds to communicate despite their diversity.  My time is Italy has helped in my attempt to master just that…


The Religious Backdrop of Italian Life

Religious artwork and graffiti on the walk to Basilica della Madonna di San Luca, outside Bologna

During class, we discussed the irony of Pope Benedict XVI condemning condom use, yet on almost every street corner in Italy, there is a 24-hour condom vending machine.  States Tobias Jones, author of The Dark Heart of Italy, “Being Italian implies being Catholic…it’s a cradle-to-grave religion which is not only devotional, but also political and social and aesthetic,” (pg. 174).  It seems odd that a society noted for being so devout that it houses the Vatican defies, flagrantly, the mandates of the Papacy. 

How do Italians rectify these co-existing, yet diametrically opposed paradigms of the Catholic Church’s puritanical ideology and Italian society’s well-known hedonistic indulgences (mind the pun)?  Answer: The Italians are okay with it.  They are simply comfortable with conflicting ideologies. 

For instance, piazzas were originally meant to be religious, economic and political areas are now areas where Italians gather to drink, eat and socialize.  Additionally, you will find ancient and historically important buildings covered with Biblical references, and shockingly, graffiti.  Local churches, their interiors incredibly decorated, gilded and well looked after often smell of the previous nights’ celebration on the outside.

So, how have the Italians come to be so comfortable with these obvious discrepancies?

Perhaps the influence of Ancient Rome is still alive in many ways.  In Ancient Rome, there was a focus on art, music and literature and entertainment.  The Ancient Romans based their religion on the Greek deity system, where they actually thought of themselves as gods.  Frescoes, graffiti, brothels and sculptures found in Pompeii show a history of lascivious lifestyle, full of physical pleasure seeking.

Henry James may have said it best, “Venice is the most beautiful of tombs.”  James was referencing that Italy, now known for its vitality, has faced changing and sometimes very violent times. 

Whatever the reason, Italy is an interesting and striking country that has largely stayed the same in many respects while the populace evolves around it.

–          Kim

The Colosseum: Movies as PR?

Kelly at the Colosseum

Last Sunday, my classmate Phillip and I visited Rome for the day. Our first and last stop was the Colosseum. As one of Italy’s most ancient and major tourist attractions, it needs no publicity or word of mouth. When we first arrived, the line to enter the Colosseum was so long, we surmised it would take us at least two hours to gain entrance.

So, we decided we would hit some other tourist spots and make the Colosseum our last stop. When we returned and walked into the Colosseum, I immediately knew it was worth the wait. As an American who loves period movies, my first thought turned to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Who doesn’t remember Russell Crowe’s most infamous lines spoken in the final Colosseum scene?

“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”

Take that Commodus! OK, I digress. As I harkened back to some of the best scenes of Gladiator, Phillip asked me if I had seen Doug Liman’s Jumper film. I had not so he told me that there was a great fight scene that also took place at the Colosseum.

My trip to Rome showed me that PR takes many different forms. It can be overt or covert. But, it also can take the unconscious form of a Hollywood film, usually filmed not on location but on a studio lot miles away. And, some of the best PR is free PR, especially if a consumer can attach a brand to it.

-Kelly A. Campbell

PR for Marketing and for You

Something touched upon in our meeting with Edelman (HP’s relationship with Edelman’s Spanish office) is how the public relations function fits into the promotional puzzle of larger, MBA-driven organizations. One might be surprised to find that PR is, to many in the business world (particularly B2C), the last –albeit essential- step in the marketing process. This, I’ve learned, holds some important implications on how to brand oneself to would-be clients,…so I’m wondering how these implications could be affected by European business dynamics.

The tenets of B2C marketing can most elegantly be described by the Four Ps: Product, Price, Place, and Promotion. Rather than delve deeply into each P’s relevance to an overall strategy, I’ll simply say this: after one has developed the optimal product for a market, has priced it for maximum gross profit, and has placed it in the most profitable mix of sales channels, they then seek to promote it via advertising and public relations.

This globally taught schema suggests two things right away: 1) after product release, biz school grads (those not schooled in relationship marketing) immediately see PR as asymmetrical, and 2) if one hopes to work with big business, one should brand oneself as an important, informative piece of the Four Ps or, after years of strategic experience, brand oneself above the Four Ps.

I am, however, hesitant about the best way to present oneself to European business, specifically. Given the more collective nature of many European business cultures (e.g. German), should one worry about transcending PR’s predetermined space? Moreover, given all of the cultures and varying measures of success, do European businesses tend to depend on more common-denominator, institutionalized capacity verification (e.g. professional schooling) than their American counterparts? – well, if so, having taken a course in PR and Public Affairs from a European Perspective certainly couldn’t hurt! 🙂

– Jude C.