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.

“Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”

It won’t go away.

“Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”

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.

-Ruarai

Advertisements

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.

The Exposure Disclosure

For all the talk about social media’s utility, its champions’ chatter on the proven role of selective exposure in public affairs appears muted. As far as public affairs advocates are concerned, a campaign full of social-media tactics will inevitably win over the hearts and minds of some of those on the other side of most any issue,…or so they tell their clients.

Numerous studies1,2 have established that web surfers actually tend to selectively expose themselves to information that reaffirms their beliefs and, in fact, avert information that opposes them.

What does this mean to public affairs professionals? Well, besides the fact that they should stop doling out b.s. on the mind-changing efficacy of social media,  it might mean that, instead of fully investing in an oft-heralded, oft-digital we are our own media organization philosophy, PA professionals should reinvest in traditional media relations, where the presumed objectivity of the press might temper information seeking tendencies. It might also mean that PA professionals should focus their social-media efforts on mobilizing constituents who agree with their clients’ stances rather than trying to convince those who might never substantially process their pleas.

Whatever it means, it’s high time we disclose selective exposure, in public affairs literature and practice, so that we can come to terms with social media’s actual utility and perhaps find ways of overcoming –or exploiting- this phenomenon.

–  Jude C.