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

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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).

From Mexico to Stockholm

The Mexican statement of 1978 was a milestone attempt by a committee to define the role and purpose of public relations.

It is still widely cited today and established the concept that public relations should “serve both the organization’s and the public interest.”

Three decades later, the public relations industry has grown rapidly and organizations face many challenges to their legitimacy.

This summer, The World Public Relations Forum meeting in Stockholm, Sweden, aims to formulate and agree The Stockholm Accords, a new statement on the role of public relations in the ‘value network society’.

The link takes you to a statement of guiding principles and the vigorous debate in the comments section on the appropriateness of this approach. At one level, it’s a power struggle over leadership of the industry. Should this come from academics, from practitioners, from their clients or from the professional bodies? Can they come together and agree on anything?