Of course PR is about building relationships. Even more than most, our business is diplomacy and even schmoozing and wooing. But let’s not get too soft about our game – or our clients’.
All businesses are about relationship-building. Butchers, say, depend on it. As in: “I’ve some nice sirloin today. A bone for the dog?” One pitch of modern PR is to say that we manage the relationships other people can’t reach – or don’t spot. And indeed we are right to stress that nowadays, reputational risk is everywhere: your suppliers can let you down as easily as your managers. So, yes, PR is about a clients’ 360-degree reputational risk. We have to look at our clients’ relationship risk and its way upstream, way downstream – and all around. To some extent, we can fix those relationships, or find people who can.
But I think we’re starting to go too far, as though PRs were uniquely suited to giving a sort of therapy, or a laying-on of hands. We are at risk of not spotting that messages and influencing behaviour remain our core business.
Here’s an example from a popular blog and thought leader of the muddle PRs are currently in:
“Communicating (communications departments typically engage in: talking) is not a particularly useful skill. Relating is. Maybe it’s time to reclaim the words “public relations” and, more importantly, the philosophical principles that underpin those words. (Paul Holmes’s blog here)
Of course, I accept that our trade is public relations. But I insist that the essence of that remains preparing and communicating messages. We improve people’s relationships by ensuring they understand the value of developing their messages carefully, getting them out, and living up to them.
That means we are like diplomats, journalists and yes (blimey) philosophers. And we do indeed go further: we remind our clients, over and over, that good messages produce their own weakness and risk; we remind them that they have to walk the talk. A stated aspiration is a hostage to fortune, a challenge to our critics (stakeholders, indeed!).
You can have all the relationships you like with the media, with one’s neighbours, with one’s customers, with the NGOs, and when you don’t deliver the reality you’ve told them to expect, they’ll still all pile in on you with gay abandon and crocodile tears.
So of course, we PRs build relationships. But relationships are no sort of insurance or guarantee. They may not even be the best sort of investment. What you need is good behaviour, solidly communicated.
I’m trying to get it across that winning friends is not the necessary or sufficient condition of influencing people. The relationship of trust (which PRs may well want between themselves and their clients and the rest of the world, that great Other) is not the same as or even like the relationship of, say, friendship or affection. Reputations are about more than relationships.
Perhaps I can put it this way: I often trust people or institutions I don’t know and don’t like. I don’t have a relationship with judges, the police, firefighters, the surgeons in my local hospital, the drivers of Shell’s road tankers. I don’t want one either. I just want to be able to trust them.
By the way, new media don’t change any of this much. The people who twitter and blog may believe they are a new social entity, and PRs may believe that this new sociology requires a new sort of relationship-building. Like Harold Burson here, I doubt it.
Much was made of the new relationship Obama had forged with the American people in the new ether. Yeah, well, maybe. Right now, he seems to have gone on to hack off the floating, middling, uncommitted American centre ground. Will he get the enthused kids back? Has he got an ongoing, er, relationship with them? We’ll see. It looks to me that in important measure, what he surfed was a wave of enthusiasm, and it may have broken on the shore in a trillion sparkling droplets. His vast virtual Rollodex may develop into a relationship, but we can’t know yet because a relationship is a thing which gets a history or it isn’t anything.
Moreover, we’ve always known that the best PR is heard and not seen. That means that PR has mostly an indirect relationship to its target audiences – through the media, through third-party opinion formers and other influencers (advocates) whether that’s online or off, through the media or by other means.
PR’s hand is even more remote when, as Edward Bernays showed us with his “Torches for Freedom”, it manufactures consent by engineering events that help create a new social consensus or climate of opinion.
So I come back to the importance of asking the question, relationships with whom? Of course, most institutions and firms want good relationships with clients, opinion-formers, hacks, enemies, politicians stakeholders, neighbours and everybody else.
But, actually, most of those audiences don’t have time to have a relationship with you. What most audiences require is the right message, at the right moment via the right channel. Most of the people who determine what reputation you acquire (reputations are conferred by others) will respond positively (or dangerously). They won’t do so because they’ve been nurtured directly by PRs.
For advocacy to work, of course, people need to be persuaded to think a certain thing. Hence, it makes sense for PRs to engineer a genuine invitation to accept and meet informed challenge by the target audience – but very often still without engaging directly as the PR team – for anything controversial or requiring consent or acceptance by various stakeholders (new runways, licences to operate etc.).
Of course there are exceptions. Those are strategic and tactical considerations (Ryanair doesn’t talk to PlaneStupid, but many firms talk to Greenpeace, but some won’t talk to either and some talk to both).
There’s no love in war, competition, public opinion and the media, so why bother to be loved or liked? Being understood and trusted should be enough. That means putting integrity, truthfulness, evidence and authenticity at the heart of communication.
Note: this was first posted in 2009.