Categories: PR issues

10 January 2012


PR is more about messages than relationships

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.

4 responses to “PR is more about messages than relationships”

  1. Sean Williams says:

    Paul – this post is a shot across the bow at the Grunigs!

    First, having a relationship with publics shouldn’t be considered the same as liking them or vice versa, as you intimate regarding Greenpeace or PlaneStupid. But as Brian Solis recently wrote ( it’s still a question of influence and who the right people are to whom a) to send our messages; and b) engage in dialogue for the purposes of either attaining some business outcome.

    The asymmetrical model of communication says regardless of whether it’s 1-way or 2-way, persuasion is the goal — I want you to think-feel-do something that agrees with me and my perspective, thus increasing the chances that my business is successful. But sometimes, organizations are willing to change their objectives, or the path toward them, in order to help a public meet its objectives. This mutual change is the heart of Excellence theory, IMO. As a foundation theory of PR, it leaves a bit to be desired in practice, as Bob Batchelor wrote recently on PRConversations (

    But I’m not willing to dismiss the facilitating aspects of PR in favor of a simple messaging strategy. Some of what we do is persuasion, surely, but if only from a research perspective, understanding our publics and what their goals are is crucial. Not only to the message development process, but to choosing vehicles and methods. After all, our purpose isn’t only to send messages; we also need to determine the extent to which they are understood and acted upon. In particular, internal communication is less about us and our messages than about helping our organizations improve their business processes (which may involve messaging, but surely will involve championing discussion as a means of helping employees understand the business.)

    At the heart of the issue is whether messages, however skillfully rendered, change belief, understanding and behavior. If information were the only missing element in behavior change, all organizations would be vastly more successful than they are — there is more information available than ever before. Generating understanding and commitment requires action in addition to messages.

    another good post Paul. thanks/.

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Sean, thanks for the comment.

    Bob Batchelor is a voice worth listening to on the limitations of Jim Grunig’s thinking. He, like me, offers a reality check.

    I agree that persuasion and influencing behaviour lie at the heart of what PRs do. Moreover, from your comments above I agree with Brian Solis about the importance of influencers – right message, to the right audience using the appropriate vehicle; and that often should involve dialogue, of course.

    In short, I agree with most of your comment, perhaps even all of it.

  3. Craig Pearce says:

    For me, the essence of what you discuss, Paul, is encapsulated in your statement, “What you need is good behaviour.” My take on this is that you support the notion that public relations, operating at its most strategic level, is influencing internal organisational processes/behaviour as much as stakeholder behaviour.

    That’s certainly my view, though I’d appreciate a few more opportunities to practice this level of comms/PR!!

    Thanks for an intelligently argued post.

  4. Paul Seaman says:

    Craig, yes PR is at its most effective when it is practiced at the top of the value chain.

    I’m pushing back on the current over-enthusiastic embrace of “engagement” and consensus building. You hear the word engagement everywhere today. Supposedly social media have all of a sudden brought it to the fore as a meaningful buzzword. In response, I’ve interrogated the notion that PR is all about relationship-building.

    There’s a tendency right now in PR circles to believe that they can manage crowds by overcoming contradictions and conflicts – they can’t. That’s why I talk so much about trust, authenticity and evidence and tell my clients that good PR and good reputations have little to do with being popular, loved and liked (though of course few people want to be hated).

    One of my messages is that life is conflicted (never more so when times are hard). So PRs should get used to it. They should also make it work for their clients, and be honest about it. Another of my messages is that one should set one’s compass in the direction of leadership and vision rather than in the direction of mass opinion.

    There’s not enough counter-intuitive thinking today. That’s why great success stories such as Ryanair and Apple come as such great surprises. Or consider a political example. The British masses neither loved nor liked Winston Churchill, but they found him authentic and trustworthy, which, when the nation was faced with destruction, was enough. In contrast, his predecessor Neville Chamberlain wished to be loved, popular, populist, nice and caring and in tune with the masses; that was the road to defeat for him.