A paradigm shift for PR

Over the almost 50 years the blog has been in the media and PR businesses there has been ongoing debate about what the PR business was, where it was going and how practitioners should be educated and trained.

Now a new book, Strategic Public Relations Leadership, by Anne Gregory and Paul Willis has set a new direction for that debate and raised some important questions for everyone in the industry.

Despite a growing number of courses and PR academics, there have been very few really profound insights and discoveries about PR. The management theorist, Peter Drucker, when he defined PR as bringing the outside inside an organisation provided the very first. The Grunigs provided the second when they spoke about symmetric and asymmetric communications. Students and others have been exposed so often to Jim and Lauri’s formulation that it can seem banal. Yet it contains a profound, and profoundly relevant, view of the importance of dialogue which has stood the test of time well into our current social media world.

One could also list other insights such as the development of the licence to operate conferred by stakeholder consent; the significance of the quality of relationships to reputation; and the role of masterly inaction in issues management. But the two which have struck the blog as powerfully as the Drucker and Grunig ones are derived from research by Anne Gregory. The first came from a presentation on evaluation Anne delivered at a PRIA Conference. Essentially it showed that much of the concern within the industry about how to evaluate is misplaced. Not that it didn’t say much about how you could go about it but more because of the way it highlighted the real agendas of senior managers and what they looked for from their PR advisers. Much of that is less about quantitative measurement and more about reflecting the importance of intangibles in modern organisations’ success.  The obsession with quantitative evaluation – starting back with media content analysis and measuring press clips – was partly a function of the ongoing PR industry cringe in which many practitioners constantly felt the need to justify themselves and resolve some deep-seated insecurity about what we do and how we are regarded. It is a sort of PR version of the famous Australian cultural cringe. It is also analogous with the pointless pursuit – also driven by insecurity – for the status of a ‘profession’ for PR. That latter pursuit has been discredited – except in the eyes of its most fervent advocates – by the old-fashioned laugh test. Walk up to the average man and woman in the street, or your average mid-level manager, and ask them whether they think PR is a profession like medicine, law or accounting and watch the derision with which the proposition is regarded. The second insight which struck the blog came from research Anne did into what senior PR people actually did and what CEOs expect – and much of that expectation was about what Anne terms “contextual intelligence.”

Now she and Paul Willis have brought much of this together into the new book. It should be said that the blog has the book on order, has only flicked through someone else’s copy, but has read a very extensive summary of some of the key themes. A more detailed review will follow later. The book looks at the three roles of communication leadership: clear conceptualisation of the strategic role of communication in organisations; an ability to act the role; and excellence in communication planning. It looks at what CEOs expect of PR leaders and the four levels of contribution the PR strategic leader provides in terms of society, corporate, shareholder/value chain/network and functional requirements. Some of the emphases in the book are on the need for reflective leadership, expertise and, most importantly, contextual intelligence and very strong strategic planning skills.

Anne has been in Australia recently and the blog was lucky enough to attend a small meeting with members of the RMIT PR course Program Advisory Committee at which Anne led discussion about her findings and what it might mean for the industry as well as PR education and training. The two challenges most people agreed on were: the need to provide a sound technical grounding in basic competencies as well as an awareness of stakeholder relations as pre-requisites for the practical task of getting the first job; and, how we can encourage students to see the pathways of training, post graduate education and personal development graduates need to take to develop from neophyte graduate to the trusted counsellor and source of contextual intelligence for boards and senior management.

The latter is a real challenge because it involves laying out pathways for inculcating intellectual curiosity; fostering healthy scepticism; developing a love of life-long learning; acquiring the capacity to synthesise ideas from diverse disciplines and diverse sources of information; and, above all else, a capacity to identify from disparate pieces of data and information what is significant for the organisations they work for or advise. An undergraduate lecturer obviously can’t lay out – in the last semester – a 40 year study program to achieve that. But perhaps successful PR people can develop their own narratives about how they got to the status of trusted counsellor and let undergraduates and emerging practitioners glimpse the path ahead through those stories. Anne has successfully used such stories in her own teaching and perhaps we all – teachers, employers and colleagues – have to do something similar.

Meanwhile the book is available through the Routledge website: www.routledge.com. Until April 30 there is a 20% discount if you quote the special discount code LRK69. You can also get more details of the book at http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415667051/