What do communicators do and what do they need to know

A major Delphi study is being conducted to identify the capabilities communicators should have and what they should know.

And the early results seem to indicate some emphases which one would expect but which are also very different from some common practice emphases on tactics, techniques and fashionable communication channels.

The project – The Global Alliance Capabilities Framework – is a multi-year, two-phased project. The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management is a confederation of the world’s major PR and communication management associations and institutions, representing 160,000 practitioners and academics around the world. It is a not-for-profit organisation based in Switzerland which aims to unify the public relations industry (although unlike the blog they refer to it as a profession), raise professional standards, share knowledge and be the global voice for public relations.

One of the driving forces behind the project is Anne Gregory, Professor of Corporate Communications at Huddersfield University, who has been a pioneer in many areas of research and standard setting as well as demonstrating that PR people can be progressives with a profound social conscience rather than buttoned down defenders of the status quo. She was recently in Australia in her role as an Adjunct RMIT Professor and to talk about the Delphi study in which RMIT’s Marianne Sison is an Australian leader.

The first phase of the study concluded with a compilation of the current most prevalent knowledge and behavioural items as defined in national professional standards and in numerous workshops with association and industry leaders in all continents.

In a second phase, this compilation is being used as the basis for consultations with GA member associations and with scholars – the objective is to “explore if the knowledge and behavioural items in public relations can be expanded into a global capabilities framework (with local flexibility) that may serve to raise the standards of public relations in the years to come.”

What seems clear from the first stage is that current best practice PR focusses on capabilities such as strategy, framing and environmental scanning rather than on tactics and techniques – important as these can be if used creatively. An earlier piece of research by Professor Gregory also demonstrated just how central environmental scanning was to the work of senior PR people in both the UK private and public sectors.

Participating in a consultation session on the study the blog started thinking about some work it had done earlier this century (sounds great but actually only 17 years ago) on what PR courses should teach. The work started as part of a review of the RMIT PR course but crystallised some thoughts which were published later in The Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal in 2003. Looking back on the paper (which is on this site) the blog thought some of it had stood up well and some not so well.

Essentially the blog put forward a hypothesis that PR “is an activity which functions at the interface between best practice professional activity and all those disciplines which provide insights into human behaviours and attitudes.” The blog even had a little diagram to illustrate this even if it felt a bit guilty about doing so. But to get published you sometimes need to do these things however much you hate PowerPoint.

Demonstrating that there is never much new in this area a literature review for the RMIT review turned up some earlier papers by Kathleen Getz which emphasized a host of disciplines which were needed if you were to be effective in public affairs – a host which added to the list the blog was suggesting and which the blog discussed in the APPRJ paper.

The blog, in its paper, emphasised behavioural economics, small world mathematics (implicit in this data mining) and neuroscience as contributions to the list. The latter was a tad premature and almost certainly wrong. But it is now a fashionable enough area of enquiry, as the blog heard at a Melbourne Foundation for Business and Economics dinner, for Melbourne University’s Faculty of Economics and Business to set up a new research centre which includes neuroscience along with various behaviourial fields as areas of study.

President Obama provided billions for brain research although the new President will probably not continue that because what could you find out about the brain that he doesn’t already know. Moreover, the ongoing academic confusion, controversy and uncertainty demonstrated by some philosophers and others about consciousness now makes the subject as clear (or as uncertain if you prefer) as black matter hypotheses. After all, just how many books and articles can Daniel Dennett and Thomas Nagel write on the subject, before we all give up? Nevertheless, as the Global Alliance website makes clear, most of these issues (other than neuroscience which suggests PR people are a bit more realistic than Melbourne University business and economic academics) are being considered in the capabilities research.

Meanwhile the debate will continue about the tactics and techniques stuff. The blog was recently scoffed at (well regarded as a silly, grumpy old man at least) because it continued with its view that social media is very important but that new or transformational technologies like printing in the Reformation and social media today don’t alter the fundamentals of good PR – strategy, environmental scanning and framing. There are many examples throughout history of things which “changed everything” but which at base still relied on complex interactions between messages, media, political, social and economic developments and extraneous factors such as the plague and famine. Equally there are as many good PR programs which succeeded because they selected the most appropriate channel rather than the most fashionable – a reality which was brought home to the blog when a colleague devised a brilliant campaign based on shopping centre displays which later research showed was second only in importance to GST in the 1993 Australian Federal election outcome.

Meanwhile the blog continues to counter pose the significance of social media with the Joseph Kony campaign. Millions around the world signed up to the campaign to get him prosecuted for war crimes. When the blog asked someone recently what it had achieved the reply was that “it brought people together”. Well it might have, but Kony is still murdering people and much of Africa is experiencing civil war.

Which brings us full circle to the GA capabilities project and the critical PR capabilities of focusing on objectives and outcomes.