The trusted counsellor

Delivered to the Victorian PRIA Golden Target Prize Presentation, September 29 2012 

Thank you Angela and Jack and congratulations to all the winners.

When I started in this industry in the 1960s people spent a lot of time trying to define what public relations was.

In retrospect it seems like a gigantic waste of time because what it was then was pretty clear – media relations undertaken by a mob of boys who were nearly all former reporters (we didn’t call them journalists back then).

Tonight the creativity, breadth and depth of the Golden Target entries show just how much has changed – just as the audience tonight demonstrates the rather dramatic change in the gender balance in the industry.

Today public relations practitioners are undertaking an enormous variety of activities – media relations still but much more importantly all the facets of corporate social responsibility, reputation management, community consultation, social marketing, issues and crisis management plus many other things.

Indeed, if we were looking for a definition of what we do today it is probably better to focus on our role as a trusted counsellor across an astonsing range of areas.

But while the role of trusted senior counsellor is the one every ambitious practitioner ought to aspire to – it is a role which has to be earned rather than inherited.

How to fulfil that role is something I have been thinking about a lot lately as a co-chair of the Melbourne Mandate culture of listening working party which is preparing some statements on that culture for the November World PR Forum in Melbourne which I hope you will all attend.

In the early discussions about the Melbourne Mandate statement on listening I mentioned that the best definition I knew of public relations came from the great management thinker, Peter Drucker, who said that what PR did was to bring the outside inside an organisation.

In other words the practitioner listened to what was going on in the world and tried to ensure an organisation’s messages, culture, activities, values matched the interests and values of the community and stakeholders.

That’s not an easy role because much of our work is about telling people things and listening – critically and intelligently – is about engaging in dialogue.

It takes two things to do this role as trusted counsellor well:

First, some courage and maturity to speak truth to organisations when it is sometimes uncomfortable to do so.

Second, knowledge of the world around us and the capacity to interpret what it means to our organisations.

The combination of these two things provides us with some important things to contribute to our organisations’ and our clients’ success – the capacity to negotiate complex environments and the ability to achieve strategic clarity in what we do.

I should say strategic clarity is never about the tools of our trade – whether they be media relations or social media activity – but rather about how we focus our strategies and programs within the context of deep and real knowledge about the world around us – from politics and economics to demographics and social change.

Tools are just things we learn to use. They change from time to time and become fashionable or unfashionable. I know everyone is currently talking about social media, for instance, but fewer people are talking about precisely how it can be used, why and when – let alone about how we evaluate its effectiveness

The real challenge for practitioners is the quality that the best entries in the Awards share – putting the tools in strategic context.