Over the past two weeks I heard three interesting discussions about the state of the practice of public relations in this environment affected by the vastly changing economic and social landscapes resulting from the pressures of the recession and of the proliferation of both professional and consumer generated digital media. The three events were the Council of Public Relations Firms’ 2009 Critical Issues Forum, "Aftershock: Rebuilding Trust and Confidence in 2010,” the Institute for Public Relations Research and Education annual Distinguished Lecture and Awards Dinner, and the Echo Research sponsored Echo Chamber Breakfast Seminar, “Communications in the New Economic Reality.”
Several points of consensus clearly emerged. First, the corporate communications department and public relations agency worlds are still agonizing over what should be their roles and responsibilities with social media. I hope that this kind of public agonizing is a good sign, but I’m somewhat concerned that it is an indication of how far behind the curve many of these people are. The discussions were radically different from the kinds of dialogue – and energy -- that you’ll find at the Blogworld or SXSW conferences.
More reassuring, there was also consensus that public relations is rightly a concern for doing the right things, not for communicating things in the best possible light. Again and again it came up that there is just no way to spin Wall Street bonuses and compensation packages in a way that Americans on Main Street will find palatable. Probably nobody summed this up better than CNN’s David Gergen at the Council of Public Relations Firms’ conference. Gergen warned Wall Street that the pitchforks (aux barricades) could still come out. IBM’s John Iwata at the Institute for Public Relations dinner quite rightly pointed out that the Apple stores’ concept and customer service are exemplary of great public relations.
The final point of consensus is that even when the Recession is over, much will have changed irretrievably. We won’t be going back to the old “normal” – not in consumer behavior, not in the media, not for how Americans’ view brands and corporations. The next status quo will be a new textscape.