Monday, November 14, 2011

Reimagining our profession, PR for a complex world -- with an imperative assist from PR research

Richard Edelman's lecture last week at the Institute for PR's 50th Annual Distinguished Lecture and Awards Dinner at the Yale Club raised some interesting challenges for the practice of PR -- but, more importantly, demonstrated the role that PR research will have to play if those challenges to the PR practice are ever going to be met.

Many of us were relieved and reassured that we did not have to hear another PR agency leader telling us we live and work in a new digital world. The Edelman agency has authentically been an innovator in the use of digital media -- and they also, obviously, have kept good perspective on that fact that digital, for all its disruptive creativity and cool factor, is, after all, just a tactic and technology.

Edelman quite rightly reminded us that the biggest challenge for the practice of PR is keeping PR in the realm of strategy development and operational relevance. He noted, correctly, as far as I can see, that "PR has been at the far end of the continuum [compared to the category of consultants involved in analysis and strategic direction], often using creative we are handed and explaining policy that has been set [by others]."

This situation is not just a reflection on the relative low status of PR in many organizations; it is a well-documented problem of management decision-makers not having a clue about relationships, engagement, and audiences that are the expertise of thoughtful and effective PR people. Edelman's speech cites an array of examples from recent headlines of corporations who have suffered greatly -- including in their revenues and equity value -- because of faulty or non-existent PR forethought.

Edelman concludes by formulating four principles, which he calls the Nielsen Principles (named after Bill Nielsen of Carl Byoir and J&J) which, if pursued, could "make public engagement the standard for our industry." Principles 3 and 4 make sense ("Take full advantage of a democratized media" and "Attract and develop talent with broad skills"), but they fall under the category of Competence. His first two principles, however, ("Drive operating strategy" and "Practice radical transparency") fall under the category of Excellence -- and are more radical recommendations than the tone of Edelman's speech first suggests.

PR people will rarely be included in the team that drives operating strategy as long as PR practitioners build and shape their careers around being order-takers. PR will remain an order-taking function as long as its outcomes and impact cannot be expressed in a mission-critical value. The paucity and superficiality of the research conducted by most PR agencies and departments reveals how inadequate PR people can be to participate in driving operating strategy. Why would a CEO include a PR person in the management team, when the work product of PR is described as counted up clips, tweets, and likes? PR people are welcomed as operating strategic thinkers when they can document changed minds and new behaviors.

Likewise, Edelman's Nielsen Principle of practicing radical transparency presents a transformative dilemma for public relations and for business. He says "business must explain how and why decisions are made. This is not a strategic opportunity; it is a necessity." That assertion flies in the face of what many in business consider the basic concept of competitive advantage (in product, process, and culture). I think Edelman is right: lack of transparency (indirection or misrepresentation) may increasingly be a friction in the business process, a cost of doing business, as increasing numbers of consumers and stakeholders focus skeptical attention and express (accurately or unjustly) influential opinion through social media. But there certainly are many companies and many industries that are not about to begin practicing radical transparency in the near term.

Edelman just glancingly touched on the relevance for PR people: "We are the last line of defense for the truth, because our material is increasingly used as primary source data. We also must be scrupulous about policing our own behavior and even what we pass along in social media." This is the 21st century Catch 22 for PR people. The public, the market, customers increasingly demand that radical transparency. Organizations define transparency as a cost, and therefore, understandably, want it controlled and minimized.

Edelman seems to be just scratching the surface of what may really be a radical principle. If radical transparency is good for business, it becomes the role of PR person to describe and demonstrate the value -- the competitive value -- of that radical transparency that engages the audience. Which brings the conversation back to PR research.

PR research isn't done for the finance guys or the procurement department. PR research may, if Edelman is right, be the definitive means by which public relations does finally firmly and consistently establish itself among the strategic decision makers and the creators of value throughout the marketplace and society.