Sunday, May 20, 2012

PR needs to fail more

Not long ago, I observed a project in which the PR agency was one of several supposedly equal partners on an assignment for a large, sophisticated, global corporation that marketed to consumers.  The assignment was to help that corporate client develop a long-term strategy for one of its most important product lines.

Among the non-corporate, external partners were a major international management consulting firm, the national/international advertising agency, a handful of local regional advertising agencies, and the PR agency. All of the partners had notable experience both with the corporate client and the particular product line under consideration and more broadly in the industry sector. No neophytes. No slackers.

Very shortly into the project, however, it became clear that the strategic and marketing services partners were not equal – and they were not equal because of the different value propositions that each had sold to the client.

The client turned to the management consulting firm literally for strategy: for a decision about how the corporation should deploy limited resources against their objective. The client turned to the advertising agencies for embodiment of the strategy into artifacts of communications (print and online ads, billboards, websites, events, etc.). The client turned to the PR agency for amplifying the reach and impact of the strategy embodied by the artifacts created by the ad agencies.

This example is not just about how public relations is often low down on the food chain of marketing services. It reveals another way in which the lack (or paucity) of research in public relations relegates the practice to supporting roles.

The management consulting firm did not offer a solution to the client before it was hired or before the project began. The consulting firm sold a process that encompassed the development of options for resource allocation, the testing of options through primary research and the application of pre-existing econometric models, the demonstrated transparent failure of some of those options, the refinement of one option, and then the presentation of the solution. Upfront, they sold a process of generativity, testing and failures, and conclusions with evidence.

The advertising agency sold the client a comparable process. The ad agency, working in tandem with the consulting firm, developed “creative” approaches for the strategic options tested and refined by the consulting firm. Multiple creative media approaches were developed, tested, and refined. The whole process was transparent, and, like with the consulting firm, the “failures” baked in to the process were assumed in advance and paid for by the client. The ad agencies did not up-front sell a solution; they sold a process – that transparently included obstacles, setbacks, and redirections – that would hopefully yield a solution.

The PR agency did not sell to the corporate client a process. The PR agency sold a toolbox (a very good toolbox, by the way; extremely competent; tools wielded by experienced, hard-working, driven, perfectionist people).  The PR firm did not sell to the client a methodology of testing options – either the strategic options, the creative options, or even the alternatives within its own toolbox. There was no method to demonstrate and show failure – and more importantly to show, with evidence, preferential advantages, in concept or actualization, of public relations options.

From one perspective, it might be argued that this state of affairs shows the great confidence of the corporation in what public relations can do. Given the right strategic direction, the PR toolbox will work. However, anyone who has worked in public relations for any length of time knows the corollary to that – if the organizational objective fails, it is common to blame, at least in part, the execution of the PR activities, the use of the PR toolbox (That PR agency just didn’t get it. They didn’t pitch it right. They weren’t persistent. They didn’t have good contacts. They misrepresented their toolbox). And what is a PR agency to do? Not much. Without a research-based process – open and transparent to client and all strategic partners – there is just no evidence that the PR people did the right things or did them well. With no opportunity to test and “fail” in the project development phase, if a failure comes, it will come when it is too late to do anything about it.

Jonah Lehrer
In Wired magazine's contributing editor, Jonah Lehrer’s recent book, Imagine: How Creativity Works (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), Lehrer provides a compelling look at the components of creativity, both in individuals and in organizations. He makes a convincing case for the role in creativity played by serendipity, chance occurrences, new experiences, changing frame of references. He further shows the equally important, complementary value of persistence, practice, critical thinking (and criticism), and revision. A common factor in both the serendipity aspect and the persistence aspect may be surprising: failure; waste.

The serendipitous, new, creative solution to a problem emerges from a miasma of innumerable serendipitous, creative false starts and dead ends. The driving force in practice, critical thinking, and revision is getting it wrong and needing to do it better. Failure, waste drives real creativity. Success emerges from failures. Value emerges from waste. Lehrer cites study after study documenting how a solution emerges amidst failure. Yes, ultimate failure is a bad thing; but incremental, intermediate failures are a good thing – a requirement, a strength, evidence for trust by others -- for trust in yourself.

The routine practice of public relations that does not integrate a genuine research dimension (testing of options; assessment and transparent acknowledgement of the relative shortcomings of various options; measurement and authentic evaluation of outcomes against objectives) leaves much of PR services without a value proposition. On a macro level, PR has no historical data, general rules, or standards from open scrutiny of experience. On a micro level, PR people have the seats of their pants.