Q&A with CIPR Influence magazine

CIPR Influence magazine

I was interviewed by Rob Smith, Editor, Influence magazine. Published in two parts, May 2016.


What does Influence mean to the public relations business currently? Is it more important since the rise of digital or has it always been at the heart of what it is to be a public relations professional?

You have been influenced when you think in a way you wouldn’t otherwise have thought or do something you wouldn’t otherwise have done. Unfortunately, the English language also has us using the word ‘influence’ in terms of something someone might possess.

I always prefer to work with the first meaning here for two reasons: first, the changing of hearts, minds and deeds is the actual object of interest to public relations professionals (reciprocally of course, more on which later); second, we might quantify the former better than the latter, and indeed many of the better attempts to score influence as something someone might possess rely to a certain extent on that capacity being demonstrated (ie, the former again).

What does this mean to PR practice right now? Well that depends on your flavour of practice, characterised rather usefully at this juncture by Andy Green as simply old school and new school.

Old school still places its faith in the publicity model. Some might say spin. It’s about controlling the message and getting the right message out there. It’s about perceptions with some hope that collectively such manipulated perceptions might lend an organisation a reputation somewhat resembling the one the board would like the organisation to have.

In my experience, such practitioners have little interest in understanding the wheres and whyfors of measurement and evaluation just so long as the metrics show what they need to show. This group is the last redoubt of AVE, and if you have any numbers that purport to show that we’ve spoken to more of the more influential type of people, that’s just absolutely fabulous.

To my mind, new school works primarily with the reality from which perceptions are formed, and must then work as hard getting the message in to inform the organisation’s continual adaption. The practice appreciates that if an organisation wishes to be perceived as a great company, a great employer, a great citizen and a great custodian of our planet, then it must be just that. Reality is perception in the digital age of increasing connectedness and transparency where every single person packing a smartphone has more potential in the right situation than a 1990s camera crew.

The profession of public relations entails the planned and sustained effort to influence opinion and behaviour, and to be influenced similarly, in order to build mutual understanding and goodwill. The process is critical to growing and maintaining relevance, reputation and trust, and therefore public relations is central to setting and achieving organisational objectives. Influence is not the sole domain of the public relations team, but rather its effort must be to facilitate everyone else’s facility to influence and be influenced appropriately.

In your 2011 book The Business of Influence you discuss the measurement of influence and how there has been a trend towards measuring popularity (lots of hits retweets etc) rather than how something has changed behaviour. Has the PR business come any closer to accurately measuring influence since then?

It’s not unfair to say that there was some degree of snake oil for sale. It’s not unfair to say that where this was taken up by PR practitioners, there was some degree of snake oil then proffered to their internal and external customers. In a 2010 conference presentation I put it like this:

Influence is not some quantity invented by a PR firm, analytics provider, or measurement and evaluation company that rolls up a number of indices and measures into some relatively arbitrary compound formula that makes any appreciation of the underlying approach, variables and mathematics completely opaque to the end-user thereby radically attenuating any little use it may have been but in such a way that it can be branded nicely and sold as ‘unique’.

I had calmed down a bit by this slide – the main word on the title slide had been ‘Bullshit’.

And yet network science should allow us to better understand how societies, communities and markets work. My own company is named after the mathematician who invented graph theory, so I obviously sense the potential.

Some of today’s vendors of influence-related analytical services are clear about both the power and the shortcomings of their technology, and some procurers are getting smarter in knowing what questions to ask.

We can wield these technologies to help us navigate complexity, but remember this – you don’t know yourself exactly why you think or behave the way you do, so the idea that some remote technology can divine this precisely is fantasy, and what a good thing too!! Rather, we’re just looking to develop communities and networks to tune into signals that allow us to get ‘the message’ in and out more efficiently to respond more appropriately and more quickly than the competition.

Such reciprocity is not a given by the way. In this recent guide to influencer marketing, it looks like I was the only expert quoted really emphasising such symmetry.

(Disclosure: I’m on Traackr’s board of advisers.)

You speak in your book about the need for Chief Influence Officer – would you say this is something that has been taken on board? If not has any other role taken on this responsibility? What benefits would it bring to have a dedicated CInflO?

Who needs a new C-title, right?! I wasn’t the first to float a new one, and I won’t be the last. But in this instance, I don’t feel too bold in claiming that I might have been half right.

The domain of influence is clearly deeper and wider than the scope of the PR professional today – there’s influence in everything an organisation does, and sometimes in what it doesn’t do. I wrote the book in 2010, and consider the rise of the Chief Data Officer since then (courtesy of Google Trends as of 26th Nov 2015):

Google Trends CDO

Why should I refer to CDOs in answer to your question when I don’t mention the title in The Business of Influence?

Well, as conveyed at greater length in my free ebook Attenzi – a social business story, we can consider information technology as both the information and the technology. We don’t think about the tech so much now that it’s all run for us in the cloud – just as we don’t pump our own water or generate our own electricity; so the focus is on the information. Information is data given meaning and relevance in a specific context or for a specific purpose. And information may make people think something they wouldn’t otherwise have thought or do something they wouldn’t otherwise have done; in fact, a highly referenced definition of information in the field of information philosophy is – a difference that makes a difference.

In more than a few ways then, the Chief Data Officer and the Chief Information Officer may be closer to the Chief Influence Officer role I presented in my book than the typical PR Director today. Ultimately of course it must be considered today as an interdisciplinary role, and an interdisciplinarity few individuals can claim.

How far would you say that the business of influence is important to the internal culture of an organisation?

For brevity, let’s adopt the succinct definition of culture as: the way things are done around here. Existing culture then aids or impedes the willingness to sensitise everyone in the organisation to the Six Influence Flows and their subsequent facility to act on this information (to be influenced and to influence); and the relentless and complex influence flows impact culture of course. It’s all in the mix.

There does appear to be an organisational trend towards openness, transparency, and working out loud, if only to expose the corresponding data to other systems (people and IT) that might find it useful. An example. Yesterday, you may have not known of Bob in the Paris office working on the same stuff as you. Today, you might search to see if there is a Bob out there. Tomorrow, you and Bob are automagically connected. Yet if your culture remains wedded to some rigidly hierarchical command-and-control, fiefdom building, political crap, you and Bob may be frustrated from doing great work together.

And what if Bob doesn’t work for your company? Perhaps he works for a supplier. Perhaps he’s a customer. The 21st Century organisation cannot be defined by its payroll, and the Chief Influence Officer (or equivalent) must work to make the organisation permeable. In fact this takes us into the domain of sustainability – the health and resilience of living systems such as organizations, society and the environment – but that’s for another day.

Previously, you have commented that if you are in business you are in the business of influence. Yet PR Directors do not always get a seat at the boardroom. What are your views on whether the boardroom pays sufficient attention to public relations?

Disciplines and functions should serve strategy (defined as articulating where to play and how to win). Strategy should not serve disciplines or functions. In other words, I don’t think it matters one jot what functions have a seat at the boardroom. What matters is that the board strives to assemble and maintain an appropriate blend of disciplinary skills, knowledge and experience (and not take experience as a proxy for skills and knowledge).

Money, time, materials and influence are universal fundamentals of business. They all flow. And individuals with deep insight into how one or more of these flow and how such flows might be wielded for competitive advantage, to grow opportunities and attenuate risk, should be considered for the board. A paucity of PR Directors in the boardroom can only mean that too few have demonstrated such competence, and / or the business critical yet complex nature of influence flows is not yet well understood by the board for it to identify the need.

How has this been affected since social media changed the relationship between organisations and stakeholders?

If I may, a quick extract from my Attenzi ebook:

Reputation management does not actually mean managing reputation, and brand management does not actually mean managing a brand. They mean actively attending to the business of influencing and being influenced such that the resultant beliefs or opinions held about us and our products are conducive to our achieving organizational objectives.

Moreover, very few board directors these days fail to appreciate the importance of social media. The majority I have the opportunity to speak with however still consider social / digital to be a bolt-on rather than a build-in. As myopic as that might be, a bolt-on is a management function that requires no board room representation.

What are your views on what the boardroom wants from its PR/comms teams? Is it entirely focussed on the bottom line or do boards pay enough attention to the more holistic view of reputation? How can comms/PR pros understand the needs of the board better?

From observation alone, many (non-PR) board directors maintain an old school understanding of public relations – sustained by the PR profession’s continued old school practice of course – which does not help in this regard. Until an organisation undergoes an epiphany along the lines we’re talking about here, it’ll continue to apply 20th Century practice as it withers and dies. If you don’t mind, I’ll put this lot out of my mind as I answer your questions more fully.

As I noted in my book, Jay O’Connor (CIPR President 2010) stresses the role that public relations must play at board level, helping to explore, define, plan and execute strategy. She particularly underlines its role with respect to reputational risk and opportunity, and good governance.

It’s uncanny how closely the Institute of Directors’ articulation of the purpose of the board overlaps with the definition of public relations I offered earlier. The board’s key purpose “is to ensure the company’s prosperity by collectively directing the company’s affairs, while meeting the appropriate interests of its shareholders and relevant stakeholders”.

Such direction craves information to inform decision making (influence), demands sensitivity and responsiveness of the management (influence), and encompasses market intelligence and the needs of ‘relevant stakeholders’ (the Six Influence Flows).

A focus on influence flows helps inform, qualify and quantify the PR profession’s contribution in a much more sophisticated and productive manner than the profession may be said to have achieved to date.

Measurement and evaluation capabilities largely suck today, and that’s why I developed a framework, The Influence Scorecard, under the auspices (if not yet endorsement) of the CIPR, the Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communications, and the Conclave, to tap into existing business performance management frameworks and bring influence strategy to life. I trust then that boards will recognise that this – or something very like it – is what the organisation needs and ask it of their PR teams.

What do you think?...