Brand, PR, non-profits, and responsiveness – Q&A by Phillip Casey

Armstrong Building, Newcastle University
Having put my two penn'orth out there over the years I'm occasionally approached by students at this dissertation time of year. This week, Phillip Casey and I struck up conversation on Twitter. Phillip is a post-graduate student undertaking the MA in Media and Public Relations at Newcastle University (pictured) and his dissertation is titled Brand Image: PR in the UK non-profit healthcare sector.

Phillip Casey
Phillip Casey

I enjoyed responding to Phillip's questions, so, with his permission, I thought I'd make our Q&A public here. (It migrated to email in case you were wondering about a 140 character count.)

Where a reference consists of just a page number, it refers to The Business of Influence: Reframing Marketing and PR for the Digital Age.

1) Is a strong brand image important for a non-profit organisation? Why?

A brand used to convey ownership of livestock. Then it was an "our name's on it" quality assurance. This century, with product quality (defined as fitness-for-purpose) increasingly a given, a brand represents a nexus of values. If our values align with a brand, then I'm part of that brand. If they don't, I look to take my time, attention and money elsewhere. [Attenzi]

Organisations need to communicate their purpose and values in order to attract and assemble the right mix of people and resources to live up to its mission and pursue its vision. So brand, defined like this, lies at the heart of things.

2) What role does influence play in establishing brand image? Why?

You have been influenced when you do something you wouldn't otherwise have done or think something you wouldn't otherwise have thought. [p18]

What is the intended outcome of your marketing and PR campaigns, and the design of your organization overall, if it’s not to get stakeholders to think and behave as you’d like, and to be sensitive to how they’d like you to think and behave? [Influence – request for comments.]

This reciprocation has the individual's view of the brand in constant flux – your regard for Oxfam for example is layered up over time.

3) Is PR the most effective channel for managing influence? Why?

This question cannot be answered without defining PR. I'll use my own here:

The planned and sustained effort to influence opinion and behaviour, and to be influenced similarly, in order to build mutual understanding and goodwill.

Hmmm, so by that definition your question answers itself.

But while we're on the topic of definitions... to manage (verb): to be in charge of; administer and regulate; maintain control.

Therefore, as influence is an input to and output of a complex adaptive system, you cannot aspire to "manage it". You can only hope to work hard to align ones own behaviours and communication...

Not that we use the terms in our framework here, but 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. [p28]

Another way of answering the question is to define PR as media / journalist relations, or as publicity and spin, in which case the answer to your question is a resounding no.

4) Should non-profits manage their PR / influence in a different way to a for-profit organisation? Why?

Firstly, beware slashing PR and influence together. As before, it depends on your working definition of public relations. Moreover, from my experience, when most people briefly consider the act of influencing they typically think of themselves / the organisation influencing others rather than the reciprocal or indeed other influence flows between other entities that may be of interest.

In answer to the question, no. Both non-profit and for-profit exist for purposes that can be expressed in non-financial ways. (For-profits should know what they want to do, the consequence of which is profit, and those that articulate their existence in no other terms than making money may find themselves a bit rudderless.) [Attenzi.]

This idea of purpose is closely linked to our reference to values above, and in many ways for-profits are now taking a leaf out of the non-profit playbook here.

If you are concluding 'yes' to this question, you might be viewing for-profit public relations through the lens of current dominant practice – more publicity model than Grunig's 4th – and non-profit as being more authentic.

** Over-used word alert ** so quick definition: authenticity refers to having the quality of an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.

Another polemic worth thinking about – reality is (increasingly) perception.

You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not so many for so long now that everyone packs a smartphone. [Future of Organization.]

In other words, forging authentic approaches to understanding how influence goes around comes around and to guiding ones own behaviours and communication is increasingly critical to all organisations.

5) Do charities now face extra difficulties due to New Media and the Six Influence Flows? Why?

The Six Influence Flows
The Six Influence Flows

All organisations now face new opportunities to develop mutual understanding, to inculcate mutual influence and create mutual value. [Social business mutuality stack.]

Difficulties are only manifest / perceived in transition from the old model (opacity, spin, narrow focus) to the new (transparency, openness, authenticity, broad focus – see next Q.)

6) Do the Six Influence Flows provide any opportunities for an organisation? Why?

The Six Influence Flows hints at new possibilities. For the first time all organisations can maintain an eye on the wider network of influence, systematically, which, if they close the loop by developing the organisation's learning capabilities, can only bode well in terms of maintaining and growing relevance amongst its stakeholders. [Doing the triple loop.]

For now, as we transition, exploiting these new possibilities provides competitive advantage, but in the not-too-distant such things will need to be everyday practice.

7) Do you feel that all Six Influence Flows are equal priorities for a non-profit organisation? Which ones are and why?

Oh crumbs, this one is a tricky one to answer in a few sentences. Let me think how to sum this up...

OK. It's all about context. It's all about the state of the wider system in which the system of organisation functions. Some days / years, it might be fairly simple with one day very much like the last. Sometimes it can be quite complicated. And then, what most senior management teams fear most or perhaps even fail to understand, sometimes things can be complex / turbulent. [The difference between complicated and complex.]

This impacts the balance of deliberate strategy (that which we divine in advance; the dominant and too often sole form of strategy formulation today) and emergent strategy (sensitising an organisation to its ecosystem and improving its facility to adapt to change in near real-time). And this impacts the relative balance of importance of various influence flows from one moment to the next.

Err, hope that's clearer than plain old mud.

Some further clarification. The Six Influence Flows is a prompt, a check-list, perhaps a provocation. It is not a taxonomy. And the numbering does not convey relative importance; they're just labels.

8) Do you think Social Media is now a necessity for organisations? Why?

We don't have media for media's sake, but to communicate. And we don't communicate for communication's sake, but to influence and be influenced. [Attenzi.]

When a particular media plays its part in influence, it cannot be ignored. Social media cannot be ignored now by any organisation.

Here's an example. There's an organisation employing >1000 people. It makes a specialist product with only 3 buyers in the world. I was asked how on Earth social media was going to help in this instance. I believe the individual asking was confusing marketing and PR.

I pointed out that the buyers are influenced in many directions; are you saying they're immune to influence via social media? (Specifically the 2nd and 4th flows.) Moreover, the buyers aren't the only stakeholders of course. I asked how important it is to find and retain the right employees, the right suppliers and partners. How important it is to play your part in your local community, environment, etc.

So short answer: Yes. Social media is now a permanent feature of our societal fabric, of the public sphere.

9) What tactic would you consider as the most effective method of influencing stakeholders? Why?

A tactic is an action that's part of a wider plan. The plan explains how the strategy is to be executed. The strategy determines where we're going to play and how we're going to win. Your use of "effective" implies we have articulated what success looks like, so we'd have measurement to ascertain if the plan is working, and whether the strategy remains the right one.

If your organization is unique, with a unique position in a unique market, with unique mission and vision, and uniquely tailored strategies demanding a unique mix of tactics, is it too great a leap of faith to expect the (optimal) blend of communications to be unique and for communications performance measurement to therefore require a unique and tailored blend of metrics? [Attenzi.]

The question then is akin to asking which car is best?


Interestingly, influencing is complex and 'common sense' in this area doesn't always appreciate the fact. "Influentials don't govern person-to-person communication. We all do." [Duncan Watts, see next link.] Perhaps a trend's success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend – not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded. [Is the Tipping Point toast?, Fast Company, February 2008.]

10) Do you think emotive content and celebrity endorsements could be effective ways of influencing stakeholders? Why?

We are social and emotional animals. Economists have undertaken a volte-face in recent times from considering the rational individual to the irrational (ie, where emotion isn't necessarily subjugated by logic). Emotions are squarely in the mix of influence going round coming round.

Re. celebrity:

"Look, I’m not saying that some people won’t be tipped over the TV purchasing edge by what’s-his-name, his mile-wide smile and trademark wink. Acknowledging complexity does not rule out this outcome. Acknowledging complexity however will likely attribute such celebrity endorsement a considerably lower value in the mix of things than it appears to command today.” [Attenzi.]

11) What advice would you give to a charity that would help ensure its survival?

Firstly, while somewhat counter to traditional thinking I know, why should an organisation necessarily seek to survive? What if its dissolution is compatible with its values, perhaps because the resources it has shepherded might be more effective (in terms of its purpose) deployed quite differently?

But looking at the question more traditionally:

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change. [Things Darwin didn't say.]

To survive, the modern organisation must be adaptive – that means both flexible (changing tactics as required) and agile (changing strategy as required). This responsiveness can only be developed by improving the organisation's facility to tune into those influence flows, its ability to learn, and its facility to evolve its culture and structure and processes and products etc. to best meet the new reality.


[Photo credit: Andrew Curtis, Share Alike, Wikimedia Commons.]

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