How is PR changing and who’s going to do it?

Padrão dos Descobrimentos, Tagus River, Lisbon
I've had a number of questions thrown at me by students in their dissertation deliberations these past weeks. I'm not going to post them all here as there is overlap as you can imagine, but this one complements nicely the Q&A with Phillip Casey (and here) at Newcastle University.

Silvana Paules
Silvana Paules

Silvana Paules is a post-graduate student undertaking a Masters in Strategic Management of Public Relations at the Higher School of Social Communication, Instituto Politécnico de Lisboa. (I took the main photo here on a trip to the Instituto Politécnico in 2011.)

Here are the answers I offered to some of her questions, and I start with a relevant extract from Chapter 10 of The Business of Influence.


The Chief Influence Officer (CInflO)

The incumbent [of this role] is charged with making the art and science of influencing and being influenced a core organizational discipline – charged with executing the Influence Scorecard. They will be keen to network with peers in other organizations, to share best practice, to identify, refine and codify proven techniques, and to flag up unseen or unanticipated flaws in the processes described in this book [and others].

In my opinion, the role of Chief Influence Officer will be regarded as being on a par with the COO, as CEO-in-waiting.

The Business of Influence, Sheldrake, Wiley, 2011Ideally, the Chief Influence Officer will have a varied background covering marketing, PR, customer service, HR, product development and operations – just the kind of trajectory frequently mapped out for ‘future leader’ types. They will probably have more experience in one or more of these over others of course, but will set out as a matter of urgency to orient themselves in the areas of the organization with which they have least experience, working hard to establish a thorough and lasting rapport with functional heads and all stakeholder groups. They will excel at interpersonal communication, inspire confidence and a can-do attitude, and know instinctively when to crack resistance one-on-one and when to draft in support from the CEO.

Given the not inconsiderable change management, collaboration and coordination challenges, boards will look in-house for candidates with extant strong organization-wide interpersonal relationships and a reputation for making change happen from both the hard and the soft side of things. Appropriate candidates will recognize that the task is not achievable alone, particularly without unanimous and unequivocal board support – which they will be intent on working hard to secure, if not already manifest by his or her appointment.

The candidates will be highly numerate, probably having taken a statistics or research methodologies component to their university degree.

They will be ‘digitally native’. They will be curious and indefatigable by nature, and able to identify and exploit opportunities as rapidly as they identify and learn from failure.

They will be comfortable living simultaneously in both the extreme, unrelenting real-time, and the future two to four quarters hence.

[...] They will particularly relish the harsh, unflattering light thrown on previously opaque and unconnected aspects of the organization, and the boardroom accountability this allows them to enjoy and demands they live up to.

The Chief Influence Officer role requires ambidexterity.

On the left-brain side of things, the Chief Influence Officers get a distinct buzz from the numbers and the process of getting the numbers, and from learning from the numbers and putting that learning to productive use. They feel instant affinity with the thrust of this book: the recognition that things aren’t working quite like they should right now; the imperative to integrate influence into business performance management; the opportunity to pare back the historic layers of structure, culture and processes, and build out anew; and to take command of the opportunities. They excel at both the analysis of complex situations and the synthesis of new processes.

On the right-brain side of things, they maintain a visceral sense of the human: for emotion expressed and contained; for the needs and desires of all stakeholder groups; for the creatively outstanding; and for the intangible interplay of brand values and associations. They have empathy for the organization as a living, breathing entity, in continual interaction and tension with its environs. They fully appreciate the change they are about to embark upon, how best to work with the CEO and other C-level colleagues, and how to communicate the transformation to their own team and wider organization and win their support. They will recognize why it’s important to invest time ensuring that everyone appreciates their new or revised role and the refocused structure and influence culture around them.

While the requirement for deft change management skills is most obviously required of the first incumbents in order to make the transition to the Influence Scorecard, such skills remain key to subsequent incumbents, given their insight into the influence flows. There’s less advantage in hyper-sensitizing the organization to its stakeholder relationships and the Six Influence Flows if the person at the centre of such operations cannot help to define the reflex – the responses the organization must explore, design and execute.

They will be skilled lateral thinkers, never afraid to ask ‘stupid’ questions.

As few candidates will bear such equilibrium of mind and capability, the majority of candidates will have a tendency towards the left-brain talents, selecting their team to counterbalance accordingly. I find it difficult to envisage the opposite working, especially if the bias away from left-brain talents is such that it impairs the incumbent’s proficiency in systematically and scientifically transforming the organization’s approach to influence. Perhaps a Chief Influence Officer with a right-brain tendency could be a suitable successor to the first left-brain tendency incumbent.

The influence professional

The influence professional works under the CInflO and, as you’d expect, doesn’t quite have the breadth or depth of management or leadership qualities held by the CInflO. They may have jumped over to the influence discipline from marketing or PR or customer service, or perhaps they studied the Influence Scorecard at college should faculty thread it into syllabi in the years ahead.

An influence professional may be responsible for working with particular aspects of the business, such as operations or customer service or HR or analytics, ensuring strategic alignment, identifying and exploring opportunities for improvement, driving performance against the metrics, and helping the organization to transition its culture for influence success. As we discussed earlier, the team of influence professionals will attend to the roles mapped out [by others] for the Chief Customer Officer and the Chief Culture Officer.

The influence professional is an astute student of the big trends we covered earlier, and those of equivalent import in the unknown future, seeking to understand how they affect their organization’s marketplace and how the organization might rise to the challenges and pursue the opportunities.


Silvana: What has changed in the practice of PR the last few years? Why this change?

During the 80s and 90s PR practice had largely narrowed its scope to media and analyst relations, and focused on the publicity model ('getting the message out' without much concern for 'getting the message in'). In recent times, social media has disintermediated relationships allowing, perhaps demanding, PR practitioners at least listen to the end-customer if not engage them directly. The focus remains predominantly publicity oriented however, and focused on the customer / prospective customer over other stakeholder groups. (Many of those who focus on employees – Internal Comms practitioners – don't consider themselves to be practising public relations so narrow have working definitions become.)

What is the influence of "digital" in these changes?

Digital media has enabled the disintermediation referenced above. It has allowed people to aggregate to common purpose, common love or indeed shared dislike, irrespective of time zone or geography. This has lent the 'little' customer and the 'little' citizen a new relevance and potency in the collective in their relations with Big Co. and Big Gov. and with each other.

What has changed in the relationship between the organization and the public?

The collective exerts a louder voice. Events that impact reputation, negatively and positively, spread faster and wider. And perhaps, just perhaps, organizations are re-learning that the organization is just a sum of the people that wish to come together to common purpose to create mutual value, and desire and mutual value demands a foundation of mutual understanding (ie, the public relations excellence model).

Openness and transparency mark the difference between the organizational approach to PR last century and this. I like to say that if 'perception is reality' was the axiom of 20th Century practice, we must now consider 'reality is perception'.

Knowing that PR may have a strategic, tactical or technician role, can we  consider that the "traditional" and digital PR are part of the same or different realities?

Reality is digital. All things digital now interweave with the analogue world from which we took metaphors to understand this emerging digital thing in the first place. We had connected more 'things' to the Internet than people in 2008, and by 2020 we expect the best part of 8 billion people and 50 to 100 billion things. There really isn't any such thing as 'digital PR' or 'online PR' any more.

Despite the lazy inclination to talk about earned media being the domain of PR and paid media the domain of the advertising people, no thoughtful definition of PR makes this delineation, including the CIPR's or my own. Influence does not respect the difference between earned and paid; it flows where it will.

More and more, online is a reality of PR, how do you think that the market has adapted to this?

Very slowly.

If you consider the Internet is now 45 years old and the Web 25 (they're different things), that blogging started in the 90s and Facebook in 2005, and that the iPhone launched in 2007 and Android 2008, it wasn't until 2010 that our own Chartered Institute here in the UK finally assembled a social media panel to discuss the ramifications at length and develop thought leadership – the moment I finally decided to join. Yet beyond the basics such as identifying high profile bloggers, most PR practitioners continued to focus on 'traditional' media relations, meaning that the CIPR was actually ahead of the curve.

PR practice has had so much success sticking to old ways that it's only in the past four or five years that it's had to get its skates on, prompted in particular by the encroachment of other professions on practice that should have been PR's own (digital / content marketers and SEO practitioners for example).

What are the key characteristics and skills of the PR professional profile? And what changes has he been facing?

This depends on (1) how you define PR, and (2) the context of a specific role.

In Chapter 10 of my book, The Business of Influence, I describe roles provisionally labelled Chief Influence Officer and the Influence Professional (included above). I used these titles because it was unclear to me then whether today's public relations practitioners would step up to the respective role descriptions, in which case my labels would prove merely temporary, or not, leaving PR to dwell in its simple tactical mechanics while others took up the wider and deeper roles described.

Can we say that the definition in practice is beginning to move away from a sole focus on media relations and beginning to recognise the urgency and opportunity to effect symmetrical communications with all stakeholder groups? Perhaps. There are signs, but for every one worth celebrating there are ten to bemoan (and I mean this in business value terms, not simply academic normative thinking.)

What are the functions that the PR professionals should perform?

Again, this depends on how you define PR, and the context. Not to repeat myself, the functions are wider and deeper than dominant practice today, and require greater numerical and analytical capability than I see demonstrated in typical practice today.

Done well, public relations should be the foundation of social business. It should provide the connective fabric that binds other professions. So, for example, while I wouldn't expect the PR practitioner to write code, to understand the deep details of search algorithms, to crunch big data, to produce high quality video content, etc. I would expect them to know what this entails, how to interact with those that do it for a living, to know what's possible, adjudge the results and help bring it all together.

Should the PR strategy be designed in an integrated or specialized way? What changes does the immediacy of online bring to strategic planning?

I work to the definition of strategy – knowing where to play and how to win. Too often I see planning confused for strategy. Planning is working out how to execute strategy.

Strategy development used to be deliberate – undertaken internally by people considered of appropriate seniority and experience. This must be tempered now by the immediacy of and the intelligence accrued through real-time symmetrical communication. I consider it part of the PR role to help establish the organization's strategy through this emergent process, and not just strategy within PR's immediate (traditional) domain.

So in answer to your question, it plays to both the specialism of the profession as I define it and to the integrative aspirations of the newly nimble, responsive and learning organization.

It is difficult to think and develop integrated strategies?

Business is complex. Business is highly competitive. So yes, working out where to play and how to win and then executing fast, is difficult.

How is monitoring and evaluation approached in the new ecosystem?

Mature measurement and evaluation in PR remains the rare exception. This is a big topic, so I'll point you to a recent post for starters if I may.

How do you deal with the challenges, risks and opportunities that emerge from the proximity relationship between organizations and the public?

Without a doubt in my mind, the proximity represents the most wonderful opportunity to create better organizations – better at creating sustainable mutual value for all stakeholders. Given some of the challenges mankind faces today, this is the most fabulous gift at just the right time.

Fortunately, one of the characteristics of freer and faster moving markets is that only the most adaptable survive let alone thrive. So, those that work out how to take advantage of this opportunity to become responsive will make it, and those that do not will die. Either way, we're left with better organizations.

Your question is too deep and broad to be answered succinctly here, but I will say that organizations that still regard proximity as a risk in some way haven't yet got their heads round it, and that inability in fact is their greatest risk, not the proximity itself. Once they have, they can work with companies like my own to reconsider culture, structure, policies and process.

The future of the profession: where we are going?

This is an exciting time for the public relations profession, although as my co-authors of PR Redefined will concur, it remains unclear if the entire profession will move in this direction, whether a new profession will emerge alongside, or whether we'll witness a bifurcation. Robert Phillips, Head of Chambers at Jericho Chambers and former President and CEO Edelman EMEA, considers it impossible to recover the reputation of PR, and calls the new vista Public Leadership (Trust Me, PR is Dead).

Whichever, I know where I'm going :-)

What do you think?...