Public relations in the real world

ivorytowerPublic relations is a social construct that reflects the time and place in which it operates. This is evident from looking at historical development along with current practice. It occurs in a physical (real) world where human beings interact – even when, or perhaps especially when, many in the occupation are arguing that it is all about online, digital or social communications.

This week, I’ve been involved in developing and promoting Lions Good Deed Week. The idea is to use a proven PR technique to help Lions Clubs International (GB and Ireland) communicate all the good work being done by members in local communities. Traditionally the week is branded Lions Awareness, but that concept struggles to mean anything to the public or media. In contrast, everyone can understand what a good deed means – and there are plenty of examples that can be used, or planned, that reflect this core aspect of Lions’ work.

We’ve been using Twitter and Facebook as a means of communicating such examples – primarily as a way of kick starting use of these channels within the organisation centrally. But the reality is that the good deeds occur when members of Lions Clubs do good work in the real world. That’s where true public relations takes place.

Similarly, when thinking about the interesting pair of posts that Judy Gombita has written about crisis management, we have this tension between the online and real world. Although Judy is emphasising the social business dimension of crisis, or incidents, as she illustrates, relatively few problem scenarios occur only in an online context.

Let’s take the example of Hasan Syed who bought a Tweet to complain to BA about lost baggage. It is debatable whether this is a real crisis for BA as most airlines  experience missing or delayed luggage as a matter of routine. They have operational processes for such incidents, and no matter how inefficient these may be (impacted in part by the outsourcing of baggage handling), primary responsibility does not lie with the public relations function.

Online media offer a more open means of complaining about the process when it fails or is frustrating to passengers. But a search this minute of Twitter will reveal dozens of tweets highlighting missing suitcases.

Why did the BA case generate interest? It wasn’t the crisis, nor BA’s tardy response via social media, but the fact that a bought Tweet was used. That was the news – picked up by mainstream media (that is print and broadcast, not just online) and talked about by real people in real offline conversations.

Undoubtedly this example will be added to the repertoire of cases cited by textbooks, bloggers, trainers and commentators as evidence of truths about the power of online PR (or poor practice of it).  But for every Wispa or HSBC Facebook campaign claimed as success of the power of social media activism (both dating from 2007 when such approaches were news), there are dozens, hundreds, thousands more initiatives that gain little if any traction.  The 2nd, 3rd and subsequent bought Angry Customer Tweets will not garner much, if any, attention.

Likewise, even the giants of ‘social media fails‘ (according to the online experts) such as BP and Toyota, may have been humbled and bruised (but not destroyed) by the glare that online activity shone on issues and crisis situations that would have been – indeed were – high profile offline too.  Their problems occurred in the real world of operational decisions, and the strategic work of public relations continues in the need to focus on reputation and relationships – again mainly in the physical world (especially relating to political, financial and customer relations).

Again, we can cite examples where online polls changed organisational strategy (such as the female on a British bank note campaign), but others where despite a substantial global presence, things never changed (Kony 2012 for example).  Of course, public relations practitioners should be monitoring potential and emerging issues through social media – alongside offline research, data analysis and listening processes.   They also need the strategic insight to know when bubbles of sentiment online need action and when they don’t.

I’m not saying that digital and social media are not important, but they do not operate in isolation. And anyone who believes that organisations should focus their PR efforts primarily online is missing both the importance of real world operations/experiences and the necessity to integrate online with offline.

We should never forget that most problems begin offline – even a stupid tweet or inappropriate video has its roots in the behaviour and mindset of people living offline. Likewise, the majority of promotional activities relate to actual products or services. Even totally online operations tend to have an output that we experience outside the confines of online. We listen to music, read our ebooks and watch streamed movies as 3D, living, breathing people.  Online is part of, not a replacement for, real life.

One other aspect of public relations that occurs in the real world is professional education and academia – despite criticisms of some practitioners (including those who are frequently the largest advocates of online communications). Research, reflection and theorising are pretty much exclusively predicated on a connection with PR practice. The real world of practice (online and off) is enhanced by greater understanding of what can be learned from connecting with this real world of academia and professional education.

Instead, it is alleged that PR academics live in ivory towers and don’t understand the real world of practice. My experience – and that of enlightened PR practitioners – is the exact opposite. As with integrating online and offline, we can only get a true understanding of the world by ensuring practice and academia are recognised as part of the holistic real world view of PR as we experience it, right here and now.

9 thoughts on “Public relations in the real world

  1. How a few intelligently assembled words can overcome thousands of sermons of hype. Thank you Heather.

  2. Hear hear Heather. Some Twitter campaigns can be written off as Slacktivism, whilst other more organised ones fail to get real world traction in spite of having duration online. It may be that media attention for the online activity remains the tipping point – as Adrian Childes is finding out today – and co-ordinating your social media protest activity to gain mainstream pick-up will become the preferred tactic for online protest, focussed on achieving an immediate outcome (an apology or an acknowledgement of offence/issue from a company or person) and a longer term outcome of reputational damage by labelling the target of protest as a ‘serial offender’ through repeated online protests.

    • Excellent article. As an academic myself, and one not majoring in PR, my concern is the increasing lack of holistic perspective. Digital is being discussed as substitutive rather supplementary to other MC elements; PR is seen as separate in form and function.

  3. Hi Heather! I’m wondering, is your argument here premised on a false dichotomy between online and offline. Perhaps it isn’t so much that we need to focus on PR in the ‘real world’ but rather remind everyone that there is no distinction between the real and virtual; on and offline world.

    Also, some of your examples are maybe misleading or problematic. For example, comparing the Bank Note campaign to Kony is perhaps not too helpful. The BoE was planning to replace the note anyway ( I think?) while the people behind the Kony campaign weren’t actually trying to apprehend him, were they? Rather they wanted to raise awareness of the issue of child soldiers, Kony’s role and fugitive status. based on their relative campaign objectives (or my recollection of them), weren’t they both successful?

    • Simon – my post is a response to the number of practitioners I hear who seem to think that PR is only digital and what I’m trying to say (although admittedly finding appropriate words is quite difficult) is that we need to remember that people and problems largely exist somewhere real/offline/whatever. BA lost a real bag that belonged to real people who were pretty annoyed about it. Digital offered a means of communicating their frustration but their emotions still existed and organisations should deal with their complaint f2f, on the phone or whatever appropriately. Yes, digital or technology may be a part of human existence (whether we are aware or engage with it or not), but if PR people only focus on the digital domain then they won’t necessarily be advising organisations to stop losing baggage in the first place, and deal with issues if/when they occur and then you won’t have the online dimension fluffing up a problem.

      Regarding the examples, I wasn’t seeking to compare them, but to point out that there will always be times when we can look at social media and say it has an effect. In the case of the bank note, it probably was an easy decision where an online poll added to the narrative (helped by a new chap in charge who could be seen as responsive).

      With Kony – my question would be is short-term awareness of the issue of child soldiers and Kony’s role enough? Was that all the campaign sought to achieve? If so, wasn’t it a wasted opportunity to at least attempt to do something more? Did it improve the lives of child soldiers in any way at all through the awareness raising?

      For me the problem with a focus primarily online is that it offers easy ‘click here’ engagement. That can be fine in changing the face on a banknote, or getting politicians to add a topic to their agenda, but as you indicate (I think), change around difficult issues most probably needs to use an integrated (non-dichotomous) strategy.

  4. Heather, this is all very old fashioned.

    The media has changed but the McSpotlight lessons are still here 20 years later. I know that digital PR began for the PR industry in 2010 (the International Year of Youth) but its effects have been felt for a very long time. I wrote about online crisis management in 1998 in my first book and it was pretty obvious then that online was not some separate manifestation of trade, emotion or being. The signs were pretty well there.

    I do think that practitioners are a long – long – way behind. I do think that they live in a world of twitter brained numbers (the SEO of 10 million tweets is as daft as 10 million signatures in a parliamentary petition – good copy for some wet behind the ears latter day John Humphries) and I do think that the Universities are not delivering oven ready anything without students steeped (marinaded) in semantics, semiotics, Big Data applications and the significance of technologies on life – yes life!

    I completely challenge your notion that:

    “We should never forget that most problems begin offline – even a stupid tweet or inappropriate video has its roots in the behaviour and mindset of people living offline. Likewise, the majority of promotional activities relate to actual products or services. ”

    The whole issue of computers using semantics and the notion that there is some media between the person and the principle other than a digital mediator is not worth discussing – it is just not true. The stupid tweet is the very basis of off/on-line interaction because it is one of a million tweets. Big Data has power (even more powerful because, where there is a digital black hole of no digital footprint, we can make inferences).

    Using Twitter and Facebook ‘to communicate’ something is from both a practitioner and academic stance manifestation of lazy practice and slack thinking. You have to come up with something much better than ‘Twitter is the digital replacement for Tiverton Gazette’ or ‘Facebook is the digital version of Friends’.

    Without semantics both instances are going to, at best, idly whisper into the ear of the tribes’ gossips. This is thinking and practice of a past era. The big changes will come from much better understanding of the meaning of communication.

    People don’t live offline. Offline is a notion as ancient as believing that people don’t live near roads. Most people live with the digital world and most people live near roads. Academia and practitioners have to accept a different reality.

    Just because it is possible to walk along The Ridgeway without a mobile device does not mean that the internet and its influences have vanished. Equally a photo of Wayland Smithy from my mobile phone broadcast to the world does not mean it is significant but both circumstances are co-joined and they are co-joined with other, external, elements such as digital maps, Wikipedia entries and much more beside. It is possible to not have a phone/camera and to have a phone/camera and some people do both – all the time. The Ridgeway is an internet mediated road. It is something a practitioner can work with using emotions and media (yup – even newspapers).

    The whole idea that “most problems begin offline” is not tenable. Can I ask the question ‘what is offline?’.

    Is there such a state?
    How dangerous is it?
    Can anyone survive there?

    OK… you say…. what about being in a dinghy in the middle of the ocean – or some other extreme circumstance. Cast your eye to the sky at dusk and see the 8000 satellites watching you is my repost!

    I am writing this with a view across a recently ploughed 60 acre field. It was not possible for the farmer to plough it without the internet. The semiotic internet, Big Data and the internet of things are all essential to do things that have been part of life for thousands of years but we don’t use yokes across the shoulders of peasants or horses anymore. It took six hours not sixty days.

    The change is that big.

    This big field has become a player among the Internet of Things and the ploughman did tweet ‘finished’ when he drove away.

    • David – whether my semantic use of offline/online, digital, real-world etc is appropriate or not, I’m trying to reflect how life has a meaning that is outwith of technology. I do appreciate that technology is everywhere and does impact even when we are ploughing fields or walking/sailing in quiet contemplation. But I still believe that people can – and should – experience life (and give it meaning) which may include deliberately or otherwise causing problems, communicating with each other without digital or other mediation or just being human.

      Just because I can look up to the sky at dusk and see 8000 satellites (although not in a major city where the old fashioned street lights prevent that), doesn’t mean that I can’t seek out the stars whilst enjoying a private moment with a loved one. We can still add our own meaning to that personal experience – even if some faceless semantic web is trying to deduce what that meaning may be.

      If PR/communications practice (and thinking about it) is only about the data and the machines, I still believe that is a limitation. I may be wrong and the technology will replace us all – but in which case, one wonders what its purpose will really be as it doesn’t sound a very appealing world to me.

  5. Yep – I think we are totally in agreement here. As I’ve mentioned before digital is real (and some would argue the real is virtual!).

    I think the risk is we can get caught up drawing attention to misgivings about those who ‘focus’ on online/offline. There is no such distinction and the sooner we start behaving thus the better.

    PR practitioners who believe in the divide – and worse, base their business or PR strategy around such a fallacy – won’t be around very long (hopefully!).

    Much better we adopt a position of hybridity and get on with doing stuff :)

  6. Love the word – hybridity.
    Hate the idea.
    This is new and not a hybrid.
    The lost bag in the baggage claim is to be found in the cloud. The idea of ‘lost’ is changed. There is video somewhere of the bag. The idea ‘lost’ is simply an expression or manifestation of our own incompetence.
    We must not go half way in trying to understand the new ‘reality’.
    I absolutely agree on the point about practitioners ‘who believe in the divide’. We just have to find it in ourselves to be gentle with such delicate brains.

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