Is PR a matter of semantics?

Check out The Semantic Web – none of Public Relations’ business? interview with Markus Pirchner who is a fellow contributor to PR Conversations (thanks to Judy Gombita for link).  

Some interesting points regarding the way in which Markus sees online developments impacting on public relations.

He highlights how:

The gate-keeping role of traditional media is shifting, if not disappearing; a plethora of new technologies and applications are disrupting the ways of communicating with relevant publics and stakeholders, enabling direct, unmediated, two-way symmetric communication with people (as opposed to the previously very common “communicating to”).

I don’t totally agree with the implication that PR practitioners’ established gate-keeping skills will be replaced exclusively with management of dialogue.  There will always be a need for mediators, maybe even more so as the volume of available information increases and trust in traditional opinion formers is challenged. 

However, the challenge of “communicating with” is a real one presented online – I’ve heard arguments that direct communications is the remit of marketing rather than PR, but  marketing materials tend to talk at rather than with, in my view. 

There is another aspect here in respect of permission to communicate with – which again brings up the issue of trust and the other dimensions of two-way symmetric; listening, and being prepared to change.

Markus is certainly right about the need for better understanding in theory and practice of relationship building – although I’m sure there are plenty of other disciplines with a long history in this area on which we could build.

Interestingly, Markus claims that PR has always relied on the tried and tested rather than being at the forefront of developments.  Although he is talking about Web 3.0 in particular, I think we need to put this into practice in respect of understanding the nature of relationships further.

We seem to have a very basic understanding of people in PR, somewhat surprisingly, I often feel.  This is most evident in the area of media relations where a simple belief in cause and effect underlies attitudes towards gaining media coverage.  Clippings and publication of key messages is thought to be enough in respect of generating “awareness” or “positive brand associations.” 

Although the effect of communications, direct and mediated, is more complex than this – and we could learn from psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc, many PR practitioners stick with the elementary belief that coverage will instantly achieve cognitive and behavioural change. 

I can also understand the potential, as Markus highlights, of developing PR’s engagement in new technologies, but these often appear to make the discipline less understanding of the people side of communications and more focused on the processes.

Web 2.0 has taught us that relationships can be built virtually and never involve face-to-face (that’s how I “know” Markus after all), but what is most important is the ability to connect as human beings, understand each others’ needs, interests, motivations and perspectives, and accommodate, where appropriate, if we are to build valuable exchange and communal relationships.

Markus says, relationships are “fuzzy” by nature; he feels “So all we’ve got to do to get the PR industry on the Semantic Web bandwagon is to squeeze the fuzziness of relationships into an ontology.”

Of course, the IT world thrives on taking the complex and seeking logical, linear solutions and I respect the technologies this has provided.  But no computer system has yet come close to the complexity or nuance of the human being, and as PR practitioners, we should equally focus on developing an ability to read other people as much as hyper-language.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.