Public 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.