The focus of #7 in my 12 Days of Christmas series of posts looks at kindness and goodwill. Within the professionalisation agenda of public relations has been a focus on being more businesslike with PR activities directed to achieving organisational objectives, and clear measures of the benefits to the organisation. This approach seems to advocate a WIIFM (what’s in it for me) or self-interested perspective to everything we do. If we accept that PR is “necessarily partisan” (as stated by L’Etang) because practitioners are paid to advocate the perspective of their employers, there would seem little room for kindness within practice, unless there is a payback for being nice.
As goodwill is commonly recognised as an intangible asset on the balance sheet for accounting purposes, it is possible to argue that being kind is of benefit by enhancing the bottom line. But this would need to be justified in relation to the financial assessment of reputation, brand or other key factors.
From a public relations perspective, we could argue for enhanced social capital within the relationships we create and manage among stakeholders or publics. There are supposed advantages to be accrued – for example, within the guidelines produced in 1999 by Hon and Grunig looking at how to measure such relationships.
This formal investigation and assessment of organisation-public relationships identifies key constituencies with the implication that these can not only be measured but managed. Whilst appreciating the value of understanding what constitutes successful relationships and being able to demonstrate the value of PR, I feel that something of the natural essence of human relationships is lost by such a deconstruction.
Yes, the notion of communal relationship (Clark and Mills’s concept) is one of the key constituencies, but if you are measuring whether or not someone feels an organisation is doing something without expectations, there still seems an assumption that this is beneficial to the organisation.
It may be an inherent aspect of any relationship with a corporation that we have a sense of cynicism about what is expected in return. Indeed, critics of CSR or corporate philanthropy would advocate there has to be a value in any act of kindness, that pure altruism is not welcome or possible.
But, when we talk about individual PR practitioners, I believe that kindness should be a trait evident in how we operate. According to Wikipedia, kindness is:
a behavior marked by ethical characteristics, a pleasant disposition, and concern for others. It is known as a virtue, and recognized as a value in many cultures and religions. Research has shown that acts of kindness does not only benefit receivers of the kind act, but also the giver, as a result of the release of neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of contentment and relaxation when such acts are committed.
This presents a real feel good outcome from acts of kindness. But consideration of kindness is that it can achieve much more – Dr Albert Schwitzer is quoted as saying:
Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.
As PR practitioners, kindness is part of the process of building genuine relationships where mutual understanding can result. That’s not to say that kindness is used simply as a tactic to achieve what we want, but that we should recognise its importance as human beings. Also, I don’t believe this is about delivering more than is promised in a contractural or other professional relationship to exceed expectations (ie not just good customer or public relations as is often blandly stated). It is something more.
Recently, and over many years, I have experienced some wonderful acts of kindness from fellow PR practitioners – whether that is in expressing sympathy and empathy, going out of their way even when that is inconvenient, offering help that was unexpected and more than generous, or little gestures that mean a lot to me because they were honestly given and demonstrate real care.
I hope that I have similarly reflected kindness to others – but I’m sure I’ve not done this as often as I could have done and that like most of us, there have times when I’ve not been kind either deliberately or through lack of thinking.
So an early New Year resolution I am making is to demonstrate personally the importance of kindness in PR practice. I cannot see that it would make me any less professional to do so.