Public Relations as a Rainforest

ID-10080659In writing about T-shaped career decisions for public relations practitioners at PR Conversations, a comment by Natalie Bovair suggested a tree trunk for the vertical stroke that grows thicker and deeper, but needs (along with its main branches – the horizontal stroke) to bend to the winds.

This is a useful metaphor, which can be extended to consider public relations using the analogy of a rainforest – one of the oldest, and most diverse, land based ecosystems.

Within our rainforest, we can represent clients and employers as the fauna, those animals (birds, invertebrates, mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians) seeking survival within what we could term a jungle (allowing for multiple definitions of the term).

Some of this terrain may be dense and impenetrable, parts of it may be lawless or unruly where only those who have adapted to be the fittest survive. It may at times be confusing and threatening – or considered as a fragile, spiritual place full of exotic and exciting mysteries. Whether menacing or magical, our rainforest is the home of the flora of public relations.

The analogy works in terms of specialisation as many of our animal clients are found in particular rain forests – and are vulnerable to extinction, being dependent on their eco-system. I also like how the nutrients (necessary for survival) are found in the plants within the rainforest – showing the importance of the PR practitioner to the client.

The rainforest comprises several layers – and in these, we can locate our PR practitioners.

Emergent layer or over story: The pinnacle, where it is windy, the air is hot and the clients are agile monkeys (The Jungle VIPs). A few trees reach these lofty heights and stand tall above others with both long trunks and extended limbs that have adapted to function at the highest climate. But they may be distant and need to withstand all extremes of weather. To thrive above the canopy, plants and animals (PR and clients) must adapt to a bright, open and changeable world.

At these heights, the trees are tough and take full advantage of the resources available here. They spread their foliage (their generalist skills in the original T-shaped concept) to catch as much sunlight as possible. They use the wind to disperse pollen and seeds – akin to ideas and followers in PR terms. Indeed, these emergent trees are likely to produce seeds with wings to fly out of their shadows and thrive on their own.

Our clients at this level are often sizeable, such as the harpy eagle – a fierce hunter. It blends with the surrounding forest perfectly, and relies on excellent vision and hearing. Showing close integration of PR and client, and a competency in boundary-spanning.

Other clients, such as the pygmy gliders, use a different strategy – secretiveness. Where the confidentiality of the relationship with the PR consultant is paramount. And, there are the largest butterflies in the world, Morpho peleides. They reflect light to appear a vivid, iridescent blue colour, although their underside is a dull brown colour providing camouflage against predators. They fly at the highest level to warm themselves and attract mates. Such beautiful clients live hard and fast, so need careful PR handling.

Canopy layer: Home of tall trees, with thick trunks and branches and lush foliage. The environment attracts more wildlife than elsewhere in the rainforest and has a refreshing breeze and dappled sunlight. This can be considered as our professional or community of practice layer in public relations. Where our connections form a tight network to cope with rain and sunlight. Here, life is less changeable but more humid. Canopy trees are remarkably similar to each other. The biggest threat comes from lichens, algae and mosses that steal the light and block the tree’s breathable surface. Are these the competing forces that are challenging the dominance of PR in its traditional communications and relationship domains?

Here the plants (PR) rely on the animals (clients) for survival (seed dispersal) and often need to attract them using succulent fruit. It is amusing to read how fruit here may need a tough cover to pass unharmed through the animals’ digestive systems. And, the animals are fickle and move from tree to tree following the fruit. I’m sure in PR, we’ve all had clients or employers who make us feel like that!

There is variety in clients (fauna) in the canopy – most of whom are large and strong enough to be safe from most predators. They are predictable in their behaviour, vocal and exist in many varieties within species, although they may be vulnerable to threats from predators. Changes in the environment can cause instability and stress to plants and animals, although those remaining may close ranks or saplings may thrive. Although other species emerge to fill any gaps, the status quo is likely to win out.

Understory layer: Underneath the canopy is a layer comprising young or short trees, a tangle of shrubs and woody or soft-stemmed plants. Here the specific rainforest environment is an important factor, but in general it will be dark, less windy and more humid. Perhaps our tactical-only PR practitioners can be found in the understory – where it is hot, damp and the air is still.

The flora here grows in the shade of the taller trees and needs to adapt to survive. Species that do well include many forms of houseplants. Understory plants have to find ways to advertise their flowers to attract animals and insects in the dim light. The fact that the flowers are frequently found on the tree’s trunk rather than in its foliage suggest a focus on the specialism of PR rather than any generalist or strategic competencies.

Understory flowers are strong-smelling and suited to the tastes of the animal the plant depends upon – which again emphasises a willingness to bend to the client rather than challenge in any way. The analogy is reinforced by observation that clients may adopt disguises, pretending to be something they are not. Plants (PR) may be complicit in this deceit providing camouflage as protection from predators for reptilian and other clients. Not only does this approach offer sanctuary but enables the animal to capture its prey.

The understory is a more open place where some clients are able to fly freely – but where others set traps to capture them. It suggests a murky world, full of challenges and risk.

Forest floor: At the base is a dark place where the humid air is still. The vegetation is mainly fungi and other plants that live off decaying leaves and other matter fallen from the trees above. It this the unethical underbelly of PR practice? Here the clients include small invertebrates, living under stones, leaves and logs, alongside animals who forage for survival. Everyone here is vulnerable to surprise attacks – crises maybe – and need to hide until threats pass. Our publicists who will say and do anything could be seen as the plants providing that vital cover.

But let’s not forget that it is within the roots of the emergent trees or those found in the canopy layer where some animals hide. It is a rich place where there is great interdependence.

The rainforest involves interconnections with many plants growing on other plants for support – we can think of these perhaps as our students looking to find their own way in the world. I like the idea of them as Epiphytes, non-parasitic air plants who start life in the spot where two branches meet in the sunshine of the upper canopy. They produce their own energy and obtain moisture and nutrients from the air. Ephiphytes are also incredibly diverse and include species such as bromeliads (eg pineapples) and orchids. The former of which support their own plant life – young entrepreneurs. Mind you, there are also dangers for established trees in the rain forest from epiphytes.

In summary, as an occupation, we should ensure that those in the overstory and established canopy do not block the sunlight from the understory and prevent the growth of the plants there who are looking to grow and adapt. We need to provide room for both young shoots and those students who are epiphytes. But in accommodating the young saplings and air plants, mutual respect is required so the host isn’t damaged by its accommodating nature.

And the fauna (clients) and flora (PR) need to work together for survival of the eco-system, but recognise that there are threats both from within and outside our environment.

I’ve largely drawn on the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution website for information about the Rainforest. The image for this post is Earth and Tree by njaj; courtesy of

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

One thought on “Public Relations as a Rainforest”

  1. I LOVE this extended analogy! And how appropriate on Earth Day, too. The habitat of Public Relations needs lots of skills, and I would argue that the best skill of all to take with you on the journey through the rainforest is the ability to see the big picture and understand how the whole ecology works. Evolution may tailor clients to particular niches, but the PR person needs to see the relationships between the whole system to understand how to help the client get the most out of their situation. And then, there is evolution- which is another whole area to consider. The role of PR is helping clients to be successful, thrive and EVOLVE.

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