Who you know counts in public relations – avoiding dog bites online


There is an old proverb that you may know a man by the company he keeps. In public relations, a lot is made of developing contacts and relationships – but less consideration is given to the quality of company that we keep.

Another angle on the proverb applies to organisations regarding the associations that transfer from the company they keep (for example, in supplier relationships as has been seen with the recent horsemeat issue and discussed in Judy Gombita‘s Defining Social PR Byte post).

There are also considerations about how the organisations that PR practitioners work with affect personal reputations – and vice versa. As individuals we can enhance or harm our employers/clients, and similarly, their actions can have a positive or negative impact on our reputation and credibility.

The nature of our contacts is also important, particularly in relation to whether they reflect an equality or imbalance in power. This reminds me of the two ways to train a dog:

  • One is to dominate it and use your power as an owner to persuade the dog to obey your will. The dog will respond, often from a position of fear.
  • The second is to earn the dog’s loyalty when obedience results from respect.

This analogy extends further into times of crisis where the dog that is motivated by loyalty will take the initiative to help and protect an owner. The dominated dog will more likely respond by adding its bite to that of any attacker.

Power is at the heart of many relationships and we need to think about this in the company we keep, whether building our personal contacts or helping organisations develop strategic partnerships. If you (or your contacts) make connections only on the basis of WIIFM (what’s in it for me?), then the company you are keeping is vulnerable to the occasional bite.

This argues for a form of due diligence to be undertaken that considers strategic relationships from a public relations perspective:

  • What are the possible consequences for reputational damage as well as positive associations that can be gained?
  • Can co-orientation exist in times of possible conflict or will fractures occur leading to blame and self-preservation?

As people and organisations increasingly form coalitions to achieve their aims (proxy or collective agency), these issues need to be considered within public relations. Models of PR – and wider management – often look at stakeholders largely from the perspective of a single organization. Within organisations, stakeholders need to be mapped more universally and specifically by function, project and even individual relationships. When working in partnerships, stakeholders need to be considered from the shared position – identifying friends, foes, those with power, interest, saliency and so on.

Such relationships can also be considered in terms of the tangible and intangible benefits (and possible consequences) gained. Drawing on the work of Clark and Mills, we can distinguish between exchange and communal relationships.

  • Exchange relationships: involve a familiar, economic contractural approach where something of value is directly transferred between parties. This may, or many not, be a commercial or monetary transaction.
  • Communal relationships: are non-contingent, without any obligation or responsibilities between the parties.

Interestingly, this communal approach is asymmetric, in contrast to exchange relationships which are by definition, mutually beneficial. This seems to contrast with how Hon and Grunig view the typology, as they reflect a level of cynicism in exchange relationships suggesting people believe organisations only engage with them when they want something in return, and presenting communal relationships as evidencing a concern on the part of the organisation for others. Hence, they present communal relationships as symmetrical claiming both parties gain a benefit, which seems the reverse of Clark and Mills. However, Clark and Mills identify symmetry in communal relationships where the parties assume a mutual level of responsibility for each other, and asymmetry where there is variance in communal responsiveness.

What I find surprising is that there is little attention paid to educating PR practitioners in respect of relationships. The focus of training and qualifications tends to remain on communications, with an implicit belief that being competent in writing somehow equates to building positive relationships. Or the ability to build relationships is seen as personal and intuitive, something that is derived from a certain personality type, rather than a competency to be studied and improved, particularly in respect of organisational relationships.

I believe that the complexity of relationships in a modern, global, dynamic world calls for re-envisioning of the normative ideas that public relations is about dialogical, mutually beneficial communications predicated primarily on a simple, linear interface. Clark and Mills present further models of relationships, such as exploitative and a hybrid communal-exchange approach, and begin to examine various dimensions of the multiple relationships that individuals establish with others. There are many other areas of relationship thinking outside the PR literature that could be considered.

For example, social network theory considers how relationships develop within groups (formal and informal), which means grasping aspects such as culture, status, unwritten rules and inter-group dynamics. This is particularly relevant online where a pack mentality can quickly turn from tail wagging approval to a frenzied teeth-baring assault.

Online, the company we keep is likely to be out of our control. People can choose to associate with us even if we’d prefer they didn’t. When others engage with us or our organisations, we become connected to a wider network that extends the reach of influence, but also potential harm. Such contacts may increasingly assume a level of interest and indeed, power, that can have major impacts. They become publics, who form and act in relation to matters that concern them, and to which we may well need to react.

Taking this back to the personal level, it is seen in how social media have impacted on our relationships. Friends of friends suddenly can connect and take an interest in our affairs. This can be a benign comment or like, or lead to positive consequences. It can also result in harmful consequences. Perhaps this involves invading our privacy in a minor way, or more sinisterly opening us up to possible harm – 20,000 people invading a private party for example. The same ideas apply to organisations online – building a Facebook community may be attractive from a marketing perspective, but it is a ready made activist group if something we do – or are thought to do – incurs a negative reaction.

Something else we don’t always fully consider in public relations is how in the online territory, relationships are often very different from those built in the ‘real’ world. Common approaches to online relationship building are about making as many contacts as possible – with little regard to the quality or possible implications of the company we are keeping. It is all about the numbers or some unproven measure of influence. But the more contacts you have, the greater the potential risk (as well as opportunity) for negative consequences.

In the same way that the horsemeat issue raises the importance of understanding the full six degrees of separation in supplier relationships, so PR practitioners need to assess the nature of online connections – as well as those with other relevant stakeholders, influencers or publics.

We cannot possibly build in-depth personal relationships with everyone in our complex, messy online networks. And even though organisations have always had thousands of connections, and extended connections, these are amplified in potential impact online. Jokes and poor taste, let alone a disregard for convention and legal niceties, prevail online.

Entering this dog-eat-dog world, organisations may be seen as tasty snacks, rather than respected as an alpha dog in the pack. They need PR practitioners who are familiar with contemporary relationship thinking to avoid suffering dog bites online. This means much more than simply collecting connections to really understand the consequences of the company we keep.


The analogy of dog bites in this post is not meant to belittle the serious impact of canine attacks

Arrogance is the enemy of public relations

arroganceThe current Instagram furore is being touted as a PR disaster, with the company’s co-founder Kevin Systrom appearing to blame poor communications of the new Terms & Conditions for the resulting crisis.

However, I wonder quite what the involvement of public relations within the organisation was prior to the issue of the revised approach. Was PR involved in the discussion and decision making process? Indeed, does Instagram have an internal PR function – or a retained agency? Its online press centre is as vague as the wording around the controversial T&Cs – with zero information, including on the latest issue. Its Twitter account is one-way rather than engaging.  Instagram’s statement intended to sooth public concerns is carried on its blog and promoted via Twitter (ironic given its recent spat there too).

This approach to communications is common with online and tech companies. Mark Zuckerberg announced the Facebook acquisition of Instagram via a post to his 16+ million subscribers. The direct route offers the benefit of complete control over the exact timing and wording of an announcement.

Missing out the traditional media gatekeeper may seem a great step forward – particularly for those in PR who tout their ability to control communications. But it misses a critical point – that others are going to talk about you, and there will still be interpretation particularly by influential people and a spread of information increasingly by new gatekeepers who react emotionally, instinctively and rapidly.

The ability to announce information direct to millions – or at least thousands – using ‘owned media’ reflects a marketing mindset. In contrast, public relations practitioners should understand that earning a positive response takes more than making a statement. Relationship building with the media and other influencers is an essential element of effective PR.

It isn’t just relationships with these intermediaries that are important. Employees and customers are both strategic stakeholders. There is a clear arrogance in the way that these groups of people are often addressed. Terms and conditions are changed with immediate effect – often within small print or a sense of arrogance that there is little that those affected can do about it.

Redundancies and restructures are routine with employees forced to accept whatever occurs. My brother recently went through a situation where large scale cuts were made with little consideration or care even of the legal requirements.

As customers, we’ve all experienced the hubris of companies. Banks, utility companies, mobile phone providers, train firms and airlines, numerous shops, professional services – and the public sector – are all guilty of such arrogance. They presume they have the power to do as they wish.

Social media combined with traditional media attention may be able to change the response of companies like Starbucks and Instagram. There are small people-powered victories.

But have any valuable public relations lessons been learned? I doubt it. Arrogance is not so easily tempered. Instead, resentment is likely to be the internal response with ways around a situation being sought. That means employing legal and other counsel whose advice seems to count much more than that of expert PR people.

I can only conclude that such arrogance is the enemy of public relations.