Blue sky thinking: part one

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Pixabay (Creative Commons)
Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Is yours a ‘bullshit job’?

There are days when it must feel it is, but most of us believe we play a part in the smooth running of the organisations we work for.

Carillion’s auditors and directors have been criticised in a parliamentary report, but what of the public relations and communications advisers? Were they warning of trouble ahead, or were they peddling the party line to those most affected – employees and shareholders – right up to the end? What value did they add as the firm faced collapse?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But we shouldn’t assume the worst of fellow professionals. We can’t all be pointless and ineffective.

Why else would be UK public relations industry employ 86,000 people earning £46,000 on average, according to the recent PRCA Census? Are all these employers deluded?

The ‘bullshit jobs’ jibe comes from an LSE academic who has turned his 2013 magazine rant into a newly published book of the same name. Author David Graeber writes:

‘It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working…Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at.’

There’s something in the thesis – but the academic doesn’t seem to notice that the most egregious example of middle management bloat and bureaucracy is within universities like his.

But let’s take his argument seriously for a moment. Let’s assume that we’ll all have to face the challenge at some time or another that our jobs create work and cost money but don’t add value.

How do we answer this charge? How do we articulate the value proposition of the PR and comms function?

Part of the answer comes from the detailed work on evaluation from two organisations in particular: the Government Communication Service (GCS) and AMEC.

But there’s more to value than evaluation. There’s a more philosophical dimension to explaining the value proposition of public relations and communication.

This is where academic thinking can be useful to support practitioners in their work.

This week, we’ll be exploring some of the latest thinking from two authors who I view as prophets: they have both been exhorting practitioners to ‘repent and reconsider’ for the two decades that I’ve known them.

First, David Phillips. Next Andy Green.

What they share in common is a restless quest to articulate the value offered by the intangible assets of communication and relationships.

Just because we can’t touch it – or always turn it into numbers – doesn’t mean it isn’t real. We’d all die very quickly without a supply of oxygen, yet we don’t measure the air we breathe on a balance sheet.

Intangible assets – and lots and lots of words – doesn’t have to be a bullshit proposition. There are existing models and theories to explain the value of public relations to organisations. It’s helpful for practitioners to have some awareness of these models.

Cultural Relations Theory

In his latest paper shared with PR Place, David Phillips has worked with a University of Bedfordshire colleague Dr Annie Danbury to propose a ‘Cultural Relations Theory’. Their paper was presented at the International Conference on Corporate and Marketing Communications in April 2018.

The problem they set out to explore is how to gauge the value of the networks of relationships surrounding an organisation (Andy Green calls this social capital – more on this next).

David Phillips is co-author of the second edition of Online Public Relations. There never was a third edition because by the time it was proposed it was no longer sensible to distinguish online from offline public relations.

So the start point for this paper is the assumption that online behaviour is a valid way to map and measure the value of relationships.

The concept of making assumptions about individuals based on their online behaviour has received a bad press following the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica issue. But this only underlines the capacity to mine data from digital footprints and turn it into actionable insight.

‘These data offer insights that can be used to describe interrelationship clusters or, put another way, digitally described cultures.’

Where we have traditionally used static tools to segment stakeholders and to identify and characterise issues, we can now use big data to develop real-time three-dimensional models.

The authors cite the earlier work of US scholar James Grunig who explained that public relations came about when organisations and publics behave in ways that have consequences for each other. In other words, public relations starts with an issue or problem. Now these issues, problems and publics can be mapped dynamically, not just theoretically.

The authors build on Grunig’s Excellence Theory and Freeman’s work on stakeholders to propose a cultural relationship theory of public relations.

Grunig suggested that publics coalesce in response to issues (and are thus more dynamic than stakeholders who have a more fixed relationship with an organisation, cause or issue).

Philips and Danbury propose using dynamic data to map how publics form in response to issues, and thus change the cultural landscape.

‘Mapping of organisational cultures offers tools for management to re-enforce the corporate culture and, using it strategically, build deep defence against issues and crisis.’

We’re uneasy about the way Cambridge Analytica gathered data and used it for micro targeting of political messages on behalf of its paymasters. Need we be uneasy about using public data to understand the changing landscape facing organisations?

The model would enable organisations to identify gaps between its cultural mores and the values held by key groups including employees. Organisations that can close this rhetoric-reality gap will be more transparent and more trusted.

The authors are tentative in putting forward their cultural relations theory. There’s more work to come, but it’s an interesting development on existing theory that explores the potential of digital and social media to lead to evidence-based insight.

Blame me if I’ve not succeeded in summarising their paper intelligibly; you can read the original.

Download Paper: Cultural Relations Theory

And focus on the big picture: closing the gap between what organisations say and what they do. Does that sound like a bullshit job to you? I thought not.