Blue sky thinking: part two

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.

Reflected sky @luciascurei on Instagram
Reflected sky @luciascurei on Instagram

Why the need to (re)define public relations?

Is it so we know what the job involves (descriptive)? Is it to set our sights on what we should be doing (aspirational)? Or to defend the turf from the encroachment of other disciplines (demarcating domains)? Or to justify the role to senior management – and to wider society (purpose-based)?

There’s a lot in a definition – and it’s challenging to create one-size-fits-all that covers internal and external communication, publicity and public affairs.

Not to be daunted, author and lecturer Andy Green has been restlessly pursuing a new definition for public relations for several years.

He is motivated by the challenges of a changing landscape – and by the opportunities that exist in times of change.

‘The very concept of ‘public relations’ is facing serious long-term challenges, its role and function threatened and more marginalised.’

Today, Andy Green is initiating a Dublin Conversation based on his Dublin Definition paper shared to PR Place.

‘The draft ‘Dublin Definitions’ aims to provide greater purpose, self-belief, and confidence for public relations practitioners to enable them to seize more opportunities, either in PR-led integrated communications or in specialist roles.’

What is the Dublin Conversation? ‘It is an ambitious grassroots effort to make better sense of our world and how communications need to evolve and change to make a difference. It could be the biggest-ever shake-up in public relations, advertising and comms thinking and doing.’

The drivers for this are clear.

  • It’s no longer possible to distinguish between advertising and public relations. Without a distinction between paid and earned, what’s key is the quality of ideas. This puts public relations practitioners at a disadvantage to advertising agencies, as seen at the Cannes Lions awards.
  • There has been a once-in-a-generation opportunity to show leadership in the digital space.
  • New developments in neuroscience and psychology have shown what it takes to become trusted and to get people to agree with you.
  • There’s a preference for using ‘comms’ over ‘public relations.’ Yet how can ‘comms’ professionals step up from being masters of the craft of messaging into something more valued and valuable?

Earned trust

‘Communications practice urgently needs new thinking to transform its responses to an increasingly polarised, mistrustful society. What was once an academic debate about how communications works, or what is advertising or PR, are now critical issues to address either for professional communicators seeking new direction, or for our society in declining levels of trust.’

‘‘Comms’ is more than an abbreviation of ‘Communications’. ‘Comms’ works to achieve change goals in social interactions including communications, marketing, behaviours or attitudes, by managing how we are known, liked, trusted, front-of-mind and being talked about.’

‘Public Relations operates in a ‘Comms’ environment, working alongside advertising and other communication disciplines to achieve familiarity by making you more known, liked, trusted, front-of-mind, or being talked about through using Own, Shared, Earned, or Paid-for channels (OSEP).’

‘Earned trust is the pivotal touchstone for all public relations practice. It is ‘earned trust’, not just ‘trust’. Earned trust underpins, and is at the heart of a good reputation, relationships, influence, social capital and word-of-mouth. Earned trust exists as a deeper truth within all the current accepted definitions of public relations, thus validating them.’

One of the challenges in public relations is to present a coherent model that embraces the overlapping concepts of trust, influence, relationships and reputation.

Earned trust can be assessed by answering these questions:

  • ‘How do you know you have influence? People trust you, or your communication
  • ‘The sign of a good relationship? You are trusted.
  • ‘The indicator of a good reputation? People trust you.
  • ‘Evidence you have strong social capital? You are a trusted member of a wider group or identity
  • ‘Good word of mouth? People trust and are more likely to pass the information about you.’
‘Public Relations is also recognised by its traditional roles in media relations or brand journalism, social media, community management and engagement, employee engagement and public affairs. And what is the single, most profound asset at the core of these practices? They all leverage earned trust at the heart of their operations. It is the significance of earned trust that unconsciously marks them out as within the orbit of, and connected to public relations.’

Though not cited here, this emphasis on the landscape of trust fits well with the long-running Edelman Trust Barometer. And the need to rethink public relations within the broader comms field matches Richard Edelman’s subverting of the usual sense that public relations fits within marketing communications into ‘communications marketing’: the proposition that marketing should be led by comms (or PR).

Edelman argued: ‘This simple act of reversing two commonly used words reflects a new environment where classic, image-driven marketing is giving way to a new focus on long-term relationships.’

‘We will build from our core, enhancing corporate reputation and employee engagement, into new areas such as customer service and new product development. This will require a melding of marketing and communications, grounded in data-driven insights, and taking [a] risk with ideas. Marketing can no longer do it alone; the solution to every problem is not a new advertising campaign. We need real action to solve today’s complex problems, inspired by communications thinking.’

Download the Dublin Definition paper.