We have a problem!
About the author
Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.
Thoughts on resilience
There are no good days in public relations, but the bad days are the most enjoyable.
I’ve opened with a contentious paradox because it raises an important point that’s central to our business.
If nothing ever went wrong, there’d be no need for public relations. There was no public relations in the Garden of Eden (though that may be when it all started going downhill).
Some see public relations as a form of alchemy that creates something out of nothing, and there’s a role for the creative publicist.
But most of us recognise that the protective role of public relations is at least as important as its promotional function.
Among the metaphors to describe the problem-solving role of public relations, the concept of friction is useful. Public relations reduces the friction between an organisation and the various publics it depends on.
Scholars James Grunig and Todd Hunt explored this in their widely-cited 1984 textbook, Managing Public Relations (which is now available as a free download).
Their Four Models of Public Relations (from one-way publicity to two-way symmetry) has arguably gained too much attention, but their other attempt to explain the origins of public relations has been unfairly neglected in my opinion.
They depict a model in which public relations acts in a ‘boundary-spanning’ role mediating between an organisation’s management team and the public(s) facing consequences as a result of management actions.
Consider the consequences
It’s a familiar scenario. An energy company gains a licence to explore a site for shale gas. The local community gets active over the threat of ‘fracking’. The public, politicians and the organisation’s management are now dealing with the consequences.
‘Typically, organizations develop a formal communication subsystem when the organization or its publics behave in a way that has consequences upon the other,’ they wrote. ‘The linkage of organizations and publics through consequences explains why organizations need public relations.’
In other words: no problem, no need for PR.
That’s why those working in public relations should welcome the bad days: it’s when things go wrong that we earn our salaries and merit our fees.
There is a downside to this: researchers have begun taking an interest in so-called ‘emotional labour’. Our work may not be physically demanding, but it’s often emotionally taxing.
My experience is not exceptional, and it was from a different world (before social media). Today, when I teach practitioners I sometimes ask how they’re ever able to sleep given the relentlessness of the demands. But here’s a minor anecdote from long ago.
I was in a meeting with a supplier when the boss interrupted us to launch into a five minute tirade concerning some gossipy journalism in a trade paper, demanding that I have the editor sacked.
When he’d left the office, my ashen-faced visitor said I could have worked for the United Nations, so diplomatic was my handling of this bizarre intervention.
(No editor was sacked that day – but that manager cleared his desk. In retrospect, I was merely some collateral damage in another power play taking place within an international business.)
Since I felt his demands were unreasonable, unethical and unachievable I decided to ‘take this on the chin’ and ignore him. Inaction was the best course.
How do we handle interruptions and respond when things go wrong? And how do we cope with the sometimes unreasonable challenges that come our way in a public relations role?
Many have pointed out that ‘it’s PR, not ER’, yet the work can be emotionally demanding. So how do we teach students and junior practitioners to prepare for a real life game of snakes and ladders?
This question is a challenging one for educators, as it requires us to address (and even welcome) failure as an essential part of the process of learning and development.
Yet I’ve been told not to use the f-word in education (apparently there’s no failure, only ‘deferred success’).
I don’t want this piece to be read as criticism of a ‘snowflake’ generation. I was pleased to pre-emptively publish Lucy Nichol’s piece last week to give a broader perspective on the issue of stress and mental wellbeing.
Yet educators do have a responsibility to their students and to the wider world. We are making strides in some areas (sexism, racism), but I fear there will always be bad days at work. These cannot be banned, so they should not be ignored.
One simple, and counter-intuitive, step is to discourage perfectionism. We allow students time to produce coursework. They receive help along the way. We allow them to believe that their assignments can achieve prescribed grading criteria given the application of sufficient hard work. This is sensible and rational from the student’s point of view.
Yet how does this help them prepare for unpredictability? What about coping with uncertainty? What about the role of emotion in the workplace?
As individuals, we need to build our reserves and resources. We need to gain greater empathy for the position of the other. Most of my recommendations involve experience outside the classroom.
- Travel, preferably alone
- Work in another country
- Volunteer to help others
- Support an unfashionable sports team (how better to learn about failure?)
- Read, to learn about people (I used to read novels, but am now more likely to choose memoirs, history and biography)
- Show you’re good in teams (most of these points are individual choices; you also need to show that you can negotiate and compromise)
If you’re a student, take every opportunity to meet practitioners. Try to explore behind the apparent success. How do they make it look effortless? Ask about their setbacks and disappointments. Ask for their advice.
Public relations often looks neat, rational and systematic when presented in a textbook or in the lecture theatre. You need to gain experience of the messiness of real life. I’m hoping you’ll enjoy it.