Not long ago I went to a talk on the Future of PR. It was so poor that when I left I was quite surprised not to see gas lamps lighting streets full of horse-drawn Hackney carriages. The discussion was all about the importance of getting PR recognised at board level (yawn), reputation management (that wonderful oxymoron), and whether social media really changed anything. It was as if PR existed in a bubble of its own creation.
And recently there’s been much breast-beating about how few prizes PR wins for creativity, which is a bit like castigating Switzerland for its lack of award-winning aircraft carriers. The fact is that PR, and its cousin corporate communications, is still largely transactional. It decides what’s important and then takes its messages and seeks to communicate them to specific audiences whether those audiences want it or not. It reminds me of Ambrose Bierce’s definition (in the Devil’s Dictionary) of a bore as being someone who talks when you want them to listen. And this blinkered one-dimensional approach is exacerbated by an obsession with measuring output (believe it or not, column inches is still regarded as important) rather than outcome (that is, did the campaign actually change anything).
Many forward thinkers have been wrestling with what the future of communications actually is. For sure, in a Loose (hat tip to Martin Thomas), horizontal, peer-to-peer world there can be no room for a command and control approach to PR. And yet the myth of PR as a persuasion and advocacy industry still pervades.
One area where PR has a long way to go is in understanding the psychology of communications. In a recent book called The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt has done just that. As an eminent academic he sought to understand why, in his words, good people are often divided by politics and religion. His motivation, other than merely pure experimental psychology, was to work out why the US Democratic party failed to get its message over to Republicans. This is a familiar issue for all those of us tired of the binary, he-said-she-said, adversarial nature of modern politics. What he found was that we humans make an instinctive gut reaction to an issue or an event and then post rationalise our position. This may sound obvious, but when you add in confirmation bias (where one tends to seek out things that support your position and ignore things which don’t) then it becomes clear that one-dimensional messaging is largely ineffective. Which is why you either like or dislike certain politicians regardless of the “facts” of their argument.
What all this means is that we need to change what we understand by communications. We need to find ways of talking to the heart and not the head. We need to recognise that often words can be the least effective way to communicate and that images and actual observed behaviours are a far more powerful way to effect change. But then, PR and communications first needs to decide whether it wants to focus on output or outcome. If it’s the former, then stick to measuring press cuts. But if it’s the latter, then it needs a new breed of practitioners with a very different mindset.