PRINZ at the WPRF 2012: PR – not managing perceptions, changing reality

Tim Marshall – PRINZ Life Member

“The days of perception management as the defining PR construct are over. What counts most is not managing perceptions but changing reality.”

Perhaps it was US PR consultant heavyweight Richard Edelman’s forceful delivery style – but for me these stood out as two of the most powerful sentences spoken at the World PR Forum in Melbourne.

Why? Because opinion-leading Edelman is so strongly advocating for PR practitioners to direct our attention to the actions of our own organisations at least as much as communicating with external stakeholders. You may be doing this already … I think many are not.

Edelman said: “We must aim to meet the bar set by PR legend Arthur Page, who said, ‘public perception of an organisation is determined 90 per cent by what it does and 10 per cent by what it says.’ Too often PR people have only been able to affect that 10 per cent; now we must aim to impact the other 90 per cent.”

What are the implications of this? Cue Holmes Report founder Paul Holmes in his very pithy talk. Holmes gave the example of a well-known multinational café chain that got into a lot of trouble in the UK for failure to pay taxes. “Yet if I asked PR people whether they should be involved in setting a company’s tax policy, I pick the vast majority would say it is not their business. It is. PR people should be involved in any decision that impacts reputation.”

Whenever a decision is made in an organisation four vital factors need to be considered – financial, legal, operational and relationships, said Holmes. The first three are standard in organisations but not many have a Chief Relationship Officer. They should. The CRO would be responsible for counselling the CEO and making sure everyone else in the organisation understands the importance of relationships.

“In a global organisation and economy everyone has to learn to think like a PR person.” But Holmes issued a warning shot about who might become the CRO. “I am not convinced the CRO will come from PR ranks. It could be filled by marketers, human resources people or even lawyers.”

Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management chair Dan Tisch was another who suggested PR people need to strengthen our business skills to ensure we are up to the task of helping many of the world’s largest corporations as they embrace integrated reporting.

Tisch’s comments followed a presentation by International Integrated Reporting Council CEO Paul Druckman. Integrated reporting concisely presents the material information about an organisation’s strategy, governance and performance on commercial, social and environmental issues. It is the path for the future for company reporting and strategy development.

Druckman said 1,000 of the world’s largest corporations – and make no mistake many of these are financially bigger than most nation states – are moving to integrated reporting. He made a job offer to PR and communications professionals because, to achieve its goal of informing future direction, integrated reporting demands expert communications.

But Tisch said right now the development of integrated reporting is being driven by accountants and lawyers with very few PR professionals on the scene.

“Accountants and lawyers are used to a rules-based, evidence-based, numbers-based world. The risk as we sit at the table is that we are not up to the task because of a lack of business literacy and ability to read financial statements.”

Professor Anne Gregory from Leeds Metropolitan University was another who posed a capability question: “How do we take on this leadership mantle that is offered to us?” Gregory said too often the role that senior PR directors play is very tactical, often with little evidence of the massive contribution PR can make.

“Organisations are not just ‘enabled’ by public relations, they are ‘defined’ by it. Organisations are communities, they are social. This is a very powerful insight.”

She said organisations have an obligation to society and senior PR counsellors should help organisations think through what their role is – their true north – and how to achieve their objectives through people.

“We should be concerned with values, not obsessed with ROI (return on investment). We need to take a strategic long term view, to lead, support and coach organisational leaders and raise uncomfortable issues with boards.”

So here’s the job ad, guys. Wanted – high calibre, experienced PR practitioners with the business skills Tisch talks about and the leadership counselling qualities Gregory espouses to change reality rather than just manage perceptions.

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