PRINZ at the WPRF 2012: Courage, Competencies and the Wind of Change

Catherine Arrow, PRINZ Member, Secretary – Global Alliance for Public Relations & Communication Management

There’s a keen wind blowing through the public relations world at the moment, shaking out the cobwebs and signalling a new season for our profession. During last week’s World Public Relations Forum in Melbourne some said that we were at a point of evolution, while others suggested it was time for revolution. Personally, I see it as a wind of change, not yet a hurricane but certainly one that will deliver some powerful gusts – and those unwilling to learn and change may well find themselves blown away.

During his WPRF session, Richard Edelmen quoted Arthur Page saying: “…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.”

I am fairly confident that here in New Zealand, practitioners have long affected what an organisation does – much more so than the quoted percentages. Through the PRiNZ professional development programme I have, over the years, had the opportunity to meet and talk with hundreds of colleagues around the country and, for the most part, their emphasis has been on developing relationships and guardianship of organisational values and behaviour.

The development of the global PR body of knowledge has been extensive in recent decades, isolating not only the skills that practitioners require but also the competencies they need in order to undertake their work. I’m frequently asked what are the key attributes needed for public relations practice and the one I put above all the others is courage.

If you are at the heart of an organisation, listening to stakeholders and charged with building and sustaining the relationships needed to maintain a licence to operate, then courage is essential. Challenging the status quo, demonstrating to senior management that things are not as they should be, facilitating the changes that might be required to ensure actions speak louder than words – all of this takes a substantial amount of bravery on the part of the practitioner who may well be faced with a governing structure unconcerned with or ambivalent towards the need for change and improvement.

Entering the fray with a large dollop of courage but little else can be a frightening experience, which is why courage, combined with a commitment to life-long learning can be a more effective duo. There is a phrase of Tim Marshall’s that I quote on professional development sessions – ‘PR operates where issues collide’. To cope with the daily collisions, we need to equip ourselves with the latest thinking, the latest research and take any opportunity to develop and reflect on our skills.

We need to be able to do more today than we’ve ever needed to do before. We’ve always been good storytellers, but we must be able to tell those stories in different ways – leave behind the text, move towards the visual, dive into games, be mobile, be nimble, be responsive and adapt stories to the needs of those listening to create greater understanding and trust.

Equally, we need to understand the numbers, the analytics, the challenges ahead with Big Data, not just in terms of its use but in the ethical approach to what it reveals.  PRiNZ has incorporated many of these things into its professional development provision – from fast-paced storytelling, digital, video, research and measurement sessions introduced back in 2005 to topics such as analysis and application of Big Data this year. Where issues collide, we must learn something new every day – be brave and curious about what we don’t know so we can better serve our organisations – and society – as we ourselves come to understand more.

During his WPRF sessions, International Integrated Reporting Council CEO Paul Druckman used one of my favourite quotes from T S Eliot’s ‘The Rock’: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”  As practitioners, we must be able to find the wisdom in the information we have at our disposal and share that wisdom with our internal and external communities if our organisational relationships are to succeed and be truly trustworthy.

At the WPRF Research Colloquium, Michele Schoenberger-Orgad from the University of Waikato presented a paper on critical thinking and capable practitioners, which was concerned with preparing public relations students for 21st century practice. In it, she stressed the need to teach students to think, to analyse, to critique, to question and to become life-long learners, as only then would they be ready for the challenges ahead. It was a great paper, the sentiment of which should blow through our existing practitioner communities, providing us with a steady anchor in the coming winds of change.

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