PRINZ Senior Practitioners’ Event guest blog one: Wicked Connections

Written by Tim Marshall, LPRINZ, Communication by Design


Many years ago on the telly there was a documentary series called Connections. Science historian James Burke drew his audience in with riddles – intriguing and unlikely stories of connections throughout the history of science and technology.

For example, he would tease his audience that the invention of plastics could be traced back to the development of the fluyt, a type of Dutch cargo ship in the 16th century. Or he would ponder how permanent waving of hair indirectly led to the 1848 California gold rush. Before you could say “What? How did that happen?” I was hooked.

The subtitle of Connections (although I didn’t know this at the time) was “Alternative view of change”. I simply loved the mystery and Burke’s engaging presentation style but his intent with the series was to challenge the conventional linear view of historical progress.

Burke contends the modern world is the result of a web of interconnected events, each consisting of a person or group acting for reasons of their own motivations (e.g. profit, curiosity, religion).

I see wicked problems – the focus of PRINZ’s Senior Practitioner event this year – as being in a similar vein to Burke’s web of often unimaginable interconnections. Wicked problems are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements. Oft-quoted examples are climate change, poverty, cybercrime or ever increasing healthcare costs. They’re complex, non-linear, could be social, environmental, commercial or a mix of all three and they involve people in all their wonderful and exasperating complexity.

Does that sound like your current PR/communications work?

Well, if not now – addressing wicked problems could be part of your future. Why? Because, according to the people who study wicked problems, the best way to address them is “industrial strength” stakeholder engagement. Collaborative strategies, internally and externally, are required.

Wicked problems are an increasingly hot topic among management theorists, social and environmental scientists and their solutions focus on stakeholder engagement and behaviour change – which surely places them at the heart of public relations and communications practice.

To close in “Burke-an” style: And so it was that a young Taupo man’s fascination with a British documentary series that depicted progress as the result of a web of interconnected events can be linked, decades later, to the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand hosting a senior practitioner’s event on wicked problems.

Register here for this event in Auckland on 30 October.

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