From broadcast to receive
Public relations – or for that matter any part of marketing – just loves definitions, and sometime in the 1960s the Public Relations professional body in the UK attempted an early definition of an industry which was fast coming of age. It was about time, as public relations had by then moved far from its origins in the days of Barnum & Bailey when the job was to publicise an individual or event by banging a big drum, by pulling a stunt. Back then, the masters of the “dark art” were called “publicists” a downmarket term for what was a downmarket (and often dubious) activity.
Nevertheless, by the 1960s things had, indeed, changed and the new definition went something like . . .
“Public relations is the deliberate, planned, and sustained effort by a company to communicate positive messages to its stakeholders.”
The was significant in lots of ways, not least because it contained the key concepts that public relations had to be “planned” and “sustained”, rather than spontaneous and sporadic. Inevitably, the definition reflected the culture from which it stemmed, and back in the 1960s, that culture was still one of deference to authority. It was a time when government, employers – “the establishment” – were all thought to know what they were doing, and as a result were respected.
As important, all markets were mass markets and were undifferentiated; most women were treated as only housewives and most men only as breadwinners. People expected companies to tell them what to think and what to buy – and companies expected them to listen.
Nothing stays the same forever, and throughout the 1970s and 1980s social and economic upheaval meant that deference evaporated, and people became much more individualistic and didn’t want to be marketed to as an undifferentiated mass. The “Me” generation was born.
These changes were recognised by the growing public relations profession and a new definition of public relations began to emerge.It went something like . . .
“Public Relations is the planned a sustained attempt by an organisation to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”
The differences are easy to spot – and are significant. “Planned” and “sustained” are still there, but while the first definition talked about “companies”, the new one talked about “organisations”. This reflected the fact that government, charities, and many entities which were not in the commercial sector began to realise that they also needed public relations if they were to achieve their objectives. In other words, PR was as not just for the businesses. The biggest change between the two definitions, however, is the new concept that an organisation needs to generate “mutual understanding” rather than just broadcast messages at people.
The best companies understood the need to engage and began to appoint in-house public relations people whose task it was not just to interpret the company to the world, but crucially also to interpret the the world to the company. It worked, and public relations began to achieve tangible and consistent results; so much so that PR practitioners began rise up the managerial pecking order in the largest and most sophisticated companies. At the same time, a new type of public relations consultancy began to emerge which also understood the new realities.
However, there were blips, and around the Millennium saw the emergence of the Spin Doctor, ie. someone who “manipulates” news and messages. However, anyone who had been identified as a Spin Doctor had already lost the game; no one likes being manipulated, and the concept and practice as went against the prevailing culture of engagement, and the growing cynicism and sophistication with which they public viewed the messages aimed at them. Something else emerged in the 2000s – the growing impact of the Internet on almost every aspect of life – including marketing and PR. It’s no exaggeration to say that the arrival of the web changed the entire media and public relations landscape. A few clever individuals working in marketing and communications spotted the way things were evolving, and published what was arguably one of the most important documents seen for decades – The Cluetrain Manifesto.
Witten by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Seals, and David Weinberger, and published in 2000, The Cluetrain Manifesto examines the impact of the web on markets and organisations, underscoring that the web brings a previously unavailable level of communication between organisations and their stakeholders, especially between companies and their customers, and by doing so creates a newly-connected marketplace.
The Manifesto sets out 95 theses which, when taken together, claim that the web has the potential to transform communications and business practices radically. It maintains that only those organisations which understand and embrace the changes will survive and thrive.
A key concept in the Cluetrain Manifesto is that markets are becoming “conversations” that – unlike mass market communication – the web enables people to have “human to human” conversations. Another central tenant in Cluetrain is that the web enables people to share knowledge in new ways, and do so at lightning speed. The Manifesto goes further, saying that markets are actually moving faster and becoming smarter than most organisations. In other words, the balance of advantage has shifted from organisations to individuals acting singly and collectively. Naturally, if true, this presents a huge challenge to everyone in communication and marketing, including public relations.
The Cluetrain Manifesto’s insights have been massively influential, with many new communication agencies being founded on its principles, and most other agencies subscribing to at least some of them (even if they don’t admit it). To some, of course, it’s all still a bit “theoretical” but there are concrete examples which seem to prove that Cluetrain might just be right.
Once upon a time, no one knew or cared much about how a product was manufactured, and even if you did care, it was hard to find out anything. Today, thanks to the web, if you are a UK High Street retailer which uses child labour to produce your T shirts, then people are going to find out about it, they are going to engage with you about it online, they are going to engage with other consumers, with government, and perhaps begin a campaign; a campaign which has the potential to be on a global scale. A campaign which has the potential to damage both your brand and the bottom line. There is no hiding place – any company in any sector, needs to think in 360 degrees about their operations and be willing to reach out and engage with stakeholders – be part of the wider conversation – and explain themselves. The best public relations people know this; the best companies are doing it.
We’ve come a long way since Barnum & Bailey.