Tip Sheet: In a Time of Change, PR Pros Must Be the Agents

As I, along with millions of others, looked down from the camera’s eye view at the sea of people, first in Tunisia and then in Tahrir Square in Egypt, it was like watching an ocean of public opinion breaking on the shore; taking a little more sand with it each time it receded and moved forward. The sand in this case, however, was power: power to control, change and affect behavior; power over society and the lives of others that, like the ocean, seems always shifting and equally fleeting.

Historically, such shifts seem to have always been affected by changing technology —i.e. movable type, the printing press and improved reading skills and electronic media—that often assisted a discontented population in their move to action. The recent turmoil seems to have been, once again, triggered by technology. This time it was cell phones and social media.

On numerous occasions people in the streets provided on-site reporting of truth as they saw it, and not just to their neighbors but to people around the world. Those in power were helpless to prevent it. The transition of participant to reporter brought a powerful and emotional element which—upon first blush—seems to be viewed in a positive light. However, it may be prudent for us in the communications profession to look more deeply into this phenomenon and what it truly means to our place in the change equation.

As PR professionals we historically have been positioned as counselors to those in power, whether in government, industry or commerce. Our responsibility was to research and interpret the changing environment and to counsel those who were in a position to enact change. This was accomplished through a few controlled media that offered a filter and, at times, the wisdom to ascertain the truth of what was being communicated. The Internet has no such filters and no arbiters of truth. In this new electronic environment, any and all voices are heard—regardless of the value of the message.

In this era of instant communication, the challenge for PR practitioners is to determine where our profession fits into these changes, and to what extent we provide true value to those who are most affected by those changes.

This may be difficult for many of us, because while we purport to be comfortable with change, the truth is that we mostly face change that impacts us directly with considerable trepidation.

This is true not only of individuals but of organizations and social systems—from governments and economies to corporate cultures. As the lumbering dinosaurs of old, organizations most often face transformation in a plodding, combative and stubborn manner.

So how do we, as public relations pros, prepare ourselves for change? To move our profession forward, we cannot simply be communicators of change—we must be agents and managers of change.

As such, we must provide the tools and strategies to help manage and control change, not just to communicate the approach and impact of these changes as they happen. To truly manage change we must do the following:

• Be knowledgeable about new and changing technology for communication.

• Encourage greater collaboration and knowledge sharing.

• Increase productivity, informed decision making as well as cross-cultural understanding throughout the organization.

• Assure clear understanding and alignment of vision, values and goals.

• Create and encourage more open and faster feedback.

While we must continue to understand and perform such traditional functions as reputation management, brand communications, media relations, promotion, event marketing and other services, it is imperative that we deliver deeper, broader offerings and insights.

We must never forget that the true focus of our profession is to create relationships with stakeholders, regardless of what medium or technology is used to create them. To do this we must be:

• More strategic, long-term thinkers, planners and change agents.

• Better able to understand and operate in diverse cultures and industries.

• More involved in understanding, creating and delivering realistic and clear objectives.

• Adept at utilizing multiple technologies, while not losing sight of the fact that our real job is affecting human behavior.

Our world is ideas, not the method of their transmittal. PRN


Mike Herman is CEO of Communications Sciences International and a member of the PR News Advisory Board. He can be reached at [email protected].