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Since its inception, the role and scope of public relations have changed significantly. The modern communications professional should now see themselves as the guardian of reputation rather than the cycler of spin
Consider this article a call to arms for public relations and communications professionals around the world. The recognition of corporate reputation as an invaluable, if intangible, asset has created the opportunity for the corporate affairs function to play a more strategic role in managing reputational risk. The ability to influence the multiple stakeholder perceptions of an organisation has given today’s communication leaders the responsibility of playing a more central, expansive, strategic role in the business of managing reputation.
The development of public relations as a professional practice can be plotted on a timeline against that of communications technology. Prehistoric cave paintings celebrating great hunters and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs relating the feats of the Pharaohs show that for 6,000 years, humans have been promoting themselves.
Galloping forward through monks illuminating (and glorifying) the lives of the saints, we reach the invention of the printing press in 1440. This allowed wide, consistent dissemination of the written word. Propaganda became possible on a grand scale.
Public relations arguably emerged as a career in the 1820s, when Amos Kendall, as press secretary for US president Andrew Jackson, managed his boss’ media image.
In 1903, it was cemented as a profession when Ivy Lee set up one of the first public relations firms in the US. Among his achievements was the reinvention of industrialist John Rockefeller from ‘robber baron’ tycoon to big-hearted philanthropist.
These early pioneers targeted print and broadcast media. Telegraph and long distance radio communication allowed them to raise their clients’ profiles around the world. The invention of electronic televisions and establishment of television stations in the 1920s provided an even broader platform. The broadcast model of corporate communications became firmly established.
Fast forward to the 1990s, and public access to the internet heralded a shift from broadcast to engagement, with communications professionals entering into two-way conversations with their audiences. Messaging became even more targeted in the 2000s as social media provided direct access to stakeholders (Facebook launched in 2004, Twitter in 2006). In return, these platforms gave users the power to comment on and access real-time news about organisations. Press releases gave way to influencer blogs as print gave way to digital.
But it’s not just a story of communications technology. Theory and purpose have also played their part in the development of PR. Early practices were simply about raising profile and positioning. The ‘there it is, isn’t it great?’ approach. By making themselves accessible to the press, business owners such as car manufacturer Henry Ford became the thought leaders of the day and could control their own image. Newspapers across the world carried the story of his unprecedented £5 per day minimum wage plus lunch break for factory workers.
As communications theory became more sophisticated, there was a shift, and PR became less about positioning, and more about shaping the message to achieve specific goals beyond just ‘sell more’. Let’s call it the ‘there’s what we want to tell you about it, this is what we want you to feel about it’ approach. The profession entered the era of spin. While all public relations can be seen as highlighting an organisation’s best side, spin crosses a line into manipulation of the facts, presenting bias as truth, and attempting to influence public opinion in a disingenuous way. At its worst, it’s flat out propaganda.
The use of such tactics, epitomised during the government campaigns of the late 1990s and early 2000s, has given PR a bad name. Communications departments are seen as managing the message, attempting to bury bad news. Through the 2010s, this image has been compounded by the rise of online reputation management (ORM). As the volume of online content has exponentially expanded, the purpose of ORM has been to drown out, counter or weaken bad news. While nothing is ever truly deleted from cyberspace, a slew of positive coverage can push negative reporting down the list of search engine results. It makes a business look good at first glance.
While online reputation management is merely a blunt instrument that papers over the cracks, public relations does have an important role to play in protecting reputation. It’s no longer a case of constant crisis management, an ongoing cycle of trying to repair the damage done by a reputational catastrophe. Communications professionals can take ownership of reputation, and proactively contribute to the reduction of reputation risk.
In today’s hyperconnected world, spin won’t get you very far. It’s too easy for people to post an alternative viewpoint, and surface counter evidence. The new normal is a world of media anarchy, interconnectivity and transparency that allows an audience to debunk propaganda. Every web user has the tools to be a citizen journalist. The only valid response is authenticity, being consistent in both message and action.
In this digital landscape, the role of public relations, corporate affairs and corporate communications is less about managing reputation and more about engaging with stakeholders to understand what they perceive the company’s reputation to be. By understanding what they like and dislike about your organisation, how you compare to your competition and ultimately what levels of advocacy or antagonism that pose, you can understand what matters to them and how therefor to engage with them. It is also about recognising the impact a poor reputation can have.
Highlighting the importance of corporate reputation internally is also a job for the chief communications officer in the new normal. To shine a light at board level on the value of a good reputation, and the means by which is can be influenced through PR. By bringing the ‘reputation perspective’ to bear, the communications function can help ensure corporate strategy is not based solely on a financial calculation.
With reputation as a lens for business, your stakeholders are given a voice within the organisation, with modern day communications as their champion.