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The dance of PR: Helping organizations lead and be led

It was 1994 and a group of us had gathered nervously in the Ohio Student Union for our introduction to the stately world of ballroom dancing.

Our instructor, an accomplished Latin artiste, prefaced the course with a memorable address.

Dance is not unlike life, he said.

Communication is a vital part of dancing.

Partners communicate through touch, pressure, look and other nonverbal cues. One has to be receptive and responsive to one’s partner. When one moves forward, the other must move backward; when one moves left, the other must move right. Be like the yin and the yang – separate yet interconnected and creating a whole.

Through it all, the dancers must be able to build trust in each other – particularly for a movement like the dip where (traditionally) the female dancer must trust that her partner will not let her fall on her head!

Over two quarters, as we made it through the waltz, fox-trot, swing and cha cha, I learned much that I came to appreciate more in later life.

I gathered that dance was art, technique, communication and trust rolled into one. When they all come together, it makes for a flawless, beautiful, flowing poesy.

With the benefit of hindsight, I find this surprisingly similar to the world of public relations (a.k.a. communication management).

PR too requires knowledge of the techniques and the correct way to execute them.

It is decidedly an art — as any practitioner trying to convince a group of technocrats about the necessity of a PR campaign for cultural change will have learned. Outside the workplace, it remains an art practiced admirably by adorable little tykes who charm their way into maternal hearts and resultantly to another episode of SpongeBob Squarepants (the animated series that parodies many themes from the world of grownups, including work life, employee morale and management – such as this corporate training video).

It requires clear unequivocal communication between all parties involved. When messages are shrouded in intentional ambiguity, the quality of the relationship suffers.

And it intends to build relationships based on trust. Ethical and considerate actions done consistently will instill confidence in the organization. Eventually this becomes the foundation for a reputation.

In many ways then, PR is a dance.

 

The lopsided dance

What is missing from this analogy in many organizations is the desire or willingness to adjust to their publics’ needs and aspirations. Many organizations want publics to change their views and behavior to suit the organizations’ stances; and they expect PR to bring this about.

Adjustment is expected only of the publics and is not seen as a responsibility or rational step for the organization.

The exceptions are when negative public opinion threatens profits, share prices, shareholder dividends or their very existence; or when the law requires compliance by way of changes to organizational policies or practices.

William Vanderbilt is infamous for his utterance “the public be damned” when they don’t agree with the organization’s views and actions or dare question them.

If senior managers are inclined to this sentiment, then as opined in Manager’s Guide to Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management, they are “managing in the wrong century”.

This makes the organization an inadequate dance partner and a poor dancer as a whole.

 

Dancing with blinkers

Many traditionalists view public relations as an afterthought, as a support function that only comes into play after all the decisions have been made in a boardroom that was never accessible to the PR practitioners.

Such management calls PR in to “get our story out there”.

PR’s sole reason for existence then is to get the senior executives’ photographs in media; write speeches; churn out news releases by the hundreds (most of which are not newsworthy and end up in the trash can); produce annual reports, sustainability reports, brochures, and employee newsletters.

The rational person wonders if it would not have been more beneficial for the senior executives, and for the organization as a whole, if the senior PR practitioners were involved in making those decisions.

Why not invite senior PR practitioners to participate in decision-making, instead of relegating them to be the grunt people only called in to hawk the story that someone else wrote?

They would then benefit from a deeper understanding of the business rationale for decisions and be able to better communicate and advocate them to the relevant publics.

Why not allow PR practitioners to “co-create the story”  instead of just having them “get the story out there”?

Dancing with blinkers on cannot be intelligent. It limits and embarrasses both the dancer and the partner. For an audience, watching such a dance would be agonizing.

PR can help management dance better.

 

The Verafluenti aperçu

Given the right support from an enlightened management, communication practitioners have the ability to be the eyes and ears of the organization – to keep a pulse on the organization’s publics, and to identify the need and opportunity for adaptation and change.

Such change cannot be expected just of the publics. The excellent organization must be willing to change its own position, policies and even the business it is in, in response to its publics’ goals and concerns.

As an organization, why not lead and allow to be led?

After all, it is a dance where both partners must be able to influence the other. No one wants to be the stiff bloke mired in the clumsy finger-clicking routine, forcing his partner to dance around him, and eventually to choose to dance with a more sensitive and responsive partner.

PR is a dance where positions are constantly changing. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow. The excellent organization would enfold this view, and well … enjoy a fine dance!

*** 

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at contact@verafluenti.com.

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Graphique de la rue: A typographical fount of inspiration

Graphique Cover r5

Design may be thought as the art of using and arranging elements (such as typography and images) to convey information persuasively.

Design is relevant to the technical aspect of communication management.

First and foremost because we, as human beings, are visual emotional creatures. Despite the oft-projected images of staid stale office workers (á la “Dilbert”, Scott Adams’ wickedly accurate satire on office life), humans by mysterious design (pun intended) have a sense of aesthetics.

It is why a ring wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper makes far less of an impact than the same suggestive ornament set in velvet and clothed in gold or silver tissue.

Design is often the vehicle to deliver the message in a persuasive manner. It captures the eye and, by anticipative extension, the attention of the intended audience.

Of course this means that good design increases the persuasiveness of the message.

Designers in particular and creative people in general look for inspiration in the world around them – in art, literature, music and nature.

So when we came across this delightful book, “Graphique de la Rue”, we had to share it with our creatively inclined kin.

Over her many sojourns to the City of Lights, Louise Fili photographed the signs and typography that are quintessentially Parisian.

From

  • the classic elegance of the verre églomisé on Pâtisserie signs;
  • the ornate écritures in the Cinzano or La Cupole signs;
  • the Italian-inspired mosaïques of Swann and Bon on the rue de Rivoli;
  • the Art Déco of the 1920s in Folies Bergère (a style which also features in one of our favorite televised period mystery series, Poirot);
  • the neon signs for Cinema le Champo;
  • the monograms for the Hôtel Wagram;
  • art nouveau architect Hector Guimard’s striking entrances to Paris’ metro system (quite different in mood from the restrained signs for the London Underground);
  • the enameled blue-and-white street signs that typify Paris;
  • the architectural letterforms used by perfumer Dorin and by École Normale Supérieure;

to

  • the sans mots signs used by eyeglass vendors, tobacconists and restaurants that rely on images rather than words to convey the nature of the business;

Fili’s largely visual book is a delight for designers and anyone interested in font typefaces and the cultural history that birthed them.

We found this browsing in the design and architecture section of our local library. We hope it is a fount of inspiration for the aesthete in you.

***

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at contact@verafluenti.com.

Print-ready versions of several blog posts are available in our store for a small fee.


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PR, marketing, advertising: Making sense of the confusing mélange

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Since Verafluenti is in the business of public relations and communication management consulting, it seems apt to commence this blog series by defining the terms; thereby delineating the Verafluenti approach to the field. Additionally, we attempt to clarify how they differ from marketing and advertising, as this is a source of persistent confusion.

For the purpose of this article, we will consider public relations (PR) and communication management synonymous — an equation embraced by many leading scholars, researchers and universities.

The landmark International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Excellence Study defined PR as “the management of strategic communication between an organization and its publics” (Grunig, 1992).

According to Cutlip, Center and Broom (1994), PR is “the management function that establishes and maintains mutually-beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics on whom its success or failure depends”.

We subscribe to these definitions which emphasize that communication’s role is strategic and that it builds and sustains relationships. A further tenet of ours is that communication must support an organization’s goals and objectives.

 

Managing the “publics” in PR

Yes, it is plural and not singular as the name “public relations” might suggest.

Any organization has several groups that influence it and are consequential to its existence: Consumers/clients/customers, vendors, investors, shareholders, employees, government, community, media, activists, and opponents, to name a few.

Who then manages relations with all relevant publics of an organization?

Some might say: The marketing department of course!

And that begets the question: But what is marketing?

A common definition is as the function that identifies a human need or want (or sometimes manufactures the illusion, according to us), develops products or services to satisfy that need or want, and causes transactions that deliver them in exchange for something of value to the provider.

Marketing then deals almost exclusively with one public – customers, current and prospective. Even the concept of customer relationship management (CRM) relates to only that one public.

It would then be irrational and inconsiderate to expect the marketing department to handle relations with other key publics.

That would be the commission of the PR department.

PR requires a different mindset and specialized education. Marketing specialists are not the ones to handle public relations; nor vice versa.

PR is not the same as marketing. They are related and must work in tandem to avoid issuing conflicting messages from the same organization. But they are different. Contrary to what some companies believe and practise, public relations is not subservient to marketing.

Neither is PR the same as advertising.

Courland Bovée (1992) defines advertising as the nonpersonal communication of information usually paid for and usually persuasive in nature about products, services or ideas by identified sponsors through various media.

Clearly, it is a subset of marketing and quite different from PR.

 

Different currencies

It is worth noting that marketing and PR work in different currencies. The former transacts mostly in money. The latter works to nurture goodwill, trust and (as the name implies in no uncertain terms) relations.

Robert Dilenschneider, chief executive of The Dilenschneider Group and former president and CEO of Hill & Knowlton, spoke of the importance of communication in building goodwill for organizations.

PR deals with softer (but critical) aspects, which is why its value cannot always be completely measured in monetary terms – a bone of contention many practitioners have with financial-bottom-line-focused executives.

But without good relations with its publics, no organization can survive for very long. Therefore public relations is both essential and critical. It is not a nice-to-have that should be the first to come under the axe in the face of an economic depression.

 

Mislabeling aplenty

Different organizations use the label communication to signify different things.

Some use communication to describe only messaging to employees. Others equate it solely with media relations.

In such formats, communication management/PR largely follows the press agentry model, and, if a little more enlightened, the public information model. At the very best, it sometimes could rise to the one-way asymmetrical model, if the practitioner conducts audience research, which management uses to persuade employees or media to accept the senior executives’ worldviews. The approval of such research itself is dependent on the company’s performance and the senior executives’ perception of the value of communication management.

Such myopic labeling severely limits the scope and capabilities of communication, and the value that communication can offer to an organization.

 

The poor serf of marketing

Some believe public relations to be the publicity tool of its much more important and budget-rich big brother – marketing.

Such a view was reportedly held at one point by even the celebrated Dr. Philip Kotler of Northwestern University, as recorded during the 1989 colloquium organized by the PR firm of Nuffer, Smith & Tucker together with San Diego State University, to bring together top educators and professional communicators to clarify the similarities and differences between marketing and PR.

Kotler’s initial position was that PR (publicity) is one of several dissemination channels available to support marketing. By the end of the two-day colloquium, Kotler had expanded his definition of PR and communication management.

 

PR in the org chart

A consequence of the afore-mentioned view of PR as a limited marketing tool is its illogical placement in odd spots in the organizational structure.

Often, it is put under marketing, forcing a PR practitioner (who is qualified to and should handle several publics) to report to a department head who likely is only concerned about boosting sales figures. In major blunders, PR and marketing are placed under sales!

In other instances, PR comes under human resources (a term that we find distasteful, but more on that in another post) – a reflection of the view that communication is only meant for employees.

We have also seen PR put under the finance department. In this case, communication is only directed to investors, shareholders and financial reporting authorities.

Where PR features in the organizational structure has an impact on its effectiveness and functioning. An excellent PR or communication management department would report directly to the top decision-makers in the organization. It would not need to report to marketing or human resources, or rely on them to access the top decision-makers, although it would work very closely and harmoniously with these departments as also with legal counsel.

 

The Verafluenti aperçu

Based on our own experiences, we have come to view public relations as a strategic art and science; marketing as a revenue-generating business function focused on one public; sales and advertising as subsets of marketing; and communication itself as a universal phenomenon.

Communication can be thought of as a sender issuing a message to a recipient through a sieve of perception and noise.

It is involuntary. It happens whether one intends it or not.

A man sitting quietly on a park bench staring at the sky could be perceived differently by different people. To some, he may be meditating; to others he may be an astronomer; to others he may be a homeless destitute. All this, regardless of whether he says or does anything. 

We also find that communication is not limited to the human species. Animals communicate. So do plants and trees. Widening our horizon, does not everything in nature communicate? Dawn and dusk, the clouds, the skies, the wind, the seas, the mountains – all communicate. There is much to learn, as professionals and more importantly as human beings, from the subtle, unobtrusive yet ubiquitous lessons that nature offers gratis.

If communication will happen anyhow, does it not stand to reason that it should be managed strategically?

This then, is the true mandate and value of public relations for an organization.

***

This post was written by Raaj Chandran, executive director and chief consultant for Verafluenti Communication Inc.

We solicit your feedback to this post. Please use the “Leave a Reply” form at the end of this (or any other post) to make a public comment, in adherence to our blog etiquette. Or if you prefer, you can email us in private at contact@verafluenti.com.

Print-ready versions of several blog posts are available in our store for a small fee.


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