Fit for the 21st and digital century: PR should abandon its managerial dreams and focus more on achieving its promises

Is it time for public relations practice to abandon its managerial dreams? Prompted by the previous PR Conversations post (Professional PR Development. Why bother?), Dr Ana Adi and Thomas Stoeckle consider the legacy of Grunig’s Model of Excellence and a need to adjust to a contemporary digital environment.

Ana Adi

With all the recent focus on the rapid technological changes, I have found myself confronted more often, both in my courses at Quadriga University of Applied Sciences and in my consultancy, with questions like:
“what should practitioners do” and “how does/will technology affect PR practice”.

Kevin Ruck and Heather Yaxley had pointed out in another conversation on PR Conversations how few practitioners (about 5% of the UK practitioners) are doing anything about their professional development, advocating for normalizing this behavior by promoting and adopting various learning models. And while I have found myself agreeing with Heather’s suggestion to encourage a
of structured and experiential learning with critical and reflective practice, I also got stuck mainly because when it comes to the theory and scholarship of PR, no matter how diverse it is, Grunig’s excellence model and its recommendation for PR to be a management function still prevails. Allow me to clarify. There is great benefit in Grunig’s excellence model: the diversity, activism, development arguments being important.
However, in the working context of today’s practitioner, where both accuracy and speed (of action/reaction) are required, hanging tight to being a “management function” is a deterrent rat­­her than a promoter.
Network approach Looking at Castel’s characteristics of the network society with its flexibility, scalability and survivability, what the practitioner needs nowadays is the freedom to move and join networks where his/her expertise is required. Smaller teams and groups (whether start-ups, activist and social movements) put this in practice already so why shouldn’t communicators adopt this proven successful practice?
Moreover, what practitioners need is the recognition of their expertise by others as well as their collaboration in completing the tasks at hand. The recognition of expertise doesn’t necessarily come with rank but knowledge.
Therefore, a position as a “management function” might be psychologically comfortable, and pay-wise easier to envisage, but it sends a wrong signal: of gradual, slow and linear growth and development. It also suggests that there is a top somewhere at the top of the pyramid, which in reality means that communicators are prone to reach a ceiling past which there is no more room from growth except, perhaps sideways.
Considering all this, I think it is time to abandon PR’s fascination and pursuit of the managerial function perspective and focus on enacting the values practitioner preach: accountability, reliability, transparency, fairness, flexibility.
Development opportunities Checking the Global Communication Monitor Series, practitioners around the world indicate that they need digital/technical skills a lot more than managerial skills. Overwhelmingly however, communicators are still offered development opportunities in communication and management instead of business or technology. For instance, in Asia-Pacific almost 60% of the practitioners surveyed indicated a need to develop their technical skills whereas only about 20% of them said that their organizations offer such training. It is the same for technical knowledge (64.2% vs 16.5% training offered). Interestingly enough when it comes to managerial skills a little more than 45% of the respondents suggested that they would need to develop them while almost 55% were offered such training. So coming back to the communicator’s role in the 21st century, the trusted advisor and consultant (someone independent and potentially unattached to the organization) is perhaps what is best fit and we should strive for. It goes much better with the individualized development paths we are envisaging, the values-based choices and endorsements, and the expectations for transparency, accountability, flexibility and fairness.

Thomas Stoeckle

Many years ago (almost 30, in fact), when I was a communication student at Muenster University in Germany, Grunig and excellence theory where the hot new thing. But then this was still merely theorizing public relations, and my professors and peers (not to mention myself) would have largely wrinkled their noses at this insignificant, unsavoury practice. Too close to propaganda. Bad memories in the Fatherland. Recently, after a long hiatus during which my involvement with PR was largely on the evaluation and measurement side, I’ve come back to reading, thinking and writing about PR practice and theory.
And it’s interesting to realise that Excellence Theory remains such a powerful paradigm in the field, albeit joined by an increasingly diverse band of concepts, models, inter- and multidisciplinary influences.
Transatlantic schism I might be wrong, but it almost seems as if there’s a bit of a transatlantic schism, with the managerial excellence model predominant in the US, and the more critical, interdisciplinary model gaining more ground in Europe and the rest of the world. Although, that may still be limited to the academy.
Practice is staying focused on hierarchical and strictly systematic, measurable models. The Holy Grail of mathematically, scientifically proving value and RoI remains the ultimate, unattainable prize.
Sadly, that will not change unless the question, the business problem gets reframed. Ana, you’re setting an ambitious target, and I think a necessary one. Whether it’s the network society, or the attention economy, or merely the precariat: the world has become a very different place in a rather short period of time. Evolution 2.0 We need new and better answers to critical questions, we even need to ask questions differently. One of the things that fascinates me about the developments of recent years (and I would go back to 2000 when I moved to London and was first introduced to that cool search engine with the whacky name “Google”) is the wide and widening gulf in progress between technology and humanity. It’s almost like Evolution 2.0. And it’s got very real consequences for our field: on the one hand, there are (still) plenty of digital enthusiasts praising the new opportunities to connect with audiences, to reach and engage, to microtarget messages to maximum effect. On the other, a growing band of sceptics reject the surveillance capitalism and the social engineering implicit in Facebook and Google-style data experiments. Neither academy, nor practice have managed to make sense of that yet. Realistically, a successful future-proof communication function needs to blend both positions, making the most of the evolving technological capabilities whilst applying common sense, ethical restraint and civic responsibility. Millennials, Gen Zers and whatever cohort comes next have different values and ideas. The best we can do is adjust to them and the evolving, uncertain, interesting environment we are operating in.

Biographies

Dr. Ana Adi  (www.anaadi.net) is a Professor of Public Relations and Corporate Communications at Quadriga University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, Chair of the Digital Communication Awards, and part of the core research team of the Asia-Pacific Communication Monitor. She is also part of the organising committee of MediAsia. She is the editor of the upcoming Protest Public Relations: Communicating dissent and activism (Taylor & Francis) and the co-editor of #rezist – Romania’s 2017 anti-corruption protests: causes, development and implications (www.romanianprotests.info with Darren G. Lilleker) and Corporate Social Responsibility in the Digital Age (2015, Emerald with Georgiana G. Grigore and Alin Stancu). Originally from Romania, Dr. Adi obtained her PhD from the University of the West of Scotland. Prior to her studies in the UK, Dr. Adi has graduated from institutions in Romania and the United States, the latter as a Fulbright Scholar. Her research, teaching and consultancy focus on issues related to CSR and PR, looking in particular at storytelling and measurement. Social media contacts: Twitter @ana_adi | LinkedIn https://de.linkedin.com/in/anaadi Thomas Stoeckle is an independent consultant and researcher in the areas of media intelligence and public communication. Previously he led strategic business development at LexisNexis Business Insight Solutions (BIS). Prior to joining LexisNexis, he was group director and global analytics lead at W2O Group, and managing director at Report International (now CARMA).
Originally from Germany, Thomas has been living and working in London since 2000, and enjoys traveling and learning about the world, both for business, and pleasure. Forever a digital Neanderthal among digital natives, he is keenly aware that adequate solutions to business communication problems demand fluency in the three languages of humans, machines, and business.
Thomas hosts the SmallDataForum podcast, together with Neville Hobson and Sam Knowles. He is co-chair of the Institute for Public Relations Measurement Commission, editorial advisory board member of the Public Relations Journal, and a jury member of the Digital Communication Awards, hosted by Quadriga University Berlin. Social media contacts: Twitter @thomasstoeckle1 | LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/thomasstoeckle/