Paul Holmes 23 Sep 2010 // 8:46AM GMT
Let’s imagine a scenario in which your company is under fire for working with a supplier that employs child labor in appalling conditions in some developing country. Let’s imagine you are a public relations person, and you are asked for your advice. Drawing on your decades of experience and your expertise in managing relationships, you might advise that the company sever its relationship with the supplier in question; use your economic muscle to force the supplier to abandon its child labor practices; or work with the supplier to come up with a humane solution that does not throw the child workers back out onto the streets but provides them with education in addition to their jobs, for example. Now let’s imagine that you are a communications person, even—as this article would have it—a strategic communications person. What is your “strategic” communications advice? A press release, a press conference, an advertisement? I’d suggest that it doesn’t much matter. There’s no communications solution to this problem; there is only a behavior solution. That’s why I have this visceral reaction every time someone suggests that the term “communications” as a replacement for public relations. Good public relations—which is to say the effective management of the relationships between an organization and its various internal and external publics—is determined 90 percent by behavior and 10 percent by communications. If public relations people are to be responsible for managing the perceptions of employees, communities, shareholders, customers, etc., then they have to have a role in setting policy, not simply communicating it. This has been true always; it is even more true in an age or radical social media-driven transparency, when any gap between behavior and communication will be discovered swiftly and punished severely. And at most companies, there is not just a gap, there’s a chasm. Jeff Corbin says that “a company needs to consider all aspects of its communications, not just PR or marketing or IR.” The truth is pretty much the opposite of that. A company needs to consider all aspects of public relations, not just communications—however “strategic” it may be.