Yesterday's post about the changing definition of public relations got me thinking about its practice.
It seems to me that public relations has gone through three major waves over the years.
The first wave began in the 19th century when the telegraph enabled the first truly national media, allowing newspapers to cover news outside their circulation areas and expanding the market for national brands. This wave was all about promotion, getting attention for a product, a company, or an idea.
The people who rode that wave were expert in writing, theatrics, and other rhetorical tools. The earliest of them were ex-journalists, followed in later decades by film makers and television producers, and most recently, by experts in web and digital media. But whatever their medium, their goal was always the same – to kidnap and keep people’s attention.
The second public relations wave overlapped the first, but it was more concerned with influencing people’s opinions than in simply getting attention. In part, this reflected the practice's greater maturity. But it also coincided with the government’s growing uneasiness with the size and power of some business enterprises. The first companies to ride this new wave were the AT&T monopoly and the Standard Oil trust, followed by the likes of the banks and railroads, and eventually by any institution likely to attract notice simply by virtue of its size.
PR practitioners riding this wave used all the tools of the prior one, but added those of the political arena, including grass-roots organization, decision-maker-mapping, strategic philanthropy, social media, etc.
A third wave is just beginning to gather strength. It was always an undercurrent of the first two, but it has assumed even greater importance because of macro trends like the changing demography of developed countries driven by higher rates of immigration, the growth of new middle classes in emerging markets spurred by the globalization of economies, and the simultaneously liberating and isolating impact of new digital technologies.
Whereas PR’s first two phases focused primarily on advocacy, its third phase is principally concerned with ensuring an institution makes decisions in a sound context.
In philosophical terms, PR today is less about rhetoric and politics than about ethics. Less about explaining and winning permission for proposed actions than helping choose and shape the actions themselves, based on a clear understanding of the people they affect.
Those people – long dubbed “stakeholders” – have never been more powerful, never more diverse. Empowered by digital technologies, they have never demanded more transparency of the institutions that serve them. Nor have they ever lived and worked in an environment that is more fractious and divisive.
To most senior executives, many of these people are “other” -- so different from themselves, they appear unknowable. That's where the third generation of PR comes in.
PR people have always had to be smart. Today, they have to be OtherWise, expert in the whys and ways of people unlike themselves.
And, as it happens, I have a book they should read.