From the Journals–Defining ‘Public’, Social Media Influencers, Employee Relations

Periodically I write a blog post about the latest articles and research in public relations journals. Too often, professionals disregard theory and academic research as too abstract to be practical. I find the opposite to be true—theory and practice are far more grounded in reality than isolated experiences, however valuable experience can be. Journal research represents the scientific examination of multiple experiences and/or deep and well-reasoned conceptual thought and can help us explain and predict phenomenon in the public relations field.

Here then is a brief recap of some recent journal articles I found particularly useful (some articles may require subscription or university library access to see full text):

What is a public?

In Looking back and going forward: The concept of the public in public relations theory by Magda Pieczka, in the September 10, 2019 Public Relations Inquiry, the old issue of defining “public” in public relations is addressed and extended. For more than 100 years, intellectuals and public relations professionals have debated the concept of “public” as a group of people. Is it a public or the public? John Dewey and Walter Lippman debated the nature of public and public opinion in the context of journalism and democracy in the 1920s, about the time “public relations” was first being used to describe the field. Pieczka’s article redefines the public in three ways: an audience as a public of shared spaces, a self-organized public of shared attention, and the public as a political and social imaginary. Going beyond defining publics by their relationship to an organization (eg employees, customers, investors, etc.) can expand public relations theory and practice in terms of both strategy and ethics in communicating to build and maintain relationships.

Social Media Influencers

A special issue of The International Journal of Strategic Communication is devoted to social media influencers. Articles look at the key groups within the process of strategic influencer communication: (1) influencer clients, e.g., client organizations and agencies; (2) social media influencers themselves; and (3) audiences. Takeaways include the need to be authentic, strategic, and ethical to avoid crisis and actually achieve objectives that go beyond attention.

Employee Relations

With an increasing number of public relations professionals focused on internal or employee communications, a study of leadership and message styles is helpful. In Relational Communication Messages and Leadership Styles in Supervisor/Employee Relationships (October 2019, International Journal of Business Communication), authors Alan C. Mikkelson, David Sloan, and Colin Hesse show that both for “intimacy” and “dominance” forms of messages are needed whether a leader is task- or relationship-oriented in style. For PR pros in employee communications, this can affect how to counsel managers and the tone of communications written for internal audiences.

A related topic in an article in PR Journal titled Employee Perceptions of CEO Ghost Posting and Voice: Effects on Perceived Authentic Leadership, Organizational Transparency, and Employee-Organization Relationships by Tom Kelleher, Rita Men and Patrick Thelen tackles the issue of PR pros ghost writing posts for CEOs on social media. The authors found that employees expected and tolerated CEO ghost posting, but the voice in those posts was more related to their perceptions of authentic leadership, which inb turn led to better perceptions of organizational transparency, and employee-organization relationship. In other words, employees assume CEOs approve of messages even if they don’t write them. Specifically, when CEO communication on social media was perceived as natural, engaging, personal, conversational, and relationship-oriented, employees tended to perceive the CEO as more authentic, truthful, and genuine and the organization as more transparent. The lesson for PR professionals is that the issue is not whether or not to ghost write, but to work on how you write CEO social posts in an appropriate voice.

Ethically Speaking, Are You a Child Or an Adult?

September is PRSA Ethics Month again and it brought to mind a memory.

Years ago, long before I was a professor, I was speaking about public relations at an event and brought up the subject of ethics. An audience member sneered: “you can’t teach ethics.”

Well,  now I actually do teach ethics. So I could say that gentlemen was wrong. But his implied point is worth considering. What he really meant to say. is that you can teach ethics classes but that doesn’t mean people will behave ethically.

To that I say, of course. You can preach the gospel, but not all will believe. You can teach the importance of research, but not all will do it. You can conduct a fundraising campaign, but not all. will give.

In any of the above examples, of course the individual has their own will and responses will vary. That does not mean NONE will respond favorably, and therefore does not mean the activity is pointless or without merit.

So, in teaching ethics, the goal is inspiration, to make conscious the ethical implications of what we do in the profession, and then to instill a curiosity about the right thing to do and a motivation to be ethical in all professional practice.

There are two things that help my students internalize a lot of the ethical theories, concept and issues we discuss in class: the four motivations for being an ethical professional, and the three levels of ethical character.  I would encourage any PR professional to consider these in their daily practice::

Four motivations for being an ethical professional:

  • Personal = characterized by self-regulation, driven by personal conscience
  • Organizational = a concern for the corporate or organizational reputation, could be driven by policy or internal ethics code
  • Professional = to enhance the profession of public relations, in keeping with the 6th provision of the PRSA Code of Ethics
  • Societal = characterized by a big-picture concern for others, driven by a desire to contribute to the well-being of society (also called the professional role morality)

Three levels of ethical character:

  • “Child” – Acting ethically because of a fear of  punishment. (No developed internal ethical character)
  • “Adolescent” – Acting ethically to confirm to perceived group norm. (Which means can be easily persuaded by colleagues, boss,  or clients to engage in unethical practice).
  • “Adult” – Individual grasp of moral issue, personal principle. (Has internalized ethical principles and acts on basis of integrity and character more than external influence).

I’ll let people consider these for themselves. But I would say that some degree of all four motivations should be a basis for ethical behavior. And as for the levels of ethical character, I encourage all who practice PR to act like adults, and against the pressure from peers and others, be the ethical adult in the room.

PR Ethics Month…An Example and Some Resources

September is PR Ethics Month, organized by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) with events planned at the national and chapter level. Here’s a list of ethics activities from Debra Petersen of the Dayton Area Chapter. 

At the beginning of this month, I want to point out the fact that ethical situations happen every day, all year long. By ethical situations, I mean daily activities in which one must consider the consequences of personal and professional actions. The fact that PRSA designates a month to it simply means ethics is that important to concentrate on for a full month every year.

For example, let me share a phone inquiry I just had about ethics.

A former colleague who practiced and taught journalism for years finds himself doing what is essentially public relations. He was recently asked by a client to gather information from various sources on key topics, and write blog posts under the name of this client as a means of developing “thought leadership.”

My friend smelled something and said he thought to call me right away to get some insight and advice. We had a good talk about the issue, and I confirmed his fears. Research is ok, but not sourcing information and then even going beyond to present it as original insight for the purpose of self promotion is clearly a violation of several ethical values and principles, including honesty, fair competition, and disclosure of information. My colleague, who used to deride public relations with the smugness typical of journalists, realized that legitimate PR professionals have a solid grasp of ethics and are often the ones providing that insight, even though the profession too often unfairly gets blamed for “PR problems.”

At the beginning of this year’s month-long emphasis on PR ethics, I would encourage students of PR, current professionals, and even and especially non-PR professionals to learn more about public relations ethics with the following:

 

Business Roundtable Statement–Finally Getting Public Relations

Much was made this week when the Business Roundtable issued its Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation.

The essence of the statement is that businesses should have a larger purpose than only maximizing value for shareholders, aka investors.

A close look at this statement shows a bullet list that identifies other groups of people to whom businesses should show a commitment–customers, employees, suppliers, and communities.

What is compelling about this is how this “revelation” is actually quite old, and how this management innovation is actually fundamental public relations.

Those “groups of people” I mentioned above are more commonly called publics in the vernacular of public relations professionals. In a PR management class I teach I devote a week to each of these and other publics. The heart of public relations is to maintain mutually beneficial relationships with ALL publics, understanding that sometimes two or more publics with whom an organization has relationship may have competing goals. As they say in interpersonal relationships, it’s complicated.

What may be best for investors is sometimes antithetical to the interests of customers. A good action on behalf of employees may alienate the community. And so on. This is why PR is more than tactics, more than communication–it is a management function. And it has been considered such by many for a long time. Consider:

  • Stakeholder Theory, managing with consideration of all who have a stake in the success of or could be affected by an organization, is traced back as far as 1984;
  • The PR Council, an organization of public relations agencies, developed several years ago a guide called “Ethics as Culture” that stresses making ethics and consideration of all stakeholders a fundamental aspect of counseling clients and not mere compliance with rules;
  • The Arthur W. Page Society, an organization of top CCOs (Chief Communication Officers) representing the in-house function of PR and communications, issued a thought leadership effort called “The New CCO” that makes stakeholder consideration paramount in the role.

I am delighted that the Business Roundtable, representing the top business leaders in the country, has articulated an endorsement of the basic tenet of public relations. However, I’m upset yet again that they think this is their idea and don’t recognize what they advocate as fundamental public relations.

I’m also annoyed that while there has been much media coverage of this announcement (here’s a partial list in a Google News search), little if any of it equates this statement to public relations. Several media even express negative opinion in their coverage: The LA Times calls it “propaganda,” and CNN calls it “symbolic”.

So, the Business Roundtable has shown they finally get public relations. But they, and the media who covered their statement, don’t get that what they are talking about is public relations.

One can only hope that the statement leads to consistent, legitimate efforts to treat all publics with mutual respect and the realization that doing so is both ethical and sound strategy. And then, if it’s not asking too much, business leaders, the media and the public at large will realize that this management practice is what enlightened  PR pros have been encouraging all along.

Who Should Be Your Spokesperson?

imagesJust recently, a client of mine was in the news. The story was not something we had pitched, it was just some journalistic enterprise stemming from a public meeting.

It just so happened that the CEO and COO were both across the country at a conference. So the VP of Finance took the call from a reporter and answered the questions. This was appropriate, given that the story was financial in nature. The reporter needed to verify and clarify some numbers and then ask for a quote. The resulting article was clear and positive and the finance expert had gained some media exposure.

I bring this up because people often wonder who their client or organization’s spokesperson should be. Some assume it should always be the CEO. Others think that’s the role of the PR person. Often in times of crisis it is a lawyer stepping up to the microphone (not always a good idea because of the implications of a lawyer speaking looking defensive as opposed to transparent).

The reality is, the best spokesperson depends on the subject matter and context.

When I did media training several times over the years for the client I mentioned, I always did it for not just the CEO but everyone on the management team, including finance, human resources, and other specific business area management leads. This is because everyone should be ready to give a clear interview that is both helpful to journalists and consistent with company objectives.

That is the purpose of media training–to make sure everyone who might do an interview is not mystified, afraid of, or antagonistic toward the media. They should know how to speak for print, radio, or TV–live or recorded–in a way that provides accurate and useful information that sounds genuine and not generic jargon.

In previous PR jobs where media relations was the focus, I often connected reporters to people other than myself for interviews. The idea was to shine a light on more people in an organization to show its depth and diversity, but also to have more insightful comments closer to the subject at hand. Reporters were always appreciative of the access to sources most suited for the story.

Here are some simple considerations for setting up a spokesperson on a given story:

  • authority/accountability–who has the power or made or will make a decision relative to the story? This could be the CEO, but it could be another member of management. Think in terms of who the public would want to hear from to justify themselves for the actions to be reported in the story. (This also is something to think about if debating whether someone from a PR agency or someone in-house should be the spokesperson for a story);
  • knowledge–who can really answer a reporter’s questions in detail in a way that can enlighten and educate an audience? This may be a scientist, a teacher, an accountant, an engineer, a safety officer or anyone who deals with the subject of a reporter’s story daily as the focus of their job;
  • accessibility–who is available right now or very soon? Reporters work on deadlines. Sometime there is a long lead time to set something up, but often the story is for tonight’s broadcast or going up online for the next app or email update. In this case, the PR professional may be the one to speak for the sake of efficiency.