Bridging PR practice and academia: a BledCom addendum

CIPR President, Stephen Waddington, gave his keynote presentation at BledCom this morning. He covered how PR academics and practitioners must work more closely – principally to develop PR’s professionalism project.

In creating his presentation Stephen canvassed the views of a range of PR academics and practitioners, including Richard Bailey, Heather Yaxley, Liz Bridgen, Stuart Bruce as well as myself.

Bridging the gap between practice and theory in PR and communication is something our research hub, the Network for Public Relations and Society, has been thinking about for a little while – see Sarah R-B’s recent post here. To respond to Wadds’ questions I called on the expertise and insight of fellow network members, Sarah Roberts-Bowman (who also co-founded the Network) from London College of Communication, UAL and Sarah Williams from the University of Wolverhampton.

Together we shared our collective vision with Wadds – some of which he used in his keynote. In the interests of sharing and adding to the debate I have posted our complete thoughts below:

Q. Which other management professionals in your view benefit from a positive interchange between academia and practice?

Most – if not all – of the major ‘professions’ develop through a very close, symbiotic relationship between practitioners and academics/academia. The obvious ones are medicine, engineering, the law where a ‘holy triumvirate’ between practice, governing bodies/institutes and academics/researchers seem to operate. The obvious benefits of this set-up is that it enables – and ensures – that such professions continue to evolve strategically, identifying changes in the external and internal environments of the sectors and then creating new, adaptive regulations, practices, approaches, etc. It means that they can stay ahead of the curve in an age that moves fast and in wholly unexpected directions.

If you’re looking to management sectors then I’d argue that the management consultancy field is one obvious area that is not afraid to engage with academia – and has arguably created an academic field of study to maintain a strong market position as well as client efficacy! It’s interesting as you could argue that in many respects these consultancies are – on some levels – the closest to PR when PR can operate at the level at which it should: strategic business consultancy.

At a more granular level, we only need to look at a more direct competitor to PR, the marketing sector, to see how much more closely academia could be integrated within PR. For instance, at the CIM the work of academics and practitioners is much more closely aligned. Both practitioners and academics are involved with curriculum development at the CIM, so the training/education curriculum for practitioners is designed and managed by academic tutors and practitioner examiners. The CIM also funds academic research projects to explore, develop and understand emerging issues in the sector.

Drawing on personal experience from Network members, the CIM’s process of bringing practitioners into the qualifications and education section of the institution seems to work well. But this works because the CIM’s education division is sizable and, perhaps more importantly, organised in accordance with standard university academic practices so it seems to work as a forum for bringing practitioners and academics together to share ideas, knowledge and foster greater understanding about the benefits both sides bring to the industry.

Q. how might we practically go about improving relations between the two constituencies within the public relations business?

Part of the problem with the relationship between PR academics and practitioners can, perhaps, be linked to the industry-industry bodies-academia framework:

1) there is a general misunderstanding, lack of awareness or even mistrust between practice and academia

2) there is a lack of leadership among industry bodies

3) academia has arguably not engaged as much as it could with the industry/industry bodies – or, at least, engaged on terms that industry / industry bodies have shied away from, e.g. critical accounts of diversity, power, etc.

Looking at each of these separately in more depth:

1) For whatever reason the PR industry has mostly not felt the need to explore the wider world through academic research in the way other professions/industries have. This could be due to a lack of clear identity due to the diversity of roles, tasks, departments PR is spread across, a lack of engagement by academia or perhaps a short-term focus on driving results/revenue (due to a high volume of low margin work – particularly among agencies) which has meant losing sight of the bigger economic, business, societal, etc picture (and I, personally, would err on the latter)

2) This situation among practitioners hasn’t been helped in recent years by the PRCA and CIPR. Speaking from our experiences of the CIPR (sorry, Wadds – we don’t have as much insight into the PRCA but they’re as guilty I would imagine!) as far as we know no – or very little – new research is funded and tends not to be advertised widely to academic institutes, rather a smaller network of established (dare I say, often ‘on side’) friends. The CIPR used to hold an academic conference but this is no more and I can’t recall any dissemination of the resulting materials within the industry. Training is good but isn’t aligned – as far as I can tell – with wider academic institutions.

3) Academia has been developing some really interesting and innovative insights into PR int event years – but these have been emerging in areas that go beyond the standard, 80s/90s management approaches that informed practice. Rather, much contemporary work has challenged the industry on a range of issues, from the ethics of practice, PR’s wider societal role, critical accounts of diversity, etc. These need to be seen as useful/friendly challenges for PR to improve/adapt its position and operation to grow and thrive, rather than misinformed criticisms by academics

So….. if that’s the current situation, what’s the solution? Well……

Industry Bodies

Industry bodies need to implement support for existing examples of academia/practitioner collaboration form other sectors., such as aligning training/education curricula and outcomes with academic insights and best practice; funding research or building a research fund from third-party sponsors to proactively and strategically create opportunities for academics to develop and explore new areas for the industry. For the CIPR this sort of stuff was done under Alan Rawls, so it’s more a case of resurrecting than reinventing activities.

But it’s also about fostering and promoting greater relations/dialogue between the two fields and this will involve changing the PR industry’s mindset towards academia and academic research. This could be done by highlighting the benefits of engagement, such as adapting the industry to become more relevant and resilient to wider societal challenges; becoming more strategic; delivering better value for clients; winning bigger budgets,; etc. This is obviously a longer-term project/campaign that would require industry bodies such as the CIPR and PRCA in the UK to become involved, but it could be helped by lower-level activity to initiate and foster dialogue between the two constituencies… see below…

Practice

It’s hard to tell practitioners what they should be doing but they could definitely get more involved in academia. A number of opportunities exist with a range of benefits and on different levels of involvement. this could include: guest talks and lectures; offering work placements partnering with local universities to develop practitioner-in-residence schemes and even exploring / getting involved in more formal Knowledge Transfer Partnerships where both industry and academia get help to innovate with Government funding.

But I recognise that all of this is not seen or is not seen as a primary concern over winning and delivering fee-paying work! That’s where changing attitudes is so important (see above)

Academia

Likewise, academia needs to recognise the importance of industry to academic work – both in terms of teaching and learning and research – and not be scared of engaging with and addressing the day-to-day realities of the industry head on – i.e. recognising the commercial imperative or imperfect organisational set ups, practice, etc. Academics need to proactively seek to build relationships with industry beyond work placements. Where this happens real benefits can be observed. For example, at last year’s ‘PR and Disruption’ conference at LCC we targeted practitioners and academics for attendance and had great feedback from the benefits both found in meeting and ‘demystifying’ each others’ attitudes, ideas, etc, etc. There were some criticisms too – but that’s good to help bridge the perceived academic/practitioner gap. We’re hoping for the same at this year’s event.

Taking learnings from these results we (the Network for PR and Society) are planning on developing a more formal scheme to help bridge the gap based on creating an ‘Academic-in-Residence’. Many universities have ‘practitioner-in-residence’ to bring practice into the learning environment but we feel it should work both ways. This project is in development but we see it working as a sort of ‘adopt-an-academic’ which we discussed the other week whereby we collate and maintain a database of international academics listing their interests, publications, and desires to work with specific sectors, types of PR, etc.

The idea is that we can start building mutually beneficial relationships between academia and practice – academics get to share their findings/knowledge and industry gets to learn and even have bespoke research completed for their area of practice. Most PR practitioners don’t have the luxury of being able to step back from the day-to-day work to think about wider developments in the sector so this scheme seems like a real opportunity to start building relationships between the two and yield practical benefits for the industry.

It would be great to have such an initiative supported by industry bodies to help reach key practitioner constituencies with the Network for PR and Society tapping into it’s academic network. I could certainly see it being a really strong, initial tactic in a wider, strategic approach to bridge the academia/practice gap!

 

Call for Papers: Public Relations and the Visual

Myself and fellow colleagues/members of the The Network for Public Relations and Society have been busy planning our Summer conference over the past few months and we’re delighted to reveal the date and theme of the event and issue a call for participation as well.

Titled Public Relations and The Visual: Exploring Identity, Space and Performance, the conference is a one-day event being held on Wednesday 9th July 2014 from 10am-4.30pm at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.

The aim of the conference is to bring together PR industry experts and academics to explore and debate the role of visual dimensions in public relations theory and practice. From media representations of PR professionals to branded spaces; issues of identity and performance, the conference will explore these and other visual themes from a societal perspective.

Participants will explore a variety of viewpoints to conceptualise the industry and debate new ways of thinking about and visualising practice. The overarching aim of the event is to encourage collaboration and partnership between practitioners and academics to develop new thinking across the field.

We welcome proposals undertaking an analytical and/or critical examination of the PR industry and practice focused on any aspects of the visual or representational dimensions of public relations. Submissions can be made by individuals, groups or organisations.

Moreover, we encourage challenging and thought-provoking proposals from both practitioners and academics that seek to critique existing areas of PR and help the industry and practice move forward.

The event will be led by two keynote speakers (currently being confirmed) and two broad themes each containing three debates will be explored in greater detail during a morning and afternoon session.

We are looking for academics and practitioners from a range of disciplines who are interested in presenting 15-20 minute papers covering some of the following areas:

Stream 1: Visualising the PR Profession

a) Public Relations in Popular Media
How is PR and its practitioners represented in fiction, television and film? What impact do these visualisations have on the way PR practitioners see themselves and the ways in which the public comprehends PR? Does this change professional and personal identities and the way practitioners behave?

b) Public Relations Identities
How do PR practitioners view themselves?  What are their self-identities and how do these identities shape contemporary professional and personal practice? Moreover, what are the dominant and marginalised identities in PR and how do they shape the industry and the wider professionalisation project?

c) Visions of Future
 Practice
With the boundaries between PR, advertising, digital marketing and search engine optimisation blurring at a frenetic pace what does the evolving landscape of PR look like? Is it possible to sketch a vision for PR practice in a digital world? What knowledge, skills and competencies does such a vision require?

Stream 2: PR as Visual Practice
a) Dramatising society: creating immersive environments
How can PR practitioners use theatre and performance as a communications tool? What role does creating new physical realities play in changing behaviour, beliefs and galvanizing word of mouth?

b) Branded spaces: PR as place identity and spatial communication
How can space be used as a PR tool?  PR practitioners are used to creating and using exhibition and event space but what more can be learned about the way the built and designed environment creates narrative and discourse?  How can this be used as a creative PR component?

c) Designing stories: PR as visual communications
How can the PR and design relationship be used to full effect?  From traditional graphic design to poster and film; from comic strips to animation; how can visual storytelling be used to persuade, influence and stimulate relationships?

If you would like to present please email: s [dot] collister [at] lcc [dot] arts [dot] ac [dot] uk by 30th April 2014 to express interest in participating. Fuller papers and presentations will be due by 31st June 2014.

Let me know below if you have any questions!

Launching the Network for Public Relations and Society

Last week we held a small event to officially launch a new research network based out of the Public Relations department at London College of Communications, UAL. The Network for Public Relations and Society aims to explore – academically and alongside practice – the social role of PR.

This is an area which has received renewed interest in recent years from scholars addressing the discipline from a range of perspectives united by the view that PR operates beyond the organisation in making, shaping and influencing society. These directions extend the more dominant and conventional academic accounts of PR as a management discipline. You can see more about how we contextualise our research areas in the Slideshare below:

The event featured a presentation by myself and my colleague, Sarah Roberts-Bowman, and some short talks from the University of Cambridge’s Dr Scott Anthony and our colleague from Central St Martins, UAL, Dr Paul Rennie, on some of the historical aspects of PR.

Paul, in particular, gave a fascinating account of the role posters played in the early era of PR focusing on the work of the artist (and LCC’s first ever head of design) Tom Eckersley. An exhibition of Tom’s work was on display at LCC and after the event guests were able to see some of the ground-breaking visual communications work which Tom created for the GPO, RoSPA, Ministry of Information, Shell and others.

Our other speaker, Scott Anthony, provided guests with a revisionist history of PR practice in Britain based on his fantastic book form last year, Public Relations and the Making of Modern Britain. Scott began by discussing how, contrary to earlier histories of modern PR which locate the discipline’s origins at the feet of early – mainly US – C20th capitalists, modern PR in a British context was initiated primarily by a group of “idealists” led by Sir Stephen Tallents.

These PR pioneers, Scott suggested, were “Asquithian liberals” who began their professional life attempting to counter the sensationalist and alarmist information presented to the public by the early press barons. More ideologically, as he makes clear in his book on the history of the PR profession in the UK, Tallents and his network of film-makers, artists and designers sought to conjure up and ‘project’ a vision of a progressive Britain where democratic enfranchisement, improving living standards and liberal values were at the heart of a new and exciting Britain.

PR’s practical role is this project, Scott argued, was more than news management – the perspective from which PR is all too often understood and practiced as today. Rather, PR began as a socio-cultural endeavour drawing in cultural and artistic avenues such as art, architecture, design, film, posters. Moreover, these weren’t seen as “instrumentalist” delivery channels or media platforms, they were a core constituent of what it meant to communicate publicly.

And while much of this early PR activity was located and sponsored by big, state owned organisations – the GPO, BBC, London Transport and Ministry of Information are obvious examples – the “social mission” of PR, as Scott described it, extended to corporations, such as Shell, BP, Guinness, Gillette, too.

Referring to the aim of his book, Scott remarked that its sought was to “recover the history of PR” as a practice that really mattered – socially, as well as personally, to the early British practitioners. This neatly captures, too, the aims of the Network for Public Relations and Society.

Although time and society has been transformed since Tallents’ day – the state-owned industries have disappeared, the public service role of local authorities has all but been obliterated, the role of the ‘public’ has been displaced or lost in many areas of society and the media – there is a growing impetus, we believe, to renew interest in and scholarship of a range of areas related to the ‘social’ role of PR.

The specific aims and scope of the Network can be understood in more detail in the slides above but we feel that areas of particular interest include: the interpolation of social theory in understanding PR; the exploration of the social history of PR (in a UK and globally comparative context); the role of PR in communicating socially aligned, as opposed to corporate, narratives (such as through social change and activist campaigns) and the increasing rise of social media and the expansion of the social into hitherto unexplored domains of public communication.

If you would like to find out more or get involved drop me an email s [dot] collister [at]. lcc [dot] arts [dot] ac [dot] uk. If you’d like to be kept informed of developments please sign up to the Network’s mailing list: http://eepurl.com/Ljt-j

We look forward to hearing from you!

LCC Guest Lecture Series 2013-14

I’m a bit late posting this as our first guest lecture with Visa Europe’s VP of Digital Corp Comms, Nick Jones, is next week (still a few free tickets left) but nevertheless, our 2013-14 Guest Lecture Series is ready to roll.

I’m really pleased with what is an excellent line-up – full details below. All events are FREE and open to the public but booking is essential so we can get enough wine in! Eventbrite links will be made available a month ahead of each of the events.

Finally I would like to say a MASSIVE thank you to Adam Parker and Lissted for kindly supporting us and helping make such an awesome series possible.

 

ICA Pre-Conference: ‘Power through communication technology’

I sat in on an interesting ICA pre-conference session earlier this week that sought to identify and address a series of questions around the issue of power and communication technology in a globalised society. There were a good range of speakers and topics up for discussion, including:

  • Michael L. Kent, University of Oklahoma, USA – Taking a Critical Look at Technology in Public Relations: We Have an App for That
  • Dean Kruckeberg, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA – Another Inconvenient Truth
  • Erich J. Sommerfeldt, University of Maryland-College Park, USA – Social Media Silos and Civil Society: A Role for Public Relations in Contemporary Development Communication Efforts
  • Katerina Tsetsura, University of Oklahoma, USA – In @ We Trust? Public Relations Realities of Fake Online Personalities
  • Chiara Valentini,  Aarhus University, Denmark – Social Mediars: The New Online Stakeholders for Public Relations?
  • Stephen Waddington, European Digital Social Media Director at Ketchum and President-Elect CIPR – Public Relations and New Communication Technologies – A Professional Perspective

 

I’ve embedded a Storify stream above for tweeted highlights but it’s I’ve added my own post-event reflections below:

  • Stephen Waddington remarked that many of the academics there were notably pessimistic about the potential of social media. I think this was partly due to the way the session was framed – and there were some definite critical perspectives explored, but there was also a number of pragmatic questions asked about social media which is needed. Some, such as whether communicators are measuring their organisation/client’s ‘sociability’ or building small, deep networks around customers/stakeholders, are being realised in certain areas; meanwhile other critical questions, such as attempting to unpick  social media’s role in driving a deeper marketisation of society, are worth exploring further
  • There was some agreement that scholars need to move beyond existing models of PR and communications when exploring social media. Stephen Waddington highlighted the apparent unsuitability of Grunig’s work to social media (despite Grunig’s protestations to the contrary) while Erich Sommerfeldt highlighted the centrality of technology and technological affordances in mutually shaping personal and organisational identity and behaviour among activist groups. I mentioned Bruno Latour and Actor-network Theory which offers a really interesting account of the role technology plays in mediating society. These are issues largely far from PR and communications scholarship and need rethinking as a matter of urgency
  • It also occurred to me how many participants – certainly those from US-oriented universities – have read their Marx. There were two particularly impassioned critical accounts of technology and its potentially negative role in society from Dean Kruckeberg and Michael L. Kent. But some of the most pertinent points and questions raised (e.g. technology’s role in creating social and economic precarity; in further reorienting social relations around capital/the market, etc) are squarely addressed – or least acknowledged – by Marx and groups of contemporary Post-Marxist scholars, including Terranova, Beradi, Negri… even Castells
  • Finally, speaking of Castells… while he had his name dropped a few times there was a definite dominance of interpretive research. Giddens’ Theory of Structuration was covered extensively by Erich Sommerfeldt and Chiara Valentini invoked Alan Kirby but a bit more theoretical underpinning of some of the ideas discussed wouldn’t have gone amiss (but then again, I am a bit of a theory fan)

 

PR and Disruption: Embracing and Surviving Change

It’s been little while since I last posted – and one of the reasons for this is because I’ve been helping organise a one-day conference exploring future directions for public relations.

PR DISRUPTION logo Teal 1The event, PR and Disruption: Embracing and Surviving Change, takes place on 10th July 2013 at LCC in central London and aims to generate debate and reflection about PR’s identity and the future role it should play in the contemporary world, characterised by disruption. You can book a place here.

More specifically, the day will explore and map the knowledge, strategies and skills that communication professionals need to operate successfully and – ultimately – transform society. But we don’t just want the conference to be a talking shop so there will also be a series of workshops encouraging delegates to learn the skills necessary to survive in a disruptive world.

Speakers and participants will include:

This great line-up and others will be involved in delivering by a range of keynote presentations in the morning, followed by three parallel streams in the afternoon: ‘face-off’ debates, case studies and the practical workshops. The complete list of speakers is on the conference website and a full itinerary can be found here. The day wraps up with a drinks reception and networking.

We’ve kept costs deliberately low as we are well aware of the time and budget limitations people have at the moment, so full-day attendance is £125 (inc. VAT) and half-day (morning or afternoon) is £75 (inc. VAT). On top of that I can offer a 10% discount on the full price. Just book via the alumni rate and enter ‘SCblog’ when prompted for ‘year of graduation’. What are you waiting for? Book a place now: http://bit.ly/PRdisrupt

As a footote, the event is designed by the BA and MA academic course team here at LCC to help shape the future direction of the PR discipline at LCC – and ideally – create a theoretical and practical platform from which we can establish a research institute that will be positioned to explore PR from its wider societal and cultural perspective, rather than just as a business function. The idea being – ultimately – to push forward the conceptual agenda and help organisations and practitioners (from multi-nationals to grassroots movements) better navigate and deal with the challenges and complexities of the modern world.

Exhibition: Propaganda: Power and Persuasion

The British Library has a fascinating exhibition opening today. Titled Propaganda: Power and Persuasion the exhibition runs from 17 May to 17 September 2013 and – quoting the BL’s website – “explores a thought-provoking range of exhibits” that will make you look anew at “the messages, methods, and media used by different states – discovering how they use propaganda through time and across cultures for both power and persuasion.” Sounds good.

The exhibition resonates well with a great book I’m reading at the moment, Public Relations and the Making of Modern Britain, which reappraises the origins of public relations in a British context. The author, Cambridge Leverhulme Fellow, Scott Antony, argues that contrary to common misconceptions of its hard-nosed Bernaysian origins, PR in the UK emerged from a distinctly cultural and governmental agenda. Education, information and ‘improving’ society were imperatives baked into PR from the outset, Antony argues.

Aside from helpfully taking contemporary definitions of PR full circle, such a conception chimes wonderfully with the rest of the BL’s exhibition narrative:

“It is used to fight wars and fight disease, build unity and create division. Whether monumental or commonplace, sincere or insidious, propaganda is often surprising, sometimes horrific and occasionally humorous. […] Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is the first exhibition to explore international state propaganda from the 20th and 21st centuries. From the eye-opening to the mind-boggling, from the beautiful to the surprising, posters, films, cartoons, sounds and texts reveal the myriad ways that states try to influence and persuade their citizens.”

Tickets are £9 (under 18s free) and concessions are available. Check it!

Digital innovation: some reading

Serendipitously I stumbled across a couple of great articles about digital innovation in the advertising space recently which dovetail neatly with some of the thinking and writing I’ve been doing.

Following on from Adam’s comment about the diffusion and adoption of innovation within the PR sector (which warrants some analysis and a further blog post in its own right) it’s equally interesting to see how the same issues are being played out in the advertising space.

According to Digital Planning Director at BBDO/Proximity, Vincent Teo:

“This shift toward creative innovation and product development will be a continuous evolution in the agency space and one in which I believe will form the foundation of the digital agency of the future. There is a real synergy between product innovation and what agencies are currently doing and this looks like the next evolution in extending what agencies can offer to their clients.”

What this looks like in detail can found in Vincent’s great survey of the current ad/digital/innovation landscape, The Digital Agency of the Future. And following Vincent’s vision and line of questioning, a number of other posts and article’s further explore the same issues, including Rei Inamoto‘s Why Ad Agencies Should Act More Like Start-ups and .net magazine’s Inside the Labs of the World’s leading Digital Agencies.

Although there are some distinct differences between the ad and PR industries, both are rapidly converging around digital. Some level of comparative analysis will undoubtedly be useful to see where each industry is succeeding (and not succeeding) and looking for clearer paths to innovation, adoption and sharing/commercialisation. Hopefully more to come on this.

 

PR & paid media: a new reality?

A number of smart PR agencies seem to be setting up new paid media divisions of late. First, Edelman announced its hire of Cassell Kroll as vice president, media strategy operating out of the firm’s digital arm. Shortly afterwards We Are Social revealed their new paid media offering, with ex-TBG Digital sales and client services director, David Gilbert, as Media Director. It is fascinating to see how the increasing convergence of owned, earned and paid media channels is rapidly driving organisational innovation in order to remain relevant and competitive. As We Are Social’s Global Managing Director, Robin Grant, puts it:

“Today’s social environment demands that media planning be integrated into brands’ social media strategies and for media buying to operate in real-time and in synergy with always-on social content creation and community management.”

Edelman also outlines its perspective on the contemporary converged media landscape that gives some rationale for their hire into a wider context and outlines nicely how the agency approaches digital in an increasingly integrated way:

The insights reflected in Edelman and We Are Social’s new business models and strategic offerings are part of wider trends I reiterate to my students when we discuss future directions for the PR industry. The reality is the PR industry they are learning about is arguably becoming less and less like industry they’re seeing represented in textbooks and also (perhaps worryingly) discussed by *some* senior industry speakers.

It’s also something that plays into my thoughts and speculation about the continued need to proactively innovate. The challenges and opportunities of social are ‘live’; that is to say they’re continual emerging meaning leading agencies or practitioners need to stay entrepreneurial in their approach to navigating this new media and communications landscape. This requires thinking freshly about what PR is now and where it’s going – or more specifically being taken by the flows of the social web.

Having worked with Edelman and We Are Social, this is a trait I can confidently say is present within the agencies’ senior leadership and embodied in employees. It must be there in others too undoubtedly, but how can we join up this thinking to ensure that ‘entrepreneurial’ agenda remains a priority – not just at the micro-level of individual agencies or organisations but more broadly at the macro, sector level.

I appreciate this is no small task requiring a focus on collaboration, rather than competition and again, potentially across sectors as well as organisations. Maybe it is already happening through industry events (but it’s not something I’ve come across recently). It’s an exciting time with a number of equally exciting opportunities for the PR industry; the question remains: how can we maximise these opportunities to ensure their strategic potential is realised? Hopefully more to come on this.

Social media helping PR operate more strategically?

The Chartered Institute of PR’s (CIPR) annual State of the Profession report suggests a potentially interesting development for the sector and the role PR plays within organisations.

In her introduction to the survey of 1,273 of its members, CIPR CEO, Jane Wilson, reports that PR “is moving away from having a primary media relations focus to embracing the opportunity presented to us by social media to participate in two-way conversations with our publics.”

While ‘two-way communications’ is an often misused or misunderstood term its adoption here is potentially significant as it might  indicate a shift from a traditionally media relations-focused tactical function to more strategic organisational as PR has to undertake greater research and planning to deal with the complexity of social media.

OK. So, this is pretty flimsy speculation but there’s another interesting insight in the report which adds some more – albeit speculative – weight to the hypothesis.

The increasing convergence and collaboration of siloed departments necessary to manage the increasingly social environment and support the move towards becoming a ‘social business’ is also affecting PR professionals. In the section titled ‘Converging areas of practice’ the report reveals that “[PR] [d]epartments working increasingly closely together has directly resulted in areas of work converging. Around half of PR professionals say that departments that now work more closely with each other share responsibility for social or digital media management (51%), branding (48%) or internal communications (48%).”

While it doesn’t indicate whether PR teams are taking the lead on driving forward a newly converged organisational strategy, these are interesting findings that may indicate that as organisations become increasing socialised and converged this may well be a catalyst for PR to recognise and capitalise on its long-absent organisational strategic prowess?

PR, it has long been argued, is best conceived as a strategic management function operating at board level to understand wider society and help shape the long-term vision and operation of organisations. In theory PR plays a central role identifying and connecting internal stakeholders with external ones, building long-term relationships with them, interpreting their changing needs and feeding this information up to the board to shape organisational strategy. The reality, alas, has seen PR all too often become relegated to marketing-led communications and reactive issue management.

But is social media forcing a change for the better? As building relationships with online communities and networks through two-way communications becomes increasingly central to an organisation’s success; and social media-empowered consumers and stakeholders are increasingly driving organisational convergence will PR’s ‘boundary-spanning’ role helping join up an organisation’s departments with its external environment help it operate at a higher, more strategic level?

I guess only time will tell. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised as I believe PR has the potential to play a central role in helping organisations adapt to the complexity of social media at a business level – in theory, at least!

As a footnote it should also be noted that two other findings from the report may have a bearing on this. Firstly, the report argues that in terms of its current strategic presence “three in five [respondents] say that they directly brief board members or senior staff, whilst over a third of those in-house with a direct responsibility for PR sit on the board“. However, “fewer than half say that this extends to influencing wider business and organisational strategy.”

And secondly, “by some margin, the area of public relations that is seen as presenting the biggest challenge is social or digital media management. Two-thirds of PR professionals (66%) say that they think it will present a challenge to them as PR professionals, whilst half (53%) say that they think it will present a challenge to their organisation.”

So, there’s still a way to go before PR operates consistently at a strategic, management level, although social media may be well be the catalyst necessary to shift this reality. But, it’s a catalyst that’s also perceived as a major challenge – both to the profession and individual practitioners. Perhaps it’s digital’s disruptive potential will win out and help the PR industry come of age.