Yesterday was Sunday, and I could no longer stand the clutter in my office. So, I sorted and filed. Inevitably, I came across a number of items that called for some kind of action. One of these was the December, 2009, issue of Public Relations Tactics from PRSA
It had an article on Bob Garfield’s November 11, 2009, speech at the the PRSA 2009 International Conference in San Diego. Garfield is an Advertising Age columnist and author of The Chaos Scenario. He made numerous great points, but the one that resonates most with me is:
Every institution that has formerly dictated from the top down must begin treating its constituencies not as the anonymous hoi polloi, but as genuine stakeholders and partners. … In a connected world, they have far more sway over you than you have over them.
This paradigm shift takes me back to textbook public relations and the function’s role in border spanning. As I read it in my early textbooks, border spanning meant knowing and understanding how external stakeholders felt about issues pertaining to the organization and preparing the organization to address these issues. Sometimes this was to happen through adapting or changing policy, but more often, through one-way communications.
As time went on, my professional work as a communicator and my MBA emphasis on management policy led me to believe the real role of border spanning is to align the organization with the wants and needs of its stakeholders. On behalf of those first texts I read and those that have come since, they probably meant what I came to understand. But in practice, which I saw working in PR agencies, there was much more communicating in an attempt to align outside stakeholders with what management already thought and wanted to do than there was policy change to adapt the organization to the wants and needs of its stakeholders.
I believe that in the organizations that have been lauded as having excellent PR functions, the latter happens at least as often as the former. But with the proper management mindset, one which seeks to understand the wants and needs of stakeholders in the first place, and orient the organization to meet those wants and needs, border spanning becomes keeping up with stakeholder wants and needs rather than discovering them. And with the organization oriented correctly in the first place, adapting becomes a less extreme activity. The right management mindset is what it is all about.
What I believe Mr. Garfield is saying is social media is creating a world where non-alignment not only is a disadvantage but ultimately is a prelude to failure.
I have spent 30 years in the PR business listening to senior managers say “What we really want is good press coverage” from PR. Now, the press is an increasingly smaller part of what we think of as media. Social media, which is becoming an increasingly larger and more influential part of this media, requires a conversation. A civil conversation requires respect and understanding between participants, and, since one of the participants is an organization and the other a stakeholder, organizations need to understand and listen to these stakeholders if they want good media, good relationships and, in the end, good business.
The best self-help book I ever read is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. In his chapter on how to be a good conversationalist, Mr. Carnegie says its simple. Just be a good listener. Since conversations seem to be the best way to manage social media, organizations need to become good (and I will add “responsive”) listeners if they wish to succeed in the brave new ever-more transparent world.