Disclosure: I have worked with Anne Gregory and Paul Willis, and apologise for the rave review that follows. My thoughts are my own.
First, let’s tackle some myths.
Myth #1: That most PR practitioners work in the private sector. They don’t: in the UK most PR and communication practitioners work in the public and third sectors (see page 34). This book corrects the imbalance in much of the literature.
Myth #2: That the most rewarding – and best remunerated – PR jobs are in consultancies. If we exclude the few entrepreneurs who have become wealthy through building and selling consultancy businesses, many of the largest and best-paid PR roles are in complex public sector organisations. This book addresses them. But it makes the case for all public relations leaders to operate like consultants (see chapter 14).
Myth #3: That academics and practitioners don’t understand each other. There’s fault on both sides: on academics for writing inaccessibly and on practitioners for ignoring most academic thinking. Next year’s CIPR president Stephen Waddington has been tackling this problem – and who better than a past president (Anne Gregory) to respond with an accessible book aimed more at practitioners than at her academic peers.
This book manages to be short (just 164 pages including the index) and wide-ranging. The key to this is that it has ditched academic referencing for footnotes, making the text much more accessible. So a typical chapter is of ten pages, with two pages of extensive footnotes. I hope I’m right in detecting a trend because this device alone will do much to demystify academic writing.
Part One reviews the strategic contribution of public relations. Just as marketing directors or HR directors see an organisation through their particular lens, so there is a distinctive PR lens that explains why this is a vital function embracing media, corporate communication, public affairs, community relations and investor relations.
“Communication is the word often used to describe these collective specialist functions, but we will use the phrase public relations because it best describes what happens: the organisation builds relationships in public and with these various publics. (p.11)”
This echoes with David Phillips’s view of the organisation as a ‘nexus of relationships’. As Gregory and Willis state: ‘Organisations are organic, evolving and deeply relational. They are usually made up of people, although some organisations have very few, but facilitate connections between people, for example Twitter. Organisations interact with others. The create connections and conversations… ‘Organising’ happens as people communicate and undertake action.’ (p.8)
The centrepiece of this section is the authors’ new model of strategic public relations (the ‘four-by-four model’ p.35). In summary, this places organisations within a complex stakeholder environment (Coombs and Holladay’s definition of public relations as ‘the management of mutually influential relationships within a web of constituency relationships’ could have been cited here).
The first of the four dimensions note the contribution of public relations at societal, corporate, value-chain and functional levels (pp 36-40). The other four dimensions are the four attributes of public relations leaders (described as their ‘DNA strands’): an excellent understanding of the brand; leadership qualities; public relations as a core organisational competence (communication does not only come from the PR team); and excellence in planning, managing and evaluating public relations (note the emphasis on evaluation in Alex Aiken’s government comms strategy).
Part Two addresses the preoccupations of public relations leaders such as contextual intelligence, organisational values and ethical practice. This section relies more on practitioner research than on ‘pure’ academic research.
The authors identify ‘contextual intelligence’ as the core characteristic marking out the public relations leader. It involves coping with uncertainty and thriving on ambiguity, though intelligence is also supported by rational planning.
Part Three looks at the responsibilities of public relations leaders (the planner, the catalyst, the expert technician, the internal educator, the consultant).
I found the last of these particularly new and refreshing (and feel I can detect Paul Willis as the principal author of this section).
‘A consultancy approach suits public relations. Consultants facilitate change in organisations and in Chapter 3 we highlight how public relations leadership is associated with being an agent of change… The applicability of consultancy thinking to public relations is also highlighted by the idea that consultants do not just intervene and implement solutions themselves; they also enable others.’ (p. 146-7)
What is needed is ‘transferable knowledge, as well as profound theoretical and practical understanding.’
It’s risky to make sweeping judgements, but this feels like a milestone text to me. Yet it’s written for senior practitioners, not for everyone. I’m pleased to have made sense of it – which is not true of that many academic contributions.