Srikanth Srinivas: You cannot future-proof PR, but you can keep it relevant

image-featured-srikanth-srinivas-mediabrief-PR-Cookie-Crumbles-StoryThis is a special piece, written on invitation by Srikanth Srinivas, a banker, journalist and development policy professional with a career spanning more than 30 years. He works across sectors, functions and responsibilities. Srikanth spent nine years at the World Bank in Washington DC before coming back to India in 2007. Currently, he is Senior Vice President at Adfactors PR, prior to which he was deputy editor at Businessworld. Srikanth has also held senior positions at Business Today and The Economic Times as head of the Economic Times Research Bureau. – Pavan R Chawla

Eighteen million. That’s a number picked from the Google News database of accredited news sources. Between 1979 and 1995, in a little over 15 years, the total number of news stories published were just over 18 million. At the end of the next 15 years in 2009, a shade under 18 million stories were published in one year. At the end of 2016, barely 7 years later, 18.4 million stories were published every quarter.

The raging flood of information and content… puts PR professionals squarely at the centre of a huge conundrum: how do you reinvent the the work of professional communicators? How do you reinvent public relations?

Soon, perhaps in the next 5 years, we may be publishing 18 million news stories a month. How, in that raging flood of information and content, is any story going to stand out? Which puts PR professionals squarely at the centre of a huge conundrum: how do you reinvent the profession and the work of professional communicators? How do you reinvent public relations?

It has been repeated often enough to become a cliché, but it bears repeating again: we live in a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – and it isn’t going to get any less in the foreseeable future. In Future Shock, his 1970 best seller, Alvin Toffler said the following: “To understand why acceleration in the pace of life may prove disruptive and uncomfortable, it is important to grasp the idea of “durational expectancies.”

Also read Madan Bahal on reinventing public relations

What Toffler meant to say was that virtually everything we do, from writing an email to going on a date, is premised upon certain spoken or unspoken assumptions about duration, or how long the experience is supposed to last. It is these durational expectancies, learned early and deeply ingrained, that are shaken up when the pace of life is altered.

Professional communicators today have to deal with even more compressed timelines, but also have to do it under very dynamic and changing conditions

It disorients us when we have to compress more experiences into a shorter time-frame, which he called ‘future shock’. Professional communicators today have to deal with something more complex; they have to deal with even more compressed timelines, but also have to do it under very dynamic and changing conditions. How do we make sense of this? How do we stay relevant, useful and necessary?

Time to re-evaluate

image-srikanth-srinivas-mediabrief-leaderspeakThis is not about tools and instruments, though they play an important part. It’s also not just about doing more things, doing them better, or doing them differently; they still represent an old frame of reference, rather than a new one for a new paradigm. As a first step, we need to re-evaluate many of the ideas we hold dear and almost immutable.

Let’s start with organisational behaviour. Successful organisational decision making depends on getting buy-in from a number of significant stakeholder groups: board members, institutional investors, the media, political organisations and regulators, communities, and last but not least, employees.

Communications professionals will need to build expertise in stakeholder analysis, both in the academic and pragmatic senses

Not all stakeholder interests are or can be aligned; so, communications professionals will need to build expertise in stakeholder analysis, both in the academic and pragmatic senses. The former can help develop a new framework for understanding issues, and the latter develops explanatory power. Corporate communications professionals will have to develop expertise in listening, engaging and responding to questions, all of which should become part of communications planning.

Second, we also live in a time where the multiplicity of channels and platforms is expanding exponentially. Each of these have a different grammar and syntax; most are also being built around a single delivery instrument, ‘the one device’ – the smartphone. In a VUCA environment, the dynamics will be ever-changing and fluid; new players like bloggers could have greater degrees of power or influence. Audiences may have new expectations, and prefer to engage in dialogue, rather than just receiving.

Third, PR folk will have to think about organisational story telling differently. Seth Godin, author of All Marketers Are Liars, writes that marketing is about creating compelling stories. “A great story is true. Not true because it’s factual, but because it’s consistent and authentic,” he writes. Marketers, he says, are just storytellers; it’s the consumers who lie to themselves every day. “Successful marketers are just providers of stories that consumers choose to believe.” Companies cannot sell that argument without risking their reputations.

Here’s what may work: Stories must be sense-making vehicles that un-complicate things and situations, not merely be interesting anecdotes. The more sense it makes, the more compelling a story will be. Storytelling should also be cross-cutting, and strengthen corporate reputation (and yes, reputation should also be constantly monitored).

Fourth, company leadership plays a critical role in crisis-like situations. When a firm’s reputation is at risk or under threat, the CEO’s role in media management is all-important. In the world we live in today, it’s the senior leadership that is the guardian of corporate reputation, and that’s not going to change soon.

Fifth, using good, solid research, corporate leadership can shine a spotlight on some phenomena that improve understanding and make things a little less complex for audiences and stakeholders. Can we find some phenomena that have predictive possibilities that reduce ambiguity? We should try.

Sixth, uncertainty also opens up opportunities for wider consultations that could reduce uncertainty. To be sure, the broader the consultations are, the messier it gets, but the benefits of greater predictability far outweigh the difficulties of handling a messy conversation. Wider consultation on strategy, for instance can lead to better planning, more foresight, and greater insight.

Which brings me to the final, and perhaps most important point. PR folk are very fond of ‘strategic communications’. In that same bestseller (the title is intended as a joke, by the way) cited in previous paragraphs, Godin says that marketing techniques can be used to advance worthy causes. Perhaps.

You cannot distort data or information to fit preconceived narratives, no matter how compelling they may be

Strategic communication usually begins with a message and then looks for data and information to support that message, a little like fitting the facts to a theory. But if communication is meant to be candid, and transparent (which is what audiences look for in a VUCA world), the data or the information is the starting point. It’s the analysis of that information that helps discover what messages are worth spreading.

You cannot distort data or information to fit preconceived narratives, no matter how compelling they may be. That’s fake news. Try building a worthwhile corporate reputation that can become legacy instead.

 

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