Printer Friendly

Bureaucratic trend threatens PR's future.

Missing is the needed exposure to the dynamics of the real world ... the jousting of ideas with a skeptical press; experiencing the shortcomings of advocacy; the difficulties of persuasion; the sobering realities of perceptions over facts.

Public relations managers themselves are quarantined from the daily combat of opinion making by staff -- and staff is cushioned from accountability by specialization.

Media are names on a list, or occasionally, a voice on the phone. Contact is made antiseptically by facsimile or courier.

Status is a derivative of the number of meetings public relations practitioners are invited to daily. The modus operandi of corporate meetings is intimidation ... creativity, curiosity get short shrift in favor of orderliness and conventionality toward the goal of consensus.

Little wonder that public relations adapts to the corporate culture. It, too, becomes resistant to change.

As tenure builds, so does habit.

Why things won't work -- or even be tried -- becomes instinctive. Thus, over time, public relations finds it increasingly uncomfortable to press doctrinaire-oriented management for change, for candor in communication or whatever -- and stops trying, rationalizing the wisdom of such choice in the context of the appropriate corporate culture.

Restructuring's impact notwithstanding, the agenda for public relations departments' conventional functions carries on, as if by rote, on principles probably tracing back to the |50s, embellished with the communication technology of the |90s.

All vital, necessary. Really?

What would management miss most if the PR department didn't exist tomorrow?

When did "routine" become a byword of PR?

And, lest you think I immunize agency folk from this virus of caution, let me say it is pervasive. Expectations can't be lowered without taking the cutting edge off creativity and initiative, external as well as internal.

Savor the unique

Ours is a unique profession.

Because it deals with the unpredictable -- opinions, attitudes, impressions -- it has to be flexible, dynamic, instantaneous and exceptionally skilled. There is very little that is routine. Each day issues a new summons to our judgment, our experience, our creativity and our special forum of professionalism.

I joined a corporation late in my professional life, so I was more resistant than most to the rules of conduct, the formalities and customs that inhibit action and consume time in huge gulps. Work through the secretaries; make advance visit appointments, write SYA memos, check all bases before advancing an opinion, achieve consensus. There is a faithfulness to such historical procedures -- common to conventional disciplines like law, finance, operations, manufacturing, even human resources -- that is terminal to an effective public relations department.

A case, of course, can be made that public relations' role is to create harmony ... keep the disruptions to an irreducible minimum through copious communications; to be conscientiously responsive to questions raised, internally or externally; and to professionally implement whatever policies management chooses to offer.

Or, it can be an activist department ... a group of creative souls who come to work to make things happen, not to watch them happen, and to respond. It is not put off by factual argument because it knows that this has little impact on perceptions -- which are "facts" to those who hold such views. It is never satisfied with what it accomplishes because, as a department, it has an insatiable appetite for doing it better --somehow. It leads and it advocates. On occasion it challenges a management decision.

It must be entrepreneurial -- not bureaucratic! In attitude, approach and activity.

This is what business -- and CEOs -- desperately need. Nevertheless, we seem to be tending toward -- and are apparently more comfortable with --the orderly process, the predictable reactive style. We've become executives with impressive titles and correspondingly removed from the line activity that is so essential to our maintaining the "hands-on" feel of the outside world.

Parkinson's laws are alive and well

We've become delegators; memowriters and "comitologists" (the term C. Northcote Parkinson coined for the science of "committee-sitting") and we're protected from intrusive interruptions from the media by our electronic shield -- voice mail.

Recently I reread Parkinson's Law. At 91, he'd not be surprised to learn that his laws are alive, well and thriving. But he may not realize how much so in public relations. His laws are a mirror of our transgressions and as relevant today as they were 36 years ago when he first offered them up in The Economist.

"Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." His basic first law.

Is the public relations staff larger than it was three years ago? Is it producing paperwork or productive material?

As manager or officer you're putting in longer and longer hours -- but is it in action or in group response -- at committee meetings?

Just to keep up, assistants are needed to handle the paperwork and reports. Product publicity, once creative and high priority, now falls to the lowest denominator, interns or new staffers.

Everybody's buried in reading material -- but it's work reports, memos and meeting minutes, not outside commentary on the world's events.

Everyone has a title -- and a specialty. But working on single issue assignments doesn't fill the day, so the new assistants have to find other things to do so they have something to report: discretionary things like rewriting the employee manual; helping out in the United Way; writing payroll stuffers about AIDS -- maybe even doing audits to find out what others think about the company. Then there's their level of meetings: total quality pep talks, employee motivation sessions. Inevitably the assistants need help, so interns are added.

Meanwhile, someone has to ride shotgun on the PR staffers added to the profit centers and they have to make reports.

More paperwork, less time to think contemplatively. The PR business is up; productivity -- real productivity is flat or down.

This doesn't Mean anyone is lazy or avoiding hard work.

The awful truth is that everyone is honestly working harder and longer each day than ever.

It's here that Parkinson's second law kicks in: "Expenditure rises to meet income. "

Salaries and benefits inflate the department budget, so proportionate increases have to be added in to cover the extra activity, but, is productivity increased? Salaries and benefit allocations consume larger and larger portions of the department's operating budget, often at the expense of creative projects.

"Actions expand to fill the void created bY human failure. " Another of Parkinson's perceptive observations that has painful relevance.

In the communication context he has a great deal to say on this law. "What organization men say or write, or print," he says, means nothing at all, being merely the bureaucratic equivalent of breaking wind. To succeed in the art of communication we have to make a big effort and it is initially an effort of imagination. We have to put ourselves in the position of the people we seek to influence ... to see the situation from their point of view. This is the most difficult task of all."

Consider: The bigger the perception problem, the more communication dollars and words we routinely pour into the offense. But is it what we want to say or what they want to hear? Aren't we equating volume with effectiveness?

Finding fault is as dangerous as it is easy.

Where we go from here

I offer up this unvarnished view of the state of affairs within our profession, as I see it, not to be provocative but to offer a framework for the changes I believe are needed.

I've been observing business management for 40 years. Everyone is better educated. CEOs are training to the [N.sup.th] degree like astronauts. They've learned that they should look beyond the numbers, beyond the immediate. Most understand that doctrinaire ways are obsolete ... that employees are people ... that shareholders want integrity as well as a voice. Most CEOs are sophisticated enough to know that there's no "con" in building confidence; no second chance to make a first impression; that credibility is earned, fresh, every day!

But if U.S. business has come of age you'd never know it from their goings on.

We read of the faltering attempts at glasnost within one of our most respected companies ... another icon of free enterprise turns the police loose to cut off leaks ... the charismatic leader of our largest financial institution seems to lose his all-star status as his leadership is questioned ... the epitome of rectitude in our national U.S. leadership is a central figure in one of the biggest money shim-shams in contemporary times ... the financial house on which the U.S. government deposits its credibility has an overdraft of integrity.

These are not isolated instances, but daily examples of a chronic condition.

What has gone off track? Why? In interviews from the podium, today's CEO is a model of caring sensitivity; of robust integrity; of enlightened attitude.

Well, as Shakespeare writes in "King Henry the Eighth":

"... tis kind of good deed to say well: And yet words are no deed."

Do today's CEOs give false witness? Are they blinded by greed ... intimidated by the relentless nature of quarterly earnings pressure?

Some, perhaps. Not the majority, in my opinion.

My thesis is that they are waylaid by the educational process that launched them. They are taught how to become a CEO, not how to be a CEO. It's as though they were schooled to be pitchers but, once reaching the major leagues, they're given a first baseman's glove. Some make the transition; most have difficulty. Further, they are poorly served by their coaches; their aides; subalterns; senior officers.

That's where public relations comes in -- or should come in.

Consider ...

During undergraduate days -- and in graduate M.B.A. work -- success of CEOs-in-training is measured by tangibles -- definable, quantitative, specific standards, grades, SATs, etc. The early careers of tomorrow's CEOs further teach them that if it can't be measured it doesn't count. As they progress, from product line manager to divisional manager, to regional vice president, the same quantitative measures apply -- profit margins, market share, return on investment -- ad infinitum.

Ultimately they reach the pinnacle. But something strange happens. While the quantitative measures are still critical, others -- presidents, executive vice presidents, senior officers --assume direct responsibility for them now as they once did for their CEOs. Meanwhile, as CEOs, they have a new set of values to address.

They are now responsible for leadership, for the creation of a coherent, persuasive vision for the future of the company; for the care and protection of its integrity; its credibility. None of these is really susceptible to charting. They're qualitative values-- abstract, subjective, ambiguous.

Why do these throw a CEO offstride? Hasn't he (or she) shown a good grasp of contemporary issues that their predecessors never had to face: AIDS, drugs, the environment?

Difficult, troubling conundrums. But, nonetheless, issues that can be approached by team effort through tangible performing means. Precedents do exist.

Maintain credibility

But protecting credibility is intuitive, personal. It's fragile; it has to be reinforced each day. It is difficult to maintain, easy to lose and devilishly hard to regain. Even communication takes on a different meaning. Content and context get priority. It isn't volume because in some cases, less is more. It isn't even a matter of taking the initiative. It's as Parkinson said, the difficult role of seeing things as the audience does; putting yourself in its place. It's asking yourself if you would believe you?

It's why Roger Smith of GM and John Reed of Citicorp both publicly acknowledged, after-the-fact, that their communication had not been effective; that more candor and more personal visibility would have helped immeasurably. They should have sensed this deficiency -- or someone should have done it for them.

The CEO of Dow Chemicall nonplussed by the viciousness of public attacks (he, and Dow, were called arrogant and irresponsible on an environmental matter), said he'd always believed that being a good corporate citizen, especially on environmental issues; obeying the law and making a respectable profit was enough. He learned differently; he learned that perceptions, not facts, set the public's agenda.

So too, did Rawls of Exxon, vilified for what he didn't do as much as for what had happened in Valdez.

In reading several survey interviews of CEOs, commenting on the issues of the '90s as they saw them emerging, I was disappointed to note that not one CEO addressed the matter of integrity. Not one saw the issue of credibility --theirs--to be an issue. Predictably, they stuck to the orthodox menu of problems -- foreign competition, trade barriers, wage differentials, costs and the usual litany of social problems.

Total pragmatists -- as they no doubt fancy themselves -- they saw only the concrete issues.

Our society, our culture, is heavily slanted to rewarding such left-brain skills. Those are the analytical, procedural, linear modes. They help us -- and CEOs -- make rational judgments based on fact. Logic is deified in our culture, to the detriment of all other values.

Using both sides of the brain

But we have a double-brain -- two ways of knowing.

It is the other side, the right-brain hemisphere, that enables us to handle ambiguities; to understand metaphors; to dream; to create combinations of ideas; to give us intuition; leaps of insight.

We need the right brain to create corporate visions. We need the values of right-brain thinking and planning to motivate employees, reassure shareholders and to calm jittery analysts.

We need those perceptual, spatial skills to defend the corporation's integrity -- and its credibility, those abstract values under constant verbal and written attack.

While education reform is a major agenda topic these days, don't expect this year's 75,000 students pursuing M.B.A. degrees to emerge any better prepared to cope with these subjective issues than their predecessors.

But there is an answer.

There is a way to fill this void -- to introduce this critical dimension of thinking ... Public Relations!

Unless we've all been lobotomized by our bureaucracies, we are all right-brain people. We are professionals in a profession that is qualitative.

Maybe few of us have thought twice about it, but we are uniquely qualified -- by background, job experiences -- to provide this extra consideration to decision-making.

We've coped with the irrationality of attitudes and we have felt the power of perceptions.

This process has been as much of necessity as it has been of determination. Most of us in public relations are served up problems based on facts. But because we know that we can't change facts, we look to changing the perception of those facts. In turn, this has compelled us to look behind the specifics, to try to understand the roots, the patterns and the associations that create attitudes and personal opinions, and those perceptions. We know these can't be precisely defined; they may not even be logical.

But we ask WHY ... WHAT IF!

We consider solutions others either ignore or cannot see because they see a problem only in one dimension.

When the CEO of Exxon decided that he would get in the way and could make no tangible contribution to solving problems in Alaska, that was a practical, logical decision.

Obviously there are problems in advancing unorthodox solutions. Management has difficulty in accepting answers that do not root in hard facts and whose success may not be quantifiable. They resist -- often strenuously.

This creates a realistic danger. Public relations may, in time, be sufficiently intimidated that it bends its solutions to fit management's narrow quantitative criteria. Inevitably this undercuts the very essence of our unique contributions.

It is this cultural accommodation that I perceive as a pervasive, almost subliminal, trend in our business.

The issue of the 90s is: Which fork in the road do we choose?

The left (consensus) fork, which leads to sinecure, security and stability; or the right fork (proactive), which leads to not only risk but also to recognition, personal and financial rewards -- and a high degree of psychic income, which is very important to some who operate on a high kinetic energy level?

What path we choose has a lot to say in how we perceive ourselves.

Defining who we are

Are we comfortable with what we do? Are we implementors or influencers? Does it make any difference to us? Do we appreciate the difference?

Do we distinguish between counseling and communicating? In daily activities, which do we do most? Because we have staff dedicated, largely, to the discretionary communication functions, is it possible that our primary role as a counselor in matters of policy is being obscured -- diminished?

Do we see quality control as a matter of engineering, manufacturing and of technology and thus, outside of the direct concern of the public relations department? But isn't attitude critical? Isn't motivation -- and the perceptions of employees of management's real intent? Shouldn't we take the initiative to get involved and work on these subjective issues?

Is human resources only about wage rates, benefits, child care, drugs, and such other social problems as AIDS? Or, maybe it's more fundamental ... maybe it's about rebuilding the implicit social contract between employer and employee that's been shredded by layoffs, takeovers and restructurings. Again, a role tailor-made for PR.

I hope most of us have the courage and the intellectual curiosity to ask unspoken questions ... to get involved.

True decision-making is so widely dispersed throughout a major organization these days that PR has got to take the initiative to plug itself into the major centers of action -- the CEO hasn't the time nor the inclination -- given decentralization -- to pave the way.

Are we willing to raise the questions, to be a devil's advocate? Can we take the heat?

The future of public relations as we know it today rests on the answers. Because, make no mistake, these questions have to be asked -- and asked with intellect and sophistication.

And asked they will be. If not by you then by others -- M.B.A.s, lawyers.

I'll admit I don't know what the future holds for PR, but I do know who holds that future -- we do -- each of us and our colleagues.

In seminar after seminar those who are worrying about the future ought to be preparing for it.

To quote a line from Hamlet:

"We know what we are, but know not what we may be! "

John F. Budd, Jr. is chairman/CEO of The Omega Group, N.Y.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:public relations
Author:Budd, John F., Jr.
Publication:Communication World
Date:May 1, 1992
Words:3039
Previous Article:A conversation with EXCEL award winner, Jack Sinclair.
Next Article:Managing corporate communication in turbulent times: partnering with human resources.
Topics:


Related Articles
PR pros find room at the top.
Public relations in China - a decade of rapid growth.
A real look in the mirror.
Establishing a more strategic role in PR practice: why, how and when?
Effects of recession on PR/Communication.
Benchmark survey: public relations spending ratios.
Know the competition: survey spotlights growing need for competitive intelligence in public relations.
Proving your worth: survey reveals dichotomy facing public relations.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters