A blinding glimpse of the obvious: PR should be about "relations with the public." Good relations are based on trust. Trust develops from behaviors such as accessibility, follow-through, candor, honesty, empathy, and humility. Yet most corporations today show few of these traits when they communicate.
Social media now drives influence and relationships, yet most corporations watch from the grandstand. As in the past, their communications departments are staffed to be broadcasters of information, not “conversationalists.” They are often ill-equipped to deal with sensitive questions or challenges. When these come, they are unable to respond promptly and intimately because the responses must be vetted through corporate attorneys trained to communicate sparsely and in legalese. In the internet age, this is not a good model for "relations with the public."
Transparency is a precious tool to build trust. Yet there continues to be a transparency gap in corporate relationships with consumers. For example, we're now used to impatiently scrolling through screens of dense information to check the box reading: "I approve the terms of service." Why don't more companies ask in plain English if we are willing to have our information collected and shared? Apps ask if it's OK to "use my location." But how many people understand that may mean their travel will be tracked and recorded?
The actions of some marketers and PR people continue to reinforce negative stereotypes. You don't build long-term relationships with people by manipulating or deceiving them. Yet, as the recent documentary, "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" demonstrates, manipulative product placements are on the increase. At least in my former field of journalism, reporters increasingly disclose personal or publisher interests that could be seen as affecting their story. Why aren't there real-time disclosures with product placement?
Why does astroturfing persist as a PR tactic in politics and public affairs? And as last week's unmasking of Burson-Marsteller's campaign for Facebook reinforces, why do major agencies still act opaquely (and then blame it on the client) when the odds of getting caught are higher than ever?
It's telling that Miriam-Webster's definition of public relations includes the words: "...inducing the public to have...goodwill..." In a wired world, this one-way concept of persuasion needs to be replaced with a modern definition more in line with what the PRSA urges: that PR "helps an organization and its public adapt mutually to each other."
In the future, successful PR will increasingly be a two-way street. It would be great if our industry could consistently behave that way, and if the organizations we serve could reorganize the way they communicate to catch up with the real world.