R.I.P. engagement: Popular PR buzzword bites the dust

After the new has become rather common, a new buzzword takes hold and replaces the old - often rather quickly.

When you see a buzzword take hold in PR, it is amazing. Opinion leaders use it in interviews or editorials, their contacts and subordinates put the phrase into currency, agencies of all sizes start offering it as a service, corporate folks do it in-house, and soon everyone is doing it, talking about it, measuring it, and charging for it.

The diffusion of innovations, sociologically, linguistically, and technologically, pretty much follows this well-worn path. Then, after the new has become rather common, a new buzzword takes hold and replaces the old – often rather quickly. It is now happening with "engagement."

About seven years ago, at Edelman Digital's Summit in New York, everyone was talking about engagement. Richard Edelman even heralded "an era of engagement" at his commencement address at Syracuse University. Engagement seemed to be the new outcome that all PR pros should seek – a Holy Grail of support building. Opinion pieces buzzed about how to engage stakeholders and the public. Academics rushed to get research into a two- or three-year pipeline to publication. Everyone was jumping on the engagement bandwagon. Even I did through an article about digital engagement in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics.

Then it happened: Disillusionment started to take hold. The more I wrote about engagement, the more troubled I became. I asked myself the most dreaded of all questions, feared in ivory towers worldwide: "So what?"

What is the purpose of engagement? What is its outcome? Why are we after engagement for its own sake? Strategically speaking, what is it supposed to do?

Engagement can't be undertaken simply for the sake of itself, it surely must have a purpose to prove its ROI. We can use research to compute what that outcome might be. In standard PR terms, we will talk about using engagement to create better relationships, higher employee satisfaction or customer retention, better community support, and so on. There lies the flaw in logic.

If we use engagement as a tool to create or further another outcome, then engagement itself should not be the focus of our strategy. Engagement is a tool or a means of achieving an outcome, such as increased public support. So, when engagement is not the end-in-itself, the glow seems to have vanished from that new frontier.

A double-edged sword also exists with the term. Creating engagement is expensive, resource consuming, and ongoing. Once it is built with the public or a stakeholder, there is no clear end in sight. The public will rightly expect engagement to continue. So it becomes a resource-intensive process that may or may not pay off over time, and can even become onerous. And not every department has the time and resources to maintain that initiative.

Worse, what if engagement is built with a certain group, employees in a new location, for example. Sounds great. Those engaged employees can be a real asset and are a vocal and involved group. But what happens if the organization changes strategic priorities? Engaged employees are already active and things will quickly take on a more hostile tone if, say, the organization decides to downsize. This situation is what happened when Target tried expanding into Canada. Engaged yet disappointed employees can form a formidable and vocal opposition group. The same is true for other types of stakeholders, as well.

So, perhaps we need a new term? Rather than betting the farm on engagement, I am putting my faith in the reputation end of PR. Relationships based on credibility result in trust. Trust results in long-term relationships that create stability for an organization. But how do I fit that idea into a buzzword?

Shannon Bowen, Ph.D., researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and the board of directors at the International Public Relations Research Conference. Her column will focus on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at sbowen@sc.edu.


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