Innovation and the future of public relations practice:
Beyond integrated marketing communication
An earlier version of this article was given as a presentation to the
Schweizerisches Public Relations Institut (SPRI)
June 19, 1999
Dr Jon White
Professor, Public Affairs
City University Business School
Public relations has been viewed as a communication practice, to be reconciled with marketing communication in a practice sometimes referred to as integrated marketing communication. There is no questioning the importance of attempting to integrate communication activity in and on behalf on any organisation, but public relations has a larger contribution to make to management, strategic planning and decision-making. This article reviews the role of communication in public relations practice, and marks out public relations' larger contribution to management. At the same time, it looks to the future of public relations practice and sets out the qualifications practitioners will need to make this larger contribution.
Some commentators, particularly in the United States, have suggested that a role in integrated marketing communication is the way forward for public relations. Clarke Caywood, chairman of the department of integrated marketing communication at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University near Chicago, has claimed credit for his department for the development of the concept of integrated marketing communication. He offers a number of definitions of integrated marketing communication:
“Integrated marketing communication is a concept of marketing communication planning that represents the added value of a comprehensive plan that evaluates the strategic role of a variety of communications disciplines – general advertising, direct response, sales promotion, and public relations – and combines these to provide clarity, consistency and maximum communication impact.”
“Integrated marketing communication is the process of managing all sources of information about a product/service to which a consumer, prospect or stakeholder is exposed which behaviourally moves them towards a sale and / or relationship and maintains consumer / stakeholder loyalty.”
The concept of integrated marketing communication and its introduction raises questions about:
the nature of public relations practice
the role of innovation in public relations practice, and
the future of public relations practice itself.
This article considers these questions.
The nature of public relations practice
At the outset, it’s important to recognise that public relations is not a communication practice, pure and simple. As it has evolved, it now requires an understanding of management, social context and social action, and of knowing how to act to change group behaviour. Communication is a tool of the practice, but not the sum of the practice.
The effective modern practitioner needs a solid grounding in:
Business and management, to know how organisations work in the real world
Communication – unmediated, interpersonal, and mediated, using all the potential of electronic and mass communication techniques
Research and social analysis
(For a fuller discussion of education for public relations practice, see White in Nally, 1991))
An innovative view of public relations, emerging as the themes of behavioural public relations have been developed in the United States by commentators such as Patrick Jackson, a former president of the Public Relations Society of America, is that public relations is essentially an applied psychology. This is applied to intra (within) group relations and inter (between) group relations with the aim of influencing behaviour in those relations. It is easy to make the case that public relations is a key component of management of all organisations, and as easy to demonstrate the importance of what we do in public relations practice.
Innovation in public relations practice - looking to the future
Innovation in public relations practice depends partly on considering the ways in which the practice may develop in future. What ideas need to be considered now, to contribute to the strength of the practice in future?
Using scenarios for the future development of public relations practice, we can “draw” pictures of alternate futures for the practice. Let’s be clear about what scenarios are. Speculation about the future is easy, and can be little more than guesswork. Scenarios provide a means of imposing discipline on guesswork, by limiting the number of variables to be considered, and demanding evidence to support assertions to be made about variables and their interaction (Jungermann, 1983).
Scenarios should be developed out of the projection of developments in three or four variables into the future. To include more variables makes scenario generation unmanageable and reduces the process back to speculation. Scenarios are, in short, a way of disciplining our intuitions about the future, and we can apply the technique of scenario generation to the future of public relations education.
What scenarios can we generate as we look towards the future of public relations practice? Significant variables in the future of the practice will be:
the environment for the practice of public relations
business and management expectations of the practice
the skills and qualifications that practitioners bring to the practice and
the impact of technology on the practice
Looking at the environment for the practice, it’s clear that we live in an uncertain world. A few months ago, the countries making up the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation were getting ready to celebrate the alliance’s 50th anniversary, and the contribution the alliance had made to ‘keeping the peace’ since its formation. On the India-Pakistan border, two newly emerged nuclear powers continue their dispute over Kashmir. In the Asia Pacific region, countries until two years ago seen as economic powerhouses are struggling to re-establish their economic progress. In Europe, moves towards greater union are blocked by reality, and anxious glances towards the United States show evidence of worries that the US economy cannot hold up indefinitely. We live in an uncertain world in which social unrest, conflict, vigorous pursuit of national, rather than regional or global interests and economic instability are ever-present realities.
These facts of life are sources of enormous opportunity for public relations which is -- in the full scope of the practice -- a potential force, not just for business and economic development and for commercial success, but also for social negotiation and conflict resolution, as well as one means of working towards the social harmony which is a basis for social and economic development.
Looking to the future, uncertainty, conflict and instability are likely to persist. Their persistence means, in turn, that the environment for public relations practice will remain one rich in opportunities for the development for the practice.
Management decision-making occurs now in relation to a complex world economic picture. At the same time, business and other organisations are faced with the need to change, to respond to changes in the market-place and competition, and to the expectations and anxieties of their own members.
A management response to complexity is to seek help in dealing with it, looking for ways of making sense of a complex world. In this process, they will turn to consultants and other advisors. Public relations practitioners are involved in this process of “sense-making” and reducing uncertainty in management decision-making, and the most able practitioners are highly influential in senior management decision-making.
Management uncertainty in face of complexity is unlikely to diminish. What is less clear is whether or not practitioners will be able to provide the advice and support that managers need. The picture is less clear because, as yet, practitioners do not have the full range of skills they need to be consistently effective management advisors.
What are these skills?
Around the world, it is still true that there is no clearly delineated and established preparation for public relations practice. Entrants to the practice come to it with a variety of educational backgrounds or from careers in other fields. They develop their skills and knowledge of the practice as a result of the experience they acquire as they become involved in it. For some, joining larger consultancies or in-house departments, their experience may be wide and varied, and they may be fortunate to receive comprehensive training as they progress in the practice. For others, their experience may be limiting, restricting them to one narrow area of practice, such as media relations, and lacking in training opportunities.
As a group, practitioners are often professionally insecure and uncertain that their work rests on a credible body of knowledge (because they are aware of the gaps in their own knowledge of the practice). Or they may be in the grip of compensating certainty that they know what they are doing, and that they deserve greater recognition for the advice and services that they are able to provide.
As advisors to senior management, many may lack credibility because they bring no special expertise other than communication skills to management decision-making.
This is a gloomy picture, and perhaps over-drawn to make the point forcefully that practitioners themselves have to take responsibility for their own development, choosing educational and training opportunities that will increase their value as management advisors.
Practitioners need to be qualified in social and political analysis, organisation and business management, and communication. They need to ally these qualifications with skills in interpersonal and mediated communication, research, planning, management and consultancy practice.
The challenge for the individual practitioner is:
How, in each of these specific requirements for the practice, to develop a high level of knowledge and competence?
There are grounds for optimism in looking at the qualifications and skills of practitioners. A study last year of members of the UK’s Institute of Public Relations has confirmed a trend in the UK which has been developing over the past fifteen years: year by year, more highly qualified individuals are entering the practice, which is now a sought-after career option among entrants to universities (White and Myers, 1998). Around the world, there is a strong interest in professional development and a hunger to learn and to build the body of knowledge that will form a strong base for the practice.
The final variable for consideration is the impact of technology on the practice.
Practitioners, where possible, are making extensive use of computers in their work, but they have not yet fully exploited the possibilities of new channels of communication, such as intra- and internets.
Possibilities for the future will include the development of software which will allow for some of the routine requirements of practice, in planning, evaluation, issues management and programme management, to be carried out more consistently, easily and to greater effect, through the use of specifically prepared software.
In many areas the practice can be assisted, using technology, freeing time for management advice, thinking about the practice and ways in which it can be improved, interpersonal communication and creativity.
Optimistically, practitioners will continue to integrate technology into practice in ways which will improve the quality of practice overall.
A best-case scenario
A best-case scenario for the future of public relations practice looks like this:
In an environment marked by continuing uncertainty, management decision-makers will have a growing need for sound advice to assist them in the management of uncertainty, and to help them manage a complex environment and important relationships.
Public relations practitioners, recognising the opportunities presented by the environment and management needs, will take steps to educate and train themselves, and make full use of communication technology, to provide reliable, if not indispensable, services to managers as they seek to deal with complexity and manage successful businesses.
In this scenario, the future for practice is very bright, and the scenario itself suggests steps that can be taken by each individual practitioner to realise it.
Worst case and most likely scenarios are unacceptable, and what is necessary is to work for the realisation of the best case scenario.
The best case scenario separates public relations from marketing. Both have their perspectives to bring to the overall task of management. Public relations is both complementary to marketing and, sometimes, a corrective, working to overcome the limitations of the marketing approach.
Claiming a larger role
Innovation in public relations will depend in part on practitioners claiming the larger role for themselves implied in what has been said to this point.
Public relations is part of the overall management task. It considers and helps manage important relationships, looking to influence the development of those relationships and behaviour within them. It makes use of managed communication (which is ‘real’, two-way communication) and looks to the future of the relationships of concern. It is an anticipatory practice.
The perspective derived from public relations contributes to organisational functioning, management decision-making and planning, as well as to the achievement of organisational results (commercial or other results, for example in terms of employee satisfaction, commitment, motivation and loyalty)(White and Mazur, 1994).
The larger role opens up possibilities for current practitioners who can, in an English idiom, “raise their game”, and turns public relations into an attractive career option for qualified graduates and candidates who have already developed skills in another area of professional practice, such as the law.
Exploitation of these larger possibilities will depend on application of relevant ideas, generated from a number of sources:
management practices in other areas of management
the findings of the social sciences
systematic study of precedents, or case studies
Some examples of each:
Management practices in other areas of management: in the UK, increased emphasis is being placed on what can be learned from planning approaches taken in other areas of management.
The findings of the social sciences: in the US and Europe, after an earlier and more modest attempt in the US at the beginning of the 1980s, attempts are being made to set out the body of knowledge for public relations practice. This will be partly drawn from an examination of the social sciences for relevant findings, and will inform the development of what has been referred to as a European Body of Knowledge for Public Relations Practice (CERP Education and Research, 1999).
Systematic study of precedents, or case studies, would deliver benefits as the principles of practice are deduced from case studies. Many practitioners are unaware of the resource now available to managers from the case collections held by the major business schools. The European Case Clearing House, at Cranfield University in the UK (www.ecch.cranfield.ac.uk) holds 12000 management teaching cases from which managers can learn the principles of management. At present, few of these cases relate directly to public relations practice.
Much more use could be made of lateral thinking, currently referred to as “thinking outside the box.” Lateral thinking moves away from the obvious. The obvious in relation to public relations practice is that it is a communication practice, part of marketing, harder to define, and more difficult to measure.
In this article and the presentation on which it has been based, efforts have been made to show the opportunities for public relations practitioners, inherent in a realistic picture of the future of the practice. To realise these opportunities, practitioners as a group will have to be prepared to train themselves for them and to be ready to develop new ideas relating to the practice.
The scope of the practice is limited, if it is seen as a small part of a larger exercise of integrated marketing communication. Public relations is, ultimately, a part of – and support to – strategic management.
Caywood, C L (Ed.) The Handbook of Strategic Public Relations and Integrated Marketing Communication, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1997.
CERP Education and Research, European Public Relations Body of Knowledge Project (EBOK) 1999 (Contact: D Vercic, Pristop d.o.o Ljubljana, Trubarjeva cesta 79, 1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia)
Jungermann, H, Psychological Aspects of Scenarios, lecture given at the Advanced Study Institute (ASI), “Technology Assessment, Environmental Impact Assessment and Risk Analysis: Contributions for the Psychological and Decision Sciences, Les Arcs, 1983.
Nally, M (Ed.) International Public Relations in Practice, Kogan Page, London 1991
White, J and A Myers, A Survey of the Membership of the UK Institute of Public Relations, Institute of Public Relations, London, 1998.
White, J and L Mazur, Strategic Communications Management: Making Public Relations Work, Addison Wesley, Wokingham, United Kingdom, 1994.