Time for some PR Thinking

In the first of our guest posts, #FuturePRoof: Edition Two author Ezri Carlebach delves deeper into the roots of the current interest in design thinking. 

In my chapter ‘Economics, social dialogue, and public relations’ I noted that there is much that PR can learn from design,  particularly in light of the current interest in ‘design thinking’, a methodology based on how designers work that is gaining widespread attention.

Playtime for PR

I’ve written elsewhere about design thinking and public relations, and there are other elements of the connection between these two apparently unrelated practices that I want to raise.

In his highly-acclaimed study of play in society, Homo Ludens, Johann Huizinga says the whole of human civilisation arises in and as play, and thus can be defined as an expression of our play instinct.

We play, we learn from what we’ve done, and then we tell others about it. This leads to individual, organisational, and societal growth. The centrality of this to human experience is increasingly acknowledged in business, resulting in serious organisations using collaborative play to solve complex problems. If they’re smart, they share the story of what they’ve done through effective public relations, because that’s where the shared value is generated.

In order to play effectively with others – as we must in any kind of organisational setting – we design what we do. As psychologist and political scientist Herbert Simon (who won a Nobel Prize in economics) observed, “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”

Not only does that neatly capture the purpose of all management functions, but it also offers a useful way of thinking about strategic communication, whether the intention of that communication is to change perception or behaviour, or lead to a commercial transaction.

Design and play

The growth of interest in design methodologies in other contexts represents the beginnings of a paradigm shift from decision-based thinking to design-based thinking. In other words, we are witnessing a change from an approach based on choosing between a predetermined set of options, to one based on continuously generating new options.

Decision-based thinking demands conformity, seeks and expects answers, works from assumptions, favours organisations, and promotes process as the means of achieving objectives. In contrast, design-based thinking promotes flexibility, seeks questions, demands critical thinking, favours human beings, and promotes action to achieve objectives.

As the post-industrial digital world evolves, more and more business will originate in this locus of design and play, and when we add storytelling to the mix we get the following equation as a shorthand for the outcome: Public relations = design + play + storytelling.

We can do interdisciplinary too

As these various perspectives suggest, I favour an interdisciplinary approach to PR research and practice. There has been a clamour of late to appropriate neuroscience to back up communication practice, and that can be helpful, with some caveats (see, for example, this warning about scanning the brains of dead fish).

But while so-called hard sciences still carry the ultimate empirical kite-mark, the softer end of human knowledge is equally valuable. So let’s get more anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, poets, musicians and artists involved in the planning and management of our professional practice. After all, that’s what designers have been doing for decades.

You can find Ezri on Twitter @ezriel.