March 1, 2015
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‘Proactive reactivity’ in public relations

Last year I was interviewed by Madeleine Fitzpatrick for an article which appeared in Campaign Asia magazine in February 2014. The full email exchange between us appears below. However, owing to their copyright policy, the final edited version – which came out in the article – was only released to me recently:

Technological innovation crucial to PR's continued success

How would you sum up best practice when it comes to issue management in PR? Do your clients generally agree with you?

Best practice is knowing what’s going on before everyone else does and having a tested ‘always-on’ early warning radar and rapid response capability in place. Information is a cheap commodity but insights command top dollar. The role of the PR executive is to divine confident recommendations real-time from the constantly complex challenges facing our clients. If we have the wisdom and the tools and ability to help our clients intercept and manage issues intelligently, then they will listen to what we have to say.

Does the maturity of the PR sector affect the degree to which clients trust their PR teams?

PR savvy and sophistication inside many markets and companies is a work in progress. Clients are fed-up with mediocrity and there’s a lot of their money roaming the industry restlessly looking to underwrite precious quality they can always trust when change is a constant. Would this mean differences in terms of issue management between Asia and the West? If so, how? PR in the West has actually become such an aggressive and vivid concept in the public mind, perceived to be more important and interesting than ever: “PR war,” “PR battle,” “PR blitz,” “PR spectacle,” etc. It’s almost as if PR is now seen as a mighty secret weapon to be used against one’s enemies. In Asia the PR function is less well understood and so underfunded. That seems to be changing and longer-term as Asian companies become world famous brands communicating online, PR can flourish but only if it stays relevant in the social media marketplace. If it fails to do so, it will be never achieve its potential within Asian multinationals.

When, if ever, should an agency monitor and respond to social media for a client in real time?

This should be an ‘always on’ function for all clients at all times.

What kinds of people do you look for to help execute a proactively reactive PR campaign or strategy?

Intellectual curiosity is key, knowing what is going on in the world, grasping the psychology of persuasion, having ambition to be the best and getting a charge out of making clients famous.

What kinds of monitoring and analysis technologies, if any, do you advocate using?

Nowadays there are so many choices but personally I think Hootsuite is an essential tool for any PR professional. It has a data-driven capacity for engagement and collaboration that is second-to-none.

How do you deal with crunching the huge amount of data provided by social media? How do you convert that information into practical insights and/or identify key issues and risk in order to benefit the client?

Knowing the right questions to ask in the first place is absolutely essential when it comes to creating actionable intelligence. Using metaphor elicitation techniques, wrapping your head around search patterns, having the acuity to be track what’s going on with all the right keywords and phrases across multiple languages.

When it comes to issue management and proactive reactivity, what is the key issue that PR teams need to keep in mind going forward?

Going forward, the speed of PR is going to keep accelerating and we need to deal with that. The rise of ‘social operating systems’ like Facebook and Twitter and now WeChat and LINE makes it possible to share more information with infinitely large communities, but at the same time the sheer scale of our expanding networks is making it more difficult to communicate with individuals in a genuinely personal and customised manner. Nowadays communication must consist of listening as well as talking and given the broad scale yet atomized sensibility demanded by digital, in the future we will need the new thinking and augmented capacities we currently lack.

Public relations professionals have always been intelligent agents of information-sharing, knowing how to, where to, and when to share information with which people in different sequences so that they do or think things achieving intended communications and commercial outcomes. It used to be that we would need to have relationships with dozens of journalists and communicate through them with a mass audience via story placement.

Now we need to ‘know’ vast numbers of people – be they elite opinion-makers or average citizens – and maintain active and customized relationships with hundreds, thousands, even multi-millions. The dead reckoning of today’s PR minds won’t be enough to handle all this and there’s no canvas large enough where we can paint the far more sophisticated plans that will be required. So I think it is inevitable that we will need to delegate more and more power to super-smart systems that will help us communicate in what is becoming an unbelievably complex environment.

We need technology to help us simplify exponential complexity and today’s best algorithms aren’t solving the problems of scale and sensibility that are getting bigger than our current capability to address. This trend may become most evident in Asia, where we need to apply new technology to communicate effortlessly across diverse cultural and linguistic boundaries as never before.

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