Managing the Global Landscape of Perception and Crisis
By Ian Ségal
09 January 2020
Organizations today—public, private, and nonprofit—rely heavily on the public perception of its activities and purpose in an ever-expanding society of digital communications. And along with such reliance, business owners and stakeholders understand the importance of not only who is talking about their company but what they are saying. With the objective of harvesting positive conversations about an organization, such an effort needs to be streamlined with a focus on media tools and practices to facilitate a successful outcome. But, such tasks, projects, and programs are often easier said than done as many moving parts and interdependencies impact the success or failure of producing favorable corporate transparency. To ensure success within this realm of communications and media, the practice of public relations needs to be adopted, mastered, and deployed inside the environment where an organization seeks to capitalize on its public opinion.
And while arguments have ensued regarding the legitimacy of public relations, many organizations—from private companies to the federal government—practice a conveyance of public relation activities without such a declaration. Typically, certain scenarios, events, and situations act as the impetus for warranting PR activities. Some of these tactical responses are embraced when vying with the competition, building brand recognition, staying relevant inside the mainstream of society, interconnecting with journalists, and augmenting the return on investment (ROI) (Conway, 2015). Some of the more focused PR efforts are strategized in areas that include but are not limited to media relations, event planning, crisis management, press release writing, corporate communications, and speech authoring (Axia, 2019). But, the decision to implement a PR program for an organization can be cost-prohibitive—which has questioned the rationale for budgeting that does not yield a direct ROI, such as the sale of goods and services. To further understand the publicity challenges that organization leaders have, it merits taking a closer examination at the PR industry and several facets of this unique vertical.
Many corporate leaders have found themselves deliberating over whether they should enlist the services of a public relations (PR) firm, invest in hiring professionals to perform the role internally, or completely forego the effort entirely. And, at other times, many business owners have made the critical error in suggesting that public relations is simply a fancier term for marketing—it is not. As defined by the PRSA (2019), “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” With this definition alone, it is evident that the practice of PR is immersed within the domain of cultivating relationships through focused strategic communications harnessed to internal actors and external public audiences.
In contrast, marketing—with some crossovers—is specified by the AMA (2019) as being “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” More precisely, whereas marketing is what an organization says about itself, public relations is the outcome of what the public is saying about an organization. How and why those publics choose to offer such dialogue is worthy of an exploration into the industry of public relations going back to its advent, activities, and evolution.
Unbeknownst to most people—in the broad sense—the practice of public relations finds its roots buried in the earth of the ancient world. As offered by Dominick (2013), “The military reports and commentaries prepared by Julius Caesar can be viewed as a triumph in personal and political public relations. During medieval times both the church and the guilds practiced rudimentary forms of public relations.” For over two-thousand years, public relations has left a footprint in history.
But, it was not until the occurrence of the American Revolution that public relations coalesced into the fabric of society—from managing war effort events to the distribution of news content nurtured by media relations with journalists. According to Dominick (2013), seasoned writers—including Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams—were instrumental in creating propaganda to influence and sway the public to embrace the revolutionary cause. This, in fact, can be deemed as one of the earliest examples of publicity in American history. And such was only the beginning of ongoing PR which would shepherd society through the decades of the U.S. Civil War, and eventually World War I.
In the early part of the 20th century, a man by the name of Ivy Ledbetter Lee—a graduate from Princeton University—partnered with his friend, George Parker, and together opened one of the first public relations firms in the United States. As one of the earliest pioneers of the PR industry, Ivy Lee was both an architect and practitioner of public relations, shaping both positive public perception as well as aggressively mastering many successful PR outcomes (Turney, 2015). By establishing the journalistic legitimacy for public relations while cultivating mutual satisfaction for his clients and the public, Lee was able to convince audiences to embrace his messaging and react with favorable opinions. This, in turn, paved the way for the public relations industry to evolve, formalize, and expand.
And as public relations continued to incubate and develop, events in history—notably the world wars of 1914 and 1939—would not only affect modern PR but would become contributory in designing its framework, legitimacy, and importance reaching into modern times. Early examples were involved in the creation and distribution of U.S. Army signage depicting Uncle Sam urging young men to enlist in the armed services in 1916 (Hasic, 2019). Considered as propaganda posters, they were quickly accepted as an effective means of distributing a call-to-action—one that was pushed by the federal government. But beyond recruiting men into the military, President Roosevelt identified the need for something more, and established the Office of War Information on June 13, 1942 (Glass, 2011), to counter the global influence of the Axis powers during World War II. Focusing on the mobilization of resources desperately needed to support the global conflict, it compelled civilians at home to join the effort of manufacturing aircraft and tanks in converted automobile plants (Watson, 2012). With an emphasis on patriotism, this federal bureau would influence the war effort at home, success abroad, and the progression of public relations in the post-war years of the mid-20th century.
In the years following World War II, a whirlwind of activity harvested the continued growth of the public relations industry—in America and throughout Europe with the efforts of such firms as the International Public Relations Association in the 1950s and 1960s (Watson, 2012). The federal government exercised its PR prowess while immersed in and consumed by the Cold War, the Vietnam era, Middle East conflicts, and later the collapse of the Berlin Wall which united East and West Germany. It was during this second half of the 20th century that American society had cultivated a climate that not only invited the need for PR but retained its importance in carrying the messages of public, corporate, and government visions (Dominick, 2013). And whether it was triggered by social responsibility, consumerism, corporate expansionism, government policy, increased population and segmentation, the inherent need for public relations was quickly endorsed for the dissemination of information. In a short time, corporate America began forming communications departments and employed specialists to own the responsibility of affecting favorable PR outcomes for organizations (Dominick, 2013).
But, corporations were not alone in implementing the disciplines of public relations. The latter part of the 20th century witnessed growing PR activity demonstrated by the involvement of spin doctors—people who specialized in swaying public opinion regarding politics, government policies, and election campaigns (Dominick, 2013). Using PR channels to communicate political positions on a wide array of affairs quickly became successful in the crystallization of undecided constituents to be persuaded into voting for a candidate or endorsing a political agenda. This became evident in using communications and different forms of media to sway public interest, obtain voter confidence, and create advocacy for everything from government policies to investor relations, charities, and entertainment. And whether it was politics or the landscape of socioeconomic affairs, public relations was realized as the most effective way for government and organizations to influence the masses through cleverly framed communications. However, another tidal wave of change would soon impact the profession of public relations—redefining its approach—as America would enter the 21st century.
Digital Age of the Internet
The 21st century opened the floodgates to many new facets that would affect public relations and it would be shepherded in by the advent and development of the incubated Internet of the late 1990s. A myriad of new digital channels of communications was created and, in many ways, taken advantage of by the public, corporations, and the government. The Internet would play host to the unimpeded electronic discourse between a host of actors operating from desktop computers, mobile phones, and tablets to publish content for expressing views and influencing audiences. Moreover, communicating with the publics was facilitated by such platforms as websites, blogs, podcasts, vlogs, and a plethora of social media sites that afforded everyone the opportunity to set upon a virtual stage underneath the marquee of their own identity or brand. Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube made it simple for individuals, businesses, government agencies, and more to publish views and manipulate opinions on countless subject matters. And, in many ways, many of these parties were not aware that they were conducting their own forms of PR with little to no education and experience—and some, to the surprise of many, with unfathomable success.
Yet, corporations and the government conducted their due diligence to not only understand the benefits of the new media offered by the Internet but were steadfast in trying to tame its residual behavior of the masses through effective digital communications. In the years from 2005 through 2011, much invested time and effort was poured into the Internet for affecting favorable political outcomes for the presidential campaign of Barack Obama in 2008 as well as other politicians (Dominick, 2013). A surge of corporations joined the fracas and established their competing social media presence by employing the Internet’s benefits to create a brand identity and awareness with the public. Other benefits soon presented themselves as a method to facilitate alert notifications to the public regarding product or service concerns from a company (Dominick, 2013). Additional gains were realized in using social media for product and program launches, handling public complaints, and opening up new channels for dialogue with consumers and constituents. But along with the many advantages of this new media, there were a host of disadvantages that required organizations to perform research and discovery into mitigating the exposure to potential liabilities.
Many PR firms found themselves proactively monitoring social media sites to identify trends and impending crises while, in parallel, working steadfastly to deliver a positive spin for clients which included but were not limited to celebrities, politicians, corporations, and charities. And with such an effort being gauged as a gargantuan task, the attributed cost for these services was often staggering—only affordable by those with an established budget for this expenditure. Additionally, these analytical offerings from public relations firms required dedicated professionals who specialized in not only communications and marketing but also technology and science to add logic to reason for fully vetting initiatives.
Other areas of concern that were spawned by the advent of social media involved not accurately forecasting public reaction to posted communications. This created the impetus to facilitate the business analysis of target audiences—demographics, cultures, political opinions, and economics—to induce an increase in sales leading to greater profitability for an organization (Dominick, 2013). Internally, corporate operations and human resources departments were overwhelmed with authoring new social media policies for their employees to safeguard the corporate image while remodeling business communications in an online world. And lastly, it was learned early on that a misappropriated message on social media—which may appear as a snowflake—could trigger an avalanche of negative press cascading mayhem across all available online platforms; such calamities required crisis management teams seasoned with the rapid response of strategy and tactics for remediating unwanted negative publicity. But, America was not alone in learning how to manage public relations in the digital age—the global population was also impacted by the delivery of new digital dimensions to communications and PR.
According to Molleda (2015), “It is estimated that there are anywhere from 2.3 to 4.5 million public relations professionals globally.” These professionals in the worldwide community provide PR assistance to international companies, governments, and organizations to create the harmony of favorable relations in their home nations and abroad in countries where they have a presence. These efforts include transnational ecosystems that focus efforts on digital media (e.g. social media platforms), activist organizations, government interests, corporate branding, product launches, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). One area of particular concern has been found within the collective interchange of views and objectives between activist groups, international governments, and corporations. As shared by Molleda (2015), “Interactive communication technologies and the activist groups that use them, also known as globalutionaries, are increasing the complexity of global public relations practices.” What this entails is that international entities (governments, corporations, and NGOs) often find themselves engaging in public relations practices to respond to both global competition and interest groups that apply pressure through their own PR tactics.
With this said, what remains paramount for an effective international public relations strategy involves establishing where the entity is trying to affect its publicity and the identity of the publics of which it needs to build relationships. This creates the impetus for the international community to establish communication departments in those nations where they are operating and preferably by employing professionals who are native to those host countries. And, to complicate this further, sustainable public relations across the international community requires the cohesive management of calculated communications integrated with the activities at home, abroad, and with the targeted global communities (Molleda, 2015).
With a comprehensive look at the industry of public relations—delving into its history, government interactions, the digital age, and the international community—one would imagine that such a profession cannot be fully managed by a single specialization alone. With so many moving parts and dimensions to public relations, along with the numerous clients and countless audiences, effective public relations firms are similar to law firms or healthcare in that they differentiate their practices with a collection of competency areas. But, each PR firm and professional shares one thing in common—cultivating and maintaining the relationship between an organization and the public while nurturing a positive image to the targeted publics while achieving overarching goals. This is further facilitated by creating an atmosphere of attention that will compel people to purchase a product, endorse a political candidate, adopt a public view or initiative, or support a cause (Doyle, 2019).
In order to make public relations efforts successful, in most cases, a multitude of roles focused on operations, communications, business development, marketing, and media offer a holistic view of this vertical. Additionally, practice areas within business, government, education, healthcare, nonprofit, professional associations, entertainment, global, investor, politics, environment, crisis management, and digital strategy require an additional level of expertise with intensive training and education (Dominick. 2013).
To delineate it further, PR career paths are often categorized within corporate communications, crisis communications, investor relations, media relations, content creation, event management, social media, reputation management, and brand journalism to name but a few (PRSA, 2019). And although many of these disciplines have their unique characteristics, they tend to overlap in approach and execution reliant upon the task at hand. One of these areas that typically commands much attention—highly visible in the public eye—shares disciplines with other public relations jobs. This is the field of crisis management. And although some professionals change their metaphorical hat depending on the client's needs and circumstances, seasoned proficiency in crisis management is typically consistent with successful outcomes.
Crisis Management Executive Leader
According to Hayes (2019), “Crisis management is the identification of threats to an organization and its stakeholders, and the methods used by the organization to deal with these threats.” And with the volatility of both domestic and international events—impacted by politics, economics, cultural disparities, and conflict—an organization must be ready and able to deftly manage the unpredictability of crises with rapid response, intelligence, and influenced results. With the crucial responsibility of affecting stellar decisions toward a crisis situation within a short frame of time, remedying a calamity and reducing exposure to disasters, requires not only an educated professional but one who has demonstrated years of proven experience. The following information provided by Stokes (2019) encapsulates the essential responsibilities, education, skill sets, and experience associated and required to perform the role of a crisis management executive with authority and proficiency.
Education. A Bachelor of Arts degree is preferred and recommended within the field of public relations, communications, journalism, digital media, or a related liberal arts program such as psychology or sociology. Additionally, it is also advised that a prospective candidate for a role as a crisis management professional achieve a Master of Arts degree in communications with a concentration in public relations.
Experience. Most public relations firms that service a clientele of high-profile organizations and individuals require the expertise of professionals that have spanned a career, at a minimum, of ten to twenty years and preferably within a PR agency. This approach ensures that the prospective employee has been exposed to numerous crises across a multitude of verticals which certifies his or her competency to effectively manage any given scenario with a calm demeanor and professional poise.
Responsibilities. As one can gather, the role of a crisis management executive would be comprised of a portfolio of responsibilities that range from the development and implementation of crisis management programs to harnessing media relations. Some of these duties include but are not limited to building client relationships and earning trust, providing strategic counsel within the areas of crisis and reputation management, author effective press materials, and affect successful communication campaign programs. Additionally, supervising staff, providing guidance and leadership, and mentoring employees are standard leadership obligations of such a role. Lastly, creating a public presence of high visibility while developing interconnected media relations with news broadcast agencies is valuable for the dissemination of PR communications during a crisis event.
Preferred knowledge and skills. In addition to the responsibilities of the crisis management executive, a collection of desired skills is ideal for candidates best positioned for this role. Some of these competencies include the ability to quickly assess an unfolding crisis, aptitude in utilizing social media sites and digital tools, expert-level writing and oration abilities, and accomplished interpersonal communication to affect successful collaborative efforts.
How Crisis Management Works
Considering the extensive nature of crisis management and the executive leadership required to sustain its effectiveness inside an organization or when servicing clients, it is equally important to understand the dynamics of how this profession operates. And regardless of the size of an organization—whether it be a corporation, the government, or a celebrity—there is always the anticipation that a crisis will occur, often without warning, which can have a devastating impact on operational cadence. As shared by Hayes (2019), “Crises such as a fire, death of a CEO, terrorist attack, data breach, or natural disasters can lead to tangible and intangible costs to a company in terms of lost sales, customers, and a decrease in the firm’s net income.” This suggests that—and similar to disaster recovery planning—a crisis management strategy designed within the framework of a business continuity plan is not only critical to ensuring sustainability but significantly reduces the ill effects of a crisis should one occur.
Furthermore, those organizations that invest the time and capital into building a plan that conflates strategies, tactics, and operational endurance will usually mandate conducting a risk analysis of those potential areas which could negatively impact, if not paralyze, an organization (Hayes, 2019). By conducting due diligence along the lines of a discovery and gap analysis, business analysts can insightfully offer guidance in identified case scenarios and their impact on different lines of business within a corporation. This valuable data is essential in building a crisis management plan that is aligned with the business operations and addresses key areas of vulnerability and how to alleviate them in the event of a crisis.
Finally, the seamless coordination of all moving parts will ultimately gauge the value of a crisis management plan for an organization. As abovementioned, crisis management encompasses many indispensable duties of other disciplines in public relations as well as interdependencies for facilitating the fluidity of effective remedial publicity. The delegation of different tasks such as content creation, social media publishing, public announcements, press release writing, reputation management, and media relations are just some of the vital areas that require experience, knowledge, and proven success. And whether a crisis involves a product recall, a civil lawsuit, or leaked scandal to the public, all and more require the skillful dalliance of professionals to contain the disaster, sway public opinion, and endure a positive reputation for the organization dealing with the incident.
Although public relations finds its roots as far back as ancient times, the profession did not formally make its presence until the early part of the 20th century. And like most public relations professionals will agree, the effectiveness of successful PR strategies and tactics are designed by seasoned experts that know how to align the needs of an organization to the purposeful operations for maintaining favorable public opinion. Yet, with a myriad of moving parts and additional dimensions of consideration that resulted from the advent of the digital age, the previous approach to effectuating public relations required revisiting old methodologies and incorporating the science of new digital media.
And with the expansion of innovation delivered through the endless channels and platforms hosted on the Internet, traditional PR has reeducated itself to climatize its old-world practices with new outlets for sourcing, gathering, and distributing content. But along with the many advantages and benefits of the Internet, an array of direct and indirect complexities soon presented themselves as potential dangers for exposure to crises. The most notable of these areas came to be in the form of social media—a virtual landscape of communications that has helped facilitate mass communications to the publics faster than traditional forms of media, such as broadcast television and newspapers. But with remarkable speed in disseminating publicity for an organization, the same swiftness has been experienced in the promulgation of negative messaging, leaving damaging results upon people, organizations, and the government. With what has been more commonly referred to as weaponized social media, public relations professionals have found themselves working on multiple fronts to maintain favorability for organizations in the public eye while containing and quelling negative publicity across the Internet.
With the evolution of the digital age, the need for public relations has realized that damaging publicity knows no boundaries and can deliver its rhetoric within milliseconds to the publics across the globe. This has made a greater argument for organizations to either authorize their own crisis management teams or retain the services of PR firms to fulfill these needs. But, it has not been all immersed in the damage control of public opinion. A sizeable portion of public relations work has been focused on the areas of brand awareness, corporate responsibility, public affairs, press releases, product and program launches, and, for global companies, international relations. In fact, the most effective public relations efforts are calendared with unified messaging across as many media outlets—digital and other—as is financially sustainable by an organization, government, or individual.
Such consistency in delivering a ubiquitous communications campaign gives organizations powerful influence within the communities they target for the consumption of their publicity. With no end in sight, it has been forecasted that the next decade will continue to see a rise as high as 30% for PR professionals brandishing core competencies in digital content and social media community management (Sudhaman, 2015). To diversify the PR executive further, these skills will require mastery in multimedia content development, analytics, planning, and creativity. A symbiotic relationship will continue to develop between the digital age of communications, and, in the absence of gatekeepers, wardens armed with PR expertise to safeguard the reputations of clients across the World Wide Web. And while the virtual landscape of the Internet continues to expand, stretching its talons across unchartered digital frontiers, such innovations will continue to support the growing demand by more organizations to capitalize on the benefits of implementing effective public relations in the future.
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