I am probably dating myself, but the late Joan Rivers used to have a catchphrase that she would use in her comedic sketches where she would ask the question, “Can We Talk?” and the audience knew that Joan was about to impart some authentic comedic truth that her audience could relate to and appreciate. Those three simple words integrated into her communication style and helped catapult her into stardom, became synonymous with her brand and eventually led Joan to be the star of MCI’s (remember them?) PR campaign in the 80’s. When thinking about Reimagining PR in the 21st century, Joan’s catchphrase “Can We Talk?” comes to mind.
If you google public relations, this definition pops up, “the state of the relationship between the public and a company or other organization or a famous person.” The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) defines public relations on their website as, “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Specifically, PRSA states that the word, “Relationships,” “relates to public relations’ role in helping to bring together organizations and individuals with their key stakeholders.” When looking at all of these definitions combined, particularly in the realm of public sector PR where I have dedicated my professional career, it brings new meaning to those three important words, “Can We Talk?”
As someone who has worked daily analyzing the state of the relationship and communication between the public and the organizations where I’ve worked, I’ve come to realize that the conversation between the two has become a more complex enterprise with time. The “public” has quite a few people in their ear and in front of their eyes trying to talk to them all of the time. Getting a word in edgewise can be extremely difficult, especially when you’re competing with the media for their attention, to accurately tell your story and build that relationship or ensure that the relationship is not damaged. Then you must add to the mix that the public is divided into different demographic groups who receive information in many different ways. There are Millennials who prefer their conversation be via technology in as few words as 140-160 characters. There are Baby Boomers who still prefer face to face interaction, television, and print. And, Gen Xers who can fall somewhere in between. The growing diversity within this country means that conversations must be sensitive to cultural differences as well, whether by race, gender, or sexual orientation. There is no one size fits all (or the majority) model for public relations in the 21st century anymore, and you cannot build your brand without building the relationships. Reimagining PR in the 21st century means asking the question, “How do we have a conversation and build a relationship with so many different people who may have many different needs so that it truly is beneficial to everyone?”
I think the answer is found in the same way that we build relationships in our own personal and professional lives- by being truthful, transparent, and consistent. We build relationship capacity with the public when they know what we’re saying is the truth and that it lines up with what we do; that we’re as open as we possibly can; that this is something they can expect from us every time and more importantly, that this is not a monologue but an ongoing dialogue that will continue throughout the relationship, even when things get hard.
It is often a difficult proposition to move beyond just message delivery and information funneling to active participatory engagement with your stakeholders, but in this new age of instant information and regurgitation, you must not only imagine it, you must reimagine it- finding new ways to keep the relationship fresh between your organization and your key stakeholders, leaving no audience behind and no tool untried. This means being willing to wade out into the digital space, as well as, not abandoning real time human interaction. When challenges arise (and they almost always will) and the relationship is tested, then “Can We Talk?” takes on new meaning because that is the time when you have to be proactive in ensuring that truth, transparency, consistency, and dialogue are fully operational and not shut down. It is easier to spin, but it is much more beneficial to the relationship to be real and authentic. In the end reimagining PR is brave work, but once the relationship is built, it is well worth the effort, and you might just find that you CAN talk about anything.
About Ericka Davis
Ericka Davis has spent her entire career dedicated to public service and has received numerous awards, honors, and recognitions throughout her profession. She currently serves as the Director of Communications and Media Relations for the Atlanta BeltLine.
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