Relationships as a PR Goal

    May 30, 2006

Over the past many years, in speeches, workshops, books and articles, I have steadfastly preached two axioms of public relations:

  • At its core, public relations is the management of an organization’s efforts aimed at building and maintaining positive relationships with its strategic publics. A strategic public is one that, in the absence of a strong relationship, could produce obstacles to the organization’s ability to achieve its objectives.
  • Public relations is about influence. Organizations can and should wield influence ethically. Among academics, ethical public relations is often referred to as “two-way and symmetrical.” That is, the relationships result in win-win scenarios in which both the organization and the public achieve their goals. The tools of two-way symmetrical communication include negotation and boundary-spanning.

These two concepts-relationships and influence-go hand in hand. It is easier to influence somebody who is on your side than it is to influence somebody who thinks your organization is a bottom-feeding, ethically challenged bully that makes Enron look like a candidate for sainthood. The desire to be perceived as a good corporate citizen leads a lot of organizations to embrace the notion of “doing well by doing good.” Enlightened self-interest drives corporate efforts to be socially responsible.

But, at the end of the day, the organization still wants something from its strategic publics: buy our product, vote for our candidate, support our initiative, don’t boycott us, don’t burden us with new regulations, invest in our stock, join our family. Influence remains the goal.

Interestingly, we have translated this notion to the blogosphere. I check my Blogpulse Profile to see how much influence my blog has. BlogPulse splits citations of my blog posts into two sections: “Recent Citations from Top-Ranked Blogs” and “Recent Citations from All Blogs.” Clearly, bloggers crave citations from top-ranked blogs. More people read them, which means they wield more influence. And the more top-ranked blogs that link to a blogger, the more clout that blogger can claim.

Technorati is another resource for assessing one’s influence, according to many.

Accountant-blogger Dennis Howlett is questioning Technorati’s ability to rank influence and reputation, noting that some of the more influential people he knows get “piffling Technorati rankings….So where does the reputation of an individual blogger lie? In other words, does the claimed value a blogger is said to deliver through their Technorati ranking reach people of influence who matter in the commerclal world? I don’t think so.” Howlett hopes something will come along that will do a better job of assessing influence, a “Technorati on steroids.”

Neville and I discussed Howlett’s post on yesterday’s installment of “The Hobson & Holtz Report.” Since then, I haven’t been able to get the notion of influence as PR’s end game out of my head. I don’t think Dennis went far enough. Not only should we question whether Technorati is relevant to reputation. We should question whether influence is the road to a positive reputation at all. To put it another way, if public relations is about managing relationships between institutions and their strategic publics, why aren’t relationships the defined goal of our PR campaigns?

In many instances, influence still must be the goal of public relations efforts. I remember the PR campaign to stop Dakota Minnesota & Eastern Railroad from running coal trains through the middle of Rochester, Minnesota. The campaign-managed brilliantly by Weber Shandwick-had one goal: Influence the Surface Transportation Board (a U.S. government agency) to extend the public comment period following the release of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement. (The effort succeeded.)

However, given the shift from message delivery to conversation, I question whether influence should be the goal of all PR efforts. Rather than set a goal of getting something from our audiences, the relationship itself should be the final objective, whether it’s for our institutions or for our own blogging. A couple of experiences have reinforced this thought.

First, there are the many times I have worked with organizations on the development of a mission statement. In nearly every case, the senior leadership starts the process by insisting their mission is clear: Produce a superior return on shareholder investment. In fact, I conducted a Google search on “mission statement,” “return,” and “shareholders” that produced 250,000 results. In order to move the process along, I insist that producing a return on investment is the result of the organization achieving its mission; it is not the mission itself. When I worked in the communications department at Allergan, we finally wound up with a mission statement that explains the company’s reason for existence, to focus “on specialty pharmaceutical products for specific disease areas that deliver value to customers, satisfy unmet medical needs and improve patients’ lives.” If the company succeeds in this mission, it will make a ton of money and produce superior returns on shareholder investment.

To reiterate, the return on investment is not the goal; ROI is the positive consequence of achieving the goal of improving patients’ lives.

The concept translates quite well to the blogosphere. Many bloggers craft their posts in a blatant effort to influence readers’ thinking. Just read any of the political blogs; the political philosophies they embrace don’t matter-they all want you to think the same way they do. I generally don’t read these blogs, even the ones that lean the same way I do. I just don’t like it when somebody tells me how I should think.

Yet I am influenced by a number of bloggers who are not trying to influence me. In episode #2 of the new podcast by Allan Jenkins and Lee Hopkins, the pair note that they have more in common with their colleagues in the PR blogosphere than they do with their neighbors. I agree; I like being part of this neighborhood. Think about what people in real neighborhoods do. They stand at the back fence and talk about what’s going on in the neighborhood. Every conversation about any given topic adds to the community’s aggregate knowledge and understanding of that topic.

Sure, we all write some posts that simply point to what somebody else has written, but we add our own observations, opinions, and commentary. Our goal is not to influence anybody but simply to participate in the conversation, just as we would if we were holding coffee and standing at the back fence.

Sometimes, what we say results in influence. Sometimes, something I write resonates with the community and is embraced. It’s very cool when that happens. It is not, however, my goal. I just want to talk with all these PR bloggers I admire and respect. At that level, the number of links to my blog becomes irrelevant beyond its obvious function as a search engine optimization tool. The only links I care about are the ones that further the conversation among the community I care about.

As conversations become the principal characteristic of company-public engagement, the relationships themselves will prove more valuable to organizations than influence. As with the notion of the mission statement, focusing on relationships for their own sake will surely lead to the outcomes organizations seek (sales, friendly regulatory environments, minimal activist activity, support for initiatives, etc.). Or, to put it more simply, who needs to wield influence when you’ve got friends?

DiggThis | Yahoo! My Web | Furl

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.