Friday, October 24, 2008

The Five Thinking Hats of the Public Relations Professional

The public relations profession is not considered a thought-intensive profession. On the contrary, the field is associated with uninhibited PR people nagging every journalist they meet and urging him to write about some unimportant subject, provided the journalist does it in a big way. But a different approach to public relations is possible – one that is based on systematic and multi-faceted thinking.

A profession whose aim is to create good reputation has created itself a problematic reputation, to say the least. What an irony.

It should be admitted that many public relations people are contributing to this reputation. Every day, they are approaching journalists in every possible fashion – phone calls, fax messages, emails, personal visits, etc. – with various subjects that journalists are not interested in and do not need for their job.

The result: day in and day out, journalists are flooded with an endless number of annoying approaches from public relations people. Is it possible that these PR guys, whose aim is to disseminate good reputation in general and good reputation for their own profession in particular, will create a positive image for public relations? No one - no journalist and no PR guy – likes to be bothered by so many irrelevant issues.

Photo by Brain Solis

Is this the reality of public relations? Not necessarily. Can public relations work differently? They surely can and sometimes do. So how is this done?

In the age of knowledge, advanced public relations should rely on information, knowledge and thinking – a lot of systematic, sophisticated and creative thinking.

How does this thinking look like?

Public relations is the systematic effort of managing the reputation of people, companies and organizations. I am intentionally saying “reputation management” and not “positive image creation” because honest public relations should start with the premise that it is impossible to make a person, an organization or company something that he or it is not.

If a certain company is a failed company, it is useless to present it as a successful company. In an age when nuclear secrets are flowing in the speed and transparency of light, the thing that can be done with a failed company is to admit its difficulties and failings, while showing the other – more positive – aspects of its nature.

A company’s reputation should be managed with the same levels of depth and sophistication which are employed when managing the company itself. This is the difference between reputation management and the creation of positive image at all costs. Moreover, some companies and organizations are so negative that a public relations professional should prefer not to handle them at all, particularly if he or she will be part of a campaign of lies and deception.

This is the way to “clear the table” in order to set public relations on the basis of credibility and honesty which it needs so desperately.

So how can we manage a company’s reputation in a thought-intensive way? The first element that should be thrown out is also the toughest to get rid of, since it is inherent in the nature of media itself and is also part of the market’s nature: the element of urgency. Speed and agility are good things - urgency is something else.

It is impossible to change years-old reputation in a single thrust of a short, brilliant campaign. It is possible and necessary to quickly respond to changing circumstances in the market and the media. Nevertheless, public relations should be based on a thorough understanding gained by the PR professional.

Public relations is the meeting point of the market, the organization or the company, the marketing world and the media world. Thinking expert Edward de Bono has presented the idea of six thinking hats, where each hat represents a different angle: factual, positive, negative, emotional, creative and holistic.

The thinking of the public relations professional has to be able to fully wear each one of the following five hats, which represent the various arenas in which the professional operates.

The first hat that the public relations professional has to wear is the hat of the market. You cannot navigate properly in an unrecognized territory. The same logic applies to reputation management, which takes place in a certain market.

When the public relations professional thinks about the market, he or she should answer questions such as: What is the focus of the market? What’s its size? What are the main trends? Who are its principal players? What are the market drivers? What media outlets does this market consume, to what extent and in which ways?

The hat of the manager of the company or the organization: When a public relations professional represents a company or organization, he or she has to wear the hat of this entity’s manager. Who is the company exactly? What’s its expertise? Who are the employers? What does it aim at and how? What are its products and services? What problems does it face? Who is its manager, as a human being and as a company leader? What bothers him? What makes him ‘tick’, personally? And above all – what is the company’s reputation?

This is a partial list, but it sheds light on the type of the required knowledge and the type of thinking that is involved in PR. The creation and the processing of this knowledge are substantial elements of the public relations work.

The hat of the marketing manager: A PR professional should wear the hat of the marketing manager and answer questions such as: What are the capabilities and aims of the marketing department? What does is its most pressing need? Who is the marketing manager as a human being and as a professional? How is the marketing department structured and how does it work? This, too, is a partial list.

The hat of the editor: A public relations professional who wears the editor’s hat should understand issues such as: What is the positioning of the media channel, publication or section that is targeted? What does the editor consider as interesting? How does the editor work with the media? Where does the editor want to lead the media outlet or publication to? Without the answers, it will be difficult for the public relations professional to target the right items to the right media outlet in the right timing.

The hat of the journalist: It is almost needless to say that a public relations professional should be able to think like the journalists he or she works with. The professional should know what is interesting for whom, when and in what context. He or she should know the journalist’s social and professional environment, and the factors that influence the journalist’s preferences. The PR professional should know the journalistic language and its conventions, starting with the way press releases are written, through the preparation of articles to the editing of journalistic investigations or supplements.

Public relations that stems from wearing and changing each of these hats is more like strategic planning and long-term management than an urgent race after tomorrow’s title. The urgency is replaced by a thorough understanding of the customers, the customers’ needs and the media and by the intelligent management of the customers’ reputation.