In recent years, Richard Edelman, the CEO of the world’s largest public relations (PR) firm, has called on the PR industry to embrace public engagement. He suggests there is an enormous opportunity for PR professionals who move “from a push to pull” type of mentality, which means shifting “from pitching to informing, from control to credibility, from one-off stories to continuing conversations, from influencing elites to engaging a new cadre of influencers” (you can see a full presentation from 2009 here). So is it possible that public engagement holds the key to PR’s future?
The relationship between public relations and public engagement is interesting. The most obvious question is: how does one distinguish between the two? General thinking in the field says that these two activities can be placed on the same continuum – the only difference is that public engagement is usually more interactive than PR (note: this is not to say that one is necessarily “better” than the other, as there are different rationales involved). So maybe a more focused question is: how and when does the shift from practicing PR to public engagement occur? As I’ve discovered in my current state of thesis writing, this type of discussion requires a little more of an explanation, as it can lead you down a semantic rabbit hole if you’re not careful…
So what’s the issue? According to Edelman, the isolated nature of policymaking needs to be addressed, as “communications and policy cannot be separated… both are tied to operating reality. Unfortunately, many organizations still determine policy and operating approach in a vacuum, then hand it to PR folks to explain.” So how does this issue relate to public engagement? Think about how you’re talking to your audience. PR is often about “selling” something – a good, service and/or idea – to the public and building a process to show them why. In contrast, public engagement takes it a step further – it is about asking for input on something and building a process that allows you to do so. However, it’s important to remember that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, you could make progress on your PR goals by using public engagement effectively, as sustained dialogue is often inherent to the process. That being said, the shift from PR to public engagement can occur when communication and policy are brought together in a complementary manner.
So are there major companies that have integrated public engagement into their overall PR strategy? Definitely! Check out IBM’s “Smarter Cities Challenge,” which is providing $50 million worth of IBM expertise to help cities around the world address their key challenges at the local level. In response to the city’s high collision rates, the city of Edmonton – the only Canadian finalist – sought to become a “global leader in traffic” and tasked IBM experts to analyze key transportation data within the city. In this way, IBM is evolving its stakeholder relationships in a manner that represents Edelman’s notion of “the change from impression-based interactions to long-term relationships.” These kind of shifts are solid evidence of an evolving PR industry, where passive consumers are becoming empowered influencers, and where public engagement is paramount.