An article in the most recent Harvard Business Review got me hopping angry because it undercuts the value of PR and communications.   Some background: The piece was about  TED, that marvelous convener of great minds and ideas, and how it had appeared to lose control of its brand through its TEDx gatherings.  Seems a local TEDx event featured a Charlotte man named Randy Powell who spoke about something he called vortex-based mathematics.  The event stirred outrage among many scientists who said it was all bunk and should never have been given the validity that TEDx confers.  

The HBR article by Nilofer Merchant was about the potential damage to the TED brand because of too few controls and standards when licensing the technology and brand platform to locally-run organizers. This SNAFU could have done real harm.  But TED was praised for its efforts to “get the crowd to work with you and not against you” while taking pains to “listen loudly.”

 So what made me angry about Merchant’s article?   This line: “Don’t confuse listening ‘in public’ with public relations.”  Merchant went on to describe PR as “sharing your perspective” so that people feel better about the brand, as opposed to “community building,” which she defined as “being open to change that is prompted by interaction” and therefore “getting the crowd to work with you to solve problems.“

For many, PR is perceived as spin – that is, ramming a company’s perspective down reporters’ and the public’s collective throats. But I maintain that the very best and most effective public relations is and always has been about engaging target audiences in honest conversation.  That is especially true now that we have more effective vehicles for conversations with mass numbers of people.

Organizations are dynamic entities that must adapt to shifting realities, externally and internally.   The function of the public relations/communications team is to help enterprises, as Merchant says, to “listen loudly.” In that way, you bring external feedback inside the organization to help make decisions and, if necessary as in the case of TED, make changes in business conduct.

Skilled public relations and communications people understand how to start, nurture, and facilitate theses kinds conversations and help management understand their meaning and implications for a company’s or nonprofit’s operations and strategies.  PR also needs to be at the table when engaging the crowd in those conversations.

As PR and communications professionals, perhaps we have ourselves to blame for not articulating and demonstrating our abilities as more than simply spin, and in communicating the value of our work to bridge the external with the internal.  Perhaps we need some PR help ourselves to  get beyond the perception that we are only about making people feel good about our brand, and establish a new image about how we engage our clients’ publics in conversations and actions that matter.

For more, read “What is Public Relations? Framing Not Spinning”.