The Government has fared particularly badly with its Public Relations this week. PR is often confused by people outside the industry with media coverage.
This is hardly surprising as many of the people within industry confuse it with media coverage too. Many companies call themselves PR agencies when it fact they deal solely with media relations.
Public relations in its pure form is to do with building relationship with many different ‘publics’, of which the media is just one. Publics are groups of people who take an active interest in something.
The CIPR’s short definition of PR is . . . . “the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”
The way you build goodwill through PR is of course communication. On Monday, PM David Cameron and health secretary Andrew Lansley sought to build some goodwill over the Government’s health reforms.
They invited the representatives stakeholders (similar to publics) from the NHS for a summit around the cabinet table at No 10 with a view to persuade them of the benefits of the coalition’s plans.
The use of the cabinet table is highly symbolic but it sends out a clear message: The PM is in charge.
This kind of communication is known as two-way asymmetric: two-way because as there is a dialogue and asymmetric because one side holds the power and is seeking to influence the other. It is fraught with pitfalls if your true goal is mutual understanding.
The way to communicate if you really want to build mutual understanding is two-way symmetric. This is a true dialogue and as a result each side, no matter who holds the whip hand, changes its perspective.
Cameron and Lansley overegged the pudding however. In their bid to persuade and manipulate, they failed to invite the representatives of those stakeholders, the health unions and Royal colleges, who have slammed the plans.
This led to the story being derailed and it careered right off the tracks when Lansley was ambushed on his way into No 10 by protester – i.e. a member of a public who with whom the Government had failed to reach understanding.
On Wednesday, deputy PM Nick Clegg announced his £126m scheme to get teenagers back to work. It was immediately derailed by Right To Work, an action group, and several of the scheme’s key supporters, Tesco for example who had promised to take part by offering unpaid work, backed out amid cries of slave labour.
Not much mutual understanding in either case.