|On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney|
|Managing personal and organizational encounters|
|© 2000 Michael Turney||Table of contents||Practicing Public Relations
|About the author|
"Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other." -- The PRSA Assembly
In any human encounter,-- whether it's one person dealing with one other person, one person dealing with a giant corporation, a group of people dealing with the government, or several organizations dealing with one another -- how the participants react to one another, and whether they respond positively or negatively, is affected by the interplay of five factors.
- New information participants gain about one another during an encounter is usually presumed to be the most influential factor in determining the outcome of the encounter.
- Any previous interactions with one another will have already shaped their feelings and predisposed them to react to one another in certain ways.
- Participants' beliefs and value systems affect what they'll be able to agree or disagree upon, as well as affecting their willingness to deal with one another.
- Images the participants project to one another, whether intentionally or unintentionally, are also influential, especially during first encounters. Initial impressions set the stage for a long-term relationship whether it's love at first sight or a bitter feud.
- The circumstances that surround the encounter also affect its outcome.
Since these are the five primary factors influencing the outcome of human interactions and public relations is about managing relationships or, in the words of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), "help(ing) an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other," most of what public relations practitioners do focuses on managing these five elements of their clients' interactions with others.
Managing information is a common goal during interactions.
The plaintive lament "If only I had said ..." often heard after an encounter has gone awry reflects the wide-spread belief that the information people share with one another during their interactions is what determines the success or failure of the encounter. Consequently, most people -- whether they're public relations practitioners or not -- put tremendous emphasis on information acquisition and dissemination during their interactions with others. And, this idea isn't limited to the interpersonal level. It's also commonly practiced at the corporate and governmental levels as well.
Managing information is so fundamental and pervasive in public relations that there's no need to belabor it here. Numerous techniques for managing, presenting, and disseminating information will be treated more fully in other readings and by other sources throughout the semester. The current readings focus on the other four factors.
Previous interactions were what they were and can't be undone.
Past history has to be accepted as a given, and even the most aggressive and inventive public relations person has to accept that it will always have some influence on an on-going relationship and any future interactions.
If the past history has been positive, the public relations person will most likely want to emphasize that and may frequently remind the participants of how positive their past dealings have been. On the other hand, if the past history has been less than positive, but not terrible, it may glossed over or "politely" ignored by all parties. Sometimes, however, it may be necessary to admit the "sins" of the past and take steps to address the consequences of a negative past history.
In public relations, just as in personal relationships, it is possible and sometimes desirable to try to reinterpret or explain past actions, especially those that have or that could cast a negative pall over a relationship. Announcing a change of heart, whether it's in the form of a personal opinion or a company policy, can often eliminate the recurrence of previous differences of opinion or failed business ventures. And, sincere - or seemingly sincere - apologies can often mend fences and minimize, albeit never totally eliminate, the negative effects of previous encounters.
Beliefs and value systems are as influential as past history.
While it's theoretically possible to change someone's beliefs, modern psychological theory and lots of practical experience indicate that most adults' core beliefs and value systems do not change significantly over the course of their adult lives. They may shift from a moderate to a more extreme position, or from an extreme position to a somewhat more moderate one, but they are rarely transformed from one extreme to another, for instance from opposition to support of a given position. And, short of clinical brain-washing, any changes that do occur, take place gradually over time and are not in response to the kinds of short-term persuasive campaigns public relations people are able to conduct. Consequently, honest and ethical public relations people readily admit that they cannot control or change anyone's basic beliefs or values.
What they can do is assess the beliefs and values of their clients and of the publics with whom these clients will be interacting and then suggest which beliefs and values ought to be stressed or downplayed while dealing with members of those publics.
Skilled public relations people can help others shift their perspectives and see the world in a new light, preferably a light that's more advantageous to the practitioner's clients. These same practitioners can also help their clients identify new publics that haven't previously been addressed but whose values are already compatible with theirs and who might, therefore, be potentially valuable allies.
In some instances, they're able to resolve situations in which participants initially appear to have fundamental conflicts in values, not by changing anyone's basic beliefs but by getting them to look at their particular situation or at the world in a different way. What looks like a conflict from one angle, can appear quite peaceful from another angle. They might, for instance, even be able to convince two apparently disparate special interest groups that it's not inconsistent nor a conflict in values for a group that opposes the death penalty to cooperate with another group that favors assisted suicide.
Images and circumstances are frequently managed.
In part, the participants' images and the situations and circumstances involved in an encounter can be managed because they're here and now and still subject to change, unlike past experiences. And, they can be manipulated because they're more tangible and concrete than abstract beliefs and values. They're inherently more malleable, and managing them is something we've all grown up doing as part of our everyday life.
Such things as using deodorant, dressing up for special occasions, or minding our manners in mixed company or when guests are present are all examples of how we manage our personal images. Similarly, cleaning the house and bringing out the "good china" when company comes for dinner, turning down the lights and turning on soft music when we want to encourage romance, or waiting until our spouse has enjoyed the great dinner we fixed before mentioning the dent we put in the fender of the car are examples of how we routinely manage the circumstances of everyday personal encounters.
When they're performing public relations, practitioners do exactly the same sort of thing for their clients or their employers. Sometimes -- not always-- it's done on a much larger and grander scale so it affects an entire company's interaction with millions of customers instead of one person's interaction with a few others.
It's all about influencing perceptions.
Another reason images and the circumstances of an encounter are malleable is because they're essentially sensory experiences rather than intellectual ones. They're physical happenings, not abstract thoughts. In managing an image or an encounter, the immediate concern is what the participants see and hear rather than what they know or what they believe. In other words, what's really being managed are the participants' perceptions.
Ultimately, perceptions boil down to:
- what people think they see,
(whether it's an actual person/thing, a photo of that person/thing, or written words describing him/her/it)
- what they think they hear,
(whether it's the actual person/thing or someone else who is describing that person/thing)
- what they think they feel,
(using "feel" in the physical, tactile sense, not its emotional connotation)
- what they think they smell, and
- what they think they taste.
Insofar as public relations practitioners -- or anyone else -- can influence people's perceptions, they can affect how those people will respond to another person or an organization. And, like it or not, the bottom line is that what we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste can be controlled, adjusted, and manipulated in countless ways over a wide range of intensities.
That's why so many public relations efforts revolve around managing images and conducting special events. They're effective ways for public relations practitioners to publicly present their clients in the most positive possible light and to control the situations and circumstances in which their clients and their publics interact.
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