April is all about words here at PR Knowledge Hub, with a series of sessions throughout the month looking at all aspects of storytelling, writing and language. The quote in the headline comes from Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which takes two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and allows them to play with language and meaning. It’s a heartbreaking romp through the twists and turns of linguistic complexity and one that, if you work with words, you should follow at least once in your life.
Language - the words we choose - help us to make sense of the world around us and, as practitioners, we need to learn to make wise choices when it comes to the words we put to work on behalf of our organisations. Language evolves constantly and the structures that support it - the rules of grammar - shift and bend to accommodate the weight and rate of change.
Words have power. They can wound deeply, be a healing balm, energise the inert or deliver despair - yet often we cast them thoughtlessly into the day, oblivious to the consequences of misuse. In these difficult days, when emotions run high and outrage can be triggered by an errant emoji, all practitioners should make some time to think about the words they choose and how best to use them to build and sustain relationships with their stakeholders and communities.
If you can’t find time to join the sessions, find an hour in your day to consider the way your organisation uses language. Is the tone right - does it need to change? Do you know who you are writing for? Speaking to? Or are you stringing words together to please the boss rather than communicate with others? Check your readability scores and audit your communication channels - are the right words in play or should there be different words at work?
As your stakeholder or a member of your communities I need to understand who you are, what you do and why we need to connect and if you don’t find the right words - I’ve got nothing to go on. If you are interested in joining the sessions you can book with the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand.
New dawns always brim with hope - the dawn in the picture is from the start of the year when we decided to take a sunrise stroll on the beach. Hope is the magic ingredient that keeps us afloat in the stormy months we've navigated and the stormy months ahead and, although this time of year is generally awash with predictions of what's to come, I thought I'd spend a moment reflecting on how we need to equip ourselves to face the next dawn rather than ruminate on what might be.
There's no magical transition point as the year turns. No moment when all becomes well or difficulties are suddenly resolved. It is, after all, simply a date. But dates give us horizons, give us something to hope for and look towards which is why 2021 has been greeted with relish by so many. We have to remember though that many people around the world count things differently, have different dates of hope so the horizons shift and change, depending on your situation and your perspective.
In the US, for example, many had hoped that the transition to a new year would have seen a shift in focus from November's election to the pandemic that has cut a swath through the lives of so many, reaping havoc and death with little support from those ostensibly in charge. A similar picture can be seen in the UK, struggling under a new strain but also bowed down by the incompetence of its leadership. It doesn't take a fortune teller to divine that life is going to be very hard in the year ahead so what - as professionals charged with making sense of situations for the communities we serve - can we do? What do we need to do in order to smooth the path ahead? Here's five ways we can think beyond the horizon and help others move forward in 2021.
It's very easy to get comfortable, to view the world around us in the same way but we have to remember that change is constant. The pace of change increases during a crisis and a global crisis such as COVID19 sees even greater acceleration and, although humans forget that change is constant, this acceleration is often too much for them to cope with. You might enjoy being a passenger in a car but when the driver takes the speed way beyond the agreed limit, comfort is removed. We can't go into 2021 as we have gone into the years that preceded it and, in writing that, I am mindful that for millions around the world, new year horizons over many decades have been mired in violence, disruption, disease and disadvantage, so the 'entering a new year as never before' is perhaps applicable to the 'richer' nations that have enjoyed the privilege of reasonable social stability until now. As relationship builders and communicators we have to change our position, change our minds and change our behaviours. We have to understand what it is like to walk in someone else's shoes - indeed we need to know what it is like to walk with no shoes. We must develop a deep understanding as to the position of others in relation to our organisations and society. We won't be able to help others navigate what's ahead if we are always looking inside out - we must start looking outside in and determine the connection and relationships points we need to build or improve in order to fulfil whatever purpose is before us. So get out there - do some experiential research. Really get to know and understand your stakeholders and communities. Burst your own bubble (metaphorically if you are sheltering at home) and reach out to others. Be uncomfortable, share their discomfort, then devise strategies to help you coexist and provide comfort.
Changing position helps us to think differently. Ever been 'stuck' writing something or figuring out a thorny problem then gone for a walk that's triggered a eureka moment? If we stay in the same spot, we'll think the same things, stagnate and, ultimately, find ourselves bogged down, unable to move forward. Old thinking isn't going to fix today's problems. Old economic, political and societal models are not going to be appropriate or relevant in the years ahead - so think differently. Devise new ways forward.
If we've changed position and gathered our thoughts we need to share them with others to turn them from ideas into realities that will benefit those around us. In sharing our thoughts and ideas we need to move away from the long-held communication structures that equate information with power and shift into open communication that is clear, authentic and trustworthy. We must develop communication processes that value listening before speaking, discussion rather than instruction, collaboration rather than conflict. If we continue with the 'speak, instruct, conflict' model of authoritarian communication that has become so prevalent in recent years we will be on the road to nowhere, the horizon increasingly obscured. Our job - and it is an urgent job - is to help our organisations change their approach and show them how to communicate openly.
Be constantly curious
Two great ways to learn fast are making mistakes and asking great questions. It is inevitable that we will all make huge mistakes in the year ahead and my hope for you is that your mistakes are manageable ones. By thinking first - and I've always said the thinking we do takes the most time - the mistakes should be minimal, so think well and think beyond the now. Committing yourself to learning is to be constantly curious. It means asking the seemingly obvious question, asking the hard questions and asking the questions that will increase your knowledge and develop your understanding. There is always something new to learn and when we are exploring uncharted territory we will inevitably encounter things we don't know or have not experienced before - so be prepared to learn, learn fast and learn something new every day for the rest of your life.
I've been asked many times what is the most important characteristic or capability for a public relations or communications professional and my answer is always the same - courage. Having the courage to ask the hard questions, take a different position, think creatively and learn from mistakes is essential if we are to do our jobs ethically and well. In our world of constant change, the need for courage is a constant. It takes courage to challenge your boss over bad practice when you know that doing so could mean no job at all but it's got to be done, especially if the resulting change reduces inequity and restores trust. Bravery confronts danger without fear - courage confronts danger despite the fear.
There's a final thought for you before I end - take heart, stay hopeful and act with compassion. There's much difficulty and danger to be confronted in the world but there is also much goodness and generosity. We've seen it in the selfless work of medical staff and carers around the world, we've seen it in the support people have given to each other, be that physical support with food or simply a long phone call to listen to their fears. As you confront the challenges, remember to draw strength from that goodness and look boldly towards and beyond the horizon.
A long read for you about leadership, liminal spaces and the wood between the worlds. Written earlier this month and sharing it in this space for you.
Space. We can do so much with it. Reshape it. Reinvent it. Explore it. Transform it.
This week, we were able to look up and witness a once-in-a-lifetime meeting in space. The Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn coincided with the December solstice and our solar system’s two greatest worlds were the closest they’ve been to each other in 400 years.
There’s a story about space that stole my heart as a child - The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. Standing tall in its pages is The Wood Between the Worlds, a space that connected different worlds yet was not connected to them. The thresholds to each world in this multiverse were pools of water beneath the trees and the two main characters, Digory and Polly, find themselves in this wood, faced with a choice of worlds to explore to find a cure for Digory’s ailing mother.
In these ember days of 2020, with the pandemic still raging, hope rising and falling in equal measures around the world, we too are in a space in between, approaching the threshold not just of a new year but a new era with an, as yet, indiscernible start date. Like Digory and Polly, we are faced with a choice of worlds and the choice we make could move justice, equity and humanity backwards or forwards.
The Wood Between the Worlds is a liminal space, which anthropologists describe as a threshold between two fixed states in a rite of passage or, by architects, as two spaces connecting threshold and transition. It’s a word from an old world, with Latin roots, but aptly describes our current state. Caught between pre-COVID and post-COVID times, this space creates a new leadership imperative, one that demands deeper understanding and empathy from our leaders in order to create an equitable, transformed space for us to move towards together.
This year, many hours have been spent online - itself a liminal space - discussing what’s now, what’s next and what shape it might take. Scenarios have been explored but still a clear vision of what’s possible - and what is equitable - is needed and that needs good leadership, good communication and good relationships.
As public relations professionals we too must understand this space if we are to help our leaders and society navigate onwards. Old models of leadership no longer fit our space-between-times so leadership styles must transition from the past to styles more suited to the unknown needs of our ultimate destination. We must interpret what this new space demands of us as leaders and the behaviours and actions necessary to help us adapt and ensure nobody is left behind.
Our purpose as public relations professionals is building and sustaining the relationships necessary to maintain a licence to operate. The relationship is at the heart of all we do with its components of trust, satisfaction, loyalty, commitment and mutuality, identified 20 years ago by academics Grunig and Hon. I add reputation to the mix because reputations can be the start or end point for any relationship. The relationship is supported by three other elements, communication, behaviour and understanding - think of the whole as an atom with the relationship the nucleus and the other elements in perpetual motion, essential for success.
Communication - oral, written, visual and experiential - are supported by behaviour, how we interact with our stakeholders, the actions that we take, our ethics and societal contribution along with understanding, the story that we develop, the knowledge we share.
In navigating this transitional space, human relationships must remain the central focus and we must advise our leaders against devolving to the tactical, creating the 'illusion that communication has taken place’. The tragic consequences that ensue when inadequate leadership is matched with poor communication have been thrown into sharp relief this year. We’ve also seen the benefits to society when leadership is itself led by compassion, empathy and service. When people’s health and well-being have been put before profit it has created unexpected and successful transformations yet such a leadership path would have met with criticism and distain in our pre-COVID world.
When Digory and Polly leap into their new world they encounter the Empress Jadis, a terrifying leader who shows them statues of former kings and queens of her world. The first rulers have gentle, kind faces but progressively, the leaders’ faces change, becoming increasingly terrible as they come to value the power they wield rather than the people they serve. All compassion and empathy has gone and only terror remains beneath a sick and dying sun.
Today, in our wood, we've moved from established forms of societal operation across the world towards something very different indeed. At this threshold, we have to decide which world we choose. We must recognise this transitional space and adjust the way we lead to accommodate the emotional, physical, and digital conjunctions people have to contend with as we move towards the next.
Transition has a time lag. Look to the turn of each century and you’ll discover a 15-to-20 year space, a wood between the world of years, a moment before transition truly begins. This year we've hit that change point head on.
The societal, political, economic and technological models that worked in the past won’t work in the future. Change is finite, and, although consistent, every change has a conclusion, while transformation never stops. Managers manage situations and keep things going but leaders guide people to the next phase, showing them hope and possibility. We must help people navigate ‘spaces within spaces’, the most obvious and difficult for many being online.
Physically and mentally the online environment changes the dynamic and authenticity of human communication and action. Reinterpreting the visual and oral communication tools we use online to something that transforms experiential communication and promotes the engagement and proximity we hope for as humans may well be a good starting point given it is our primary transitional tool in an age of isolation.
The new leadership imperative is the navigation of this space. Leading through uncertainty, communicating compassionately the possibility and vision of the next space, guiding the learning we need for tomorrow and evolving the skills we need. In this space where things are not as they were but not yet as they might be, we must be creative and brave. It may need a leap of faith, a courageous step into the unknown but there is, out of tragedy, an opportunity to shape the next space – and shape it well.
Are you ready for the challenges ahead? For the impact artificial intelligence will have on public relations? On society? The pandemic caused a paradigm shift for millions with a leap to digital they never thought they’d take - but the change was coming long before then.
Subtle steps have taken us towards everyday artificial intelligence and the deployment of digital entities that sooth our emotions, help our daily tasks and act as companions at home. In case you missed it, that paradigm shift has even greater implications for public relations and communication practice, reshaping our work, redefining the relationships we build, the reputations we guard and the risks and issues we manage.
I tackled the topic recently in a webinar which you can access here. It takes you through the developments, the opportunities and the concerns of artificial intelligence, digital and human relationships and the problems we might expect.
I've started another blog as part of a training and development undertaking for a client and this week I addressed the lack of leadership and sheer disregard for an emergency situation demonstrated by Australia's leader Scott Morrison.
As Australia burns, he's been off on holiday, reluctantly returning only under media pressure, then off hosting the cricket instead of addressing the out-of-control blazes destroying lives and property - seemingly oblivious to the needs and situation of the thousands of Australians caught in the middle of this horrendous disaster.
I wrote last year about the need for compassion in leadership. Tragically, such compassion appears to be sadly lacking in any of the actions presented by Morrison.
The letter is here if you fancy a read but as an example of how not to manage or lead in a crisis Scott Morrison will be cited as an example for decades to come. And if you find yourself working with a leader like Scott Morrison who is evidently struggling with their role - call me, I'd be delighted to help you develop their understanding as to society and stakeholder expectations and what they need to do, rather than what they need to say. Actions always, always speak louder than words.
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash
Mental load is 'a thing'. A real thing that drags us into inertia when we really want to be up and running at speed. One of the many 'things' that suffer when we are under great mental load is our own professional development - the time and energy we should spend developing our own skills and capabilities.
This week I delivered a webinar for the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) designed to unwrap and explain the Global Capabilities Framework, a guiding document that helps practitioners around the world determine what they need to learn or develop in order to become capable professional practitioners.
Launched in 2018 following an extensive two year research project covering public relations and communications practice in every content, the Global Capabilities Framework was led by the UK's University of Huddersfield in conjunction with the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management (GA). It was the culmination of perhaps a decade of work by the world's public relations community that looked to provide clear guidance for practitioners on professionals development pathways that could be adapted depending on country or cultural setting. Research was designed to answer some specific questions and issues that emerged at the 2016 meeting of GA leaders which in turn followed a series of workshops and investigations that began in 2013. Questions and issues included reputational issues for the profession as a whole, finding agreement on terminology, core duties and descriptors, variable access to training and education, complex social issues and relationships - there was an extensive remit.
The end result provides a comprehensive guide to the capabilities practitioners need to develop in order to provide the best professional advice and value to their organisations. It also informs professional associations and the continuing professional development they provide so, for example, in late 2018 I aligned all of the CPD offerings from PRINZ to the new framework so that practitioners would have a clear understanding as to how any particular course, webinar or workshop contributed towards strengthening or developing their individual capabilities. I've also aligned all the courses offered here at PR Knowledge Hub so that content can reflect and build the capabilities we would expect from a professional practitioner.
In the past - and this has been true the world over - professional development for public relations and communication management has focused pretty much entirely on skills - the things we do. We do many things and I'm sure you can rattle off a very long list of the things you do, which might include written, visual, digital, and oral communication, all sorts of content provision, research, measurement and evaluation, risk and issues management - your list will be as long as your arm, if not longer. The difference with the Global Capabilities Framework is that it covers our capabilities rather than specific skills and this was a very deliberate choice on the part of the research team. Their future focus makes the framework a very powerful tool and one that can help us structure our future learning.
The framework is a great step forward but the biggest step has to be taken by individuals themselves. Making time to learn, to increase your knowledge, develop your understanding - none of these things are luxuries. They are essential if you are to stay relevant, stay up-to-date and meet the challenges of working in an environment where in order to properly serve our organisations and societies we must be prepared to learn something new every day.
So my Christmas wish for you is that you are able to find the time to stop, look, plan and learn next year. I've just finished my twentieth year of continuously recorded professional development and I can honestly say I don't regret a single second of the time I've spent. We are extraordinarily privileged to work in a profession that presents us with daily challenges and change that keeps us sharp and on our toes. But. If we really want to make a difference and help people keep their critical organisational relationships alive, we have to grow. To be open to learning and not leave things to chance. So, Merry Christmas - and best wishes for a mind-expanding 2020.
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.