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1.13.2006

 

An Open Era for Public Relations

The guide I'm reading for my APR exam (published by my local PRSA chapter) has begun with PR's history and theory. That's cool with me; I'm fascinated by that kind of stuff--strange, I know. Two things I have read make me ponderous.

First, public relations as a practice essentially began in 1900, and there have been seven "eras" of PR, most of them marked by World Wars or economic upheaval. The latest era, called "the Information Society" (cue synth pop beat), has been the status quo for the past 40 years.

Second, one of the more widely accepted theories in communications is "systems theory." At the risk of being a bore, let me briefly explain.

In its essence, an organization is a system made up of interacting units within an environment, and it survives or dies based on how openly it interacts with its environment.

Organizational systems can be relatively open or relatively closed, says the theory. Open systems keep tabs on their environment and adapt and change based on feedback. Closed systems don't adapt and change, and that makes them vulnerable.

Practically, that's a nice theory, but I don't know that most organizations in the past 40 years have been open in terms of the way they've interacted with their publics. Sure, organizations adapt and change based on sales numbers or on legal issues, but, in all but the most forward-thinking companies, or those with a high public profile, I don't think public opinion has made much of a difference to corporate bigs.

But the world is changing.

The Internet has democratized information. It's giving everyone with a computer (or a mobile phone) a voice. It's empowering consumers to get news, entertainment, goods and services when they want it. It facilitates the sharing of personal experiences with a company, good or bad. It's making gatekeepers obsolete. It's causing people to expect and demand transparency. It's Cluetrain, baby.

Which brings me back to the point of eras. Could it be that we're entering the "Open Era" in public relations? I hope that we are, but I can't be so bold as to say with certainty that we are. I think big organizations and the PR professionals are who advise them still going to jealously guard their message and their information. But as more consumers find their voice and as more companies see the benefits of transparency, listening and adaptation, I'm hopeful that the practice of PR, not just the theory, will truly embody an open system.

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