«No Better Time Michael Morley President Morley Corporate Consulting New York, N.Y. 2009 Recipient PRSA Atlas Award for Lifetime Achievement in ...»
2009 Atlas Award Presentation
on International Public Relations
No Better Time
Morley Corporate Consulting
New York, N.Y.
PRSA Atlas Award for Lifetime Achievement
in International Public Relations
Presented November 8, 2009
PRSA International Conference
San Diego, Calif.
33 Maiden Lane, 11th Floor
New York, N.Y. 10038-5150
No Better Time
2009 Award Winner
PRSA Atlas Award for Lifetime Achievement
in International Public Relations It is a signal of honor to be given the Atlas Award for Lifetime Achievement in International Public Relations. To join the pantheon of previous recipients is to be in the company of a group of professionals who have been instrumental in shaping not only international communications but the entire field of public relations itself.
Some of these have been mentors and close colleagues who played a vital role in my career and vocation.
Others were respected rivals or pioneers of best practice whose example acted as guiding beacons.
I thank those who nominated and supported me for this award. I thank my bosses, partners, peers and staff over the past 50 years. They must share this honor because without them there would have been no “lifetime achievement” at all.
As I reflected on the past half century it became clear to me that this has been a period of preparation for public relations as it enters a new phase. I believe we are entering a golden era for public relations practice and international PR practice in particular. It is as if we have been playing the prologue and the main play is about to begin.
That is why I have chosen to give the paper the title No Better Time. I believe there has not been, and may not be again for a long time, a better time in which to be practicing or preparing for a career in public relations. The only question is whether this lucky generation will seize the wonderful opportunity open to it and win for itself and succeeding generations a place at the head of the table of all branches of communications practitioners.
The advances of communications technology that have occurred in the past 50 years have been revolutionary and rapid. Consider the print arena alone, without even taking into account the growth of radio, telegraph and telephone and the emergence of television. The linotype machine, itself a revolutionary invention in 1886, acted until 1960 as a kind of tourniquet on the spread of news, information and ideas. Linotype machines were costly and owned by wealthy individuals who were proprietors of news organizations. They were operated by skilled compositors, mostly organized in restrictive unions. Information was in effect controlled by two warring factions – owners and operators over which the consuming public had little influence and no control.
This state of affairs persisted for about seven decades until the arrival in the 1960s of computer phototypesetting and offset printing, which allowed owners to break the power of the unions in many markets.
The other newer wired and wireless communications methods were of course dramatic and changed the way in which people received their information. They even enabled information to reach remote and illiterate publics. But even they did not provoke a change in the gatekeeper structure, merely an exchange of gatekeepers from one wealthy or powerful or proselytizing individual or group to another.
From the 1960s to the present day – roughly the span of my working life - there has been an accelerating, technology-driven transformation in communication. It is a revolution that has arrived at a point when all the ingredients to change the power structure are now available and being enhanced on a daily basis.
It may be time for someone to do for public relations what Intel’s George Moore did for computer hardware, and create a law defining the velocity of change. Moore’s law, you will recall, states that the number of transistors that can be inexpensively placed on an integrated circuit doubles exponentially every two years.
Like many other transformational moments in the history of human enlightenment (and surely we in public relations are agents of that process) it is hard while living in the moment to assess the impact of the change or the speed at which it will occur.
To use once again the example of printing: although woodblock printing had been established in China around the year 200 when the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 took place, how many besides Gutenberg himself and a few intellectuals knew just how important this was, or how long it would take for the press to be copied in other countries? In fact, by the standards of the time the method caught on rapidly and most of civilized Europe had adopted or emulated Gutenberg’s method before the end of the century. The first book printed in English, by William Caxton, was made in Brugge, Belgium, in 1775, not in England – an early demonstration of the power of thought and invention to ignore geographic borders.
The next significant technical advances in printing had to wait nearly another 400 years until the invention of steam power driven presses. They dramatically increased the number of impressions that could be made each hour.
History shows us that technical advances are invariably accompanied by (some would argue are precipitated by) great leaps in intellectual or spiritual thought.
It is hard now to sense the time it took, the martyrdom of scholars who were seen as heretics by the ecclesiastical hierarchy, before the bible was translated into English (and the vernacular in other countries).
The scholar William Wycliffe, who was the first to translate the New Testament into English, even had his grave dug up many years after his death and his bones burned by an infuriated Roman Catholic Church.
Why? The official reason was that this would ensure his soul did not reach heaven. But the underlying reason was that, then as now, this entailed the dangerous transfer of power from one privileged group to a wider population. With the bible and liturgies in Latin the clergy held a position of power as the gatekeeper of the relationship all parishioners had with their God. What would happen when they could read and understand God’s word and commune with him or her directly and the new technology of printing made this possible on a much wider basis? This was a dangerous unknown and threatened the power structure within society. It was fiercely resisted not only by the bishops and clergy but also by the lay rulers who, rightly, feared the unknown consequences of change.
As the clerical gatekeeper lost control – although perhaps not all influence – and newer techniques of printing and broadcasting were invented and popularized it appeared as if there was a democratization of communications. Within limits this was true because publishers, marketers and broadcasters conducted opinion research to determine the interest and preferences of their consumers. But all that really changed were the gatekeepers. The clergy were replaced – or more often joined by – the aristocracy, dictators, political parties, the military and corporations. Depending on which country you live in and during which period, one or other of these has sought and attained a degree of control over the communication of ideas.
We as public relations people have had to work with the reality, seeking to articulate points of view within the prevailing system of gatekeepers. For instance, in Iran, the gatekeepers are still the clerics. In Singapore, China and many other countries, the ultimate gatekeeper is the government which either controls or owns the media. In Myanmar the military junta controls all information. Now, since the start of the 21st century, the tectonic plates of the world of communication are shifting, if I may be permitted the metaphor in a way future historians will recognize as being comparable with other events of the kind I have described.
What is different now is that we may be entering a time when the ability of any individual or group to exercise complete control is being removed by the transfer of technological power from centralized institutions to individuals.
The question we now face is this: are we at a point when the role of gatekeeper is on the point of being eliminated? Or does society need order and a hierarchy of some kind in order to survive and if so, will this lead to a structure in which gatekeepers continue to play a pivotal role with merely a changing of the guard and a new group of gatekeepers taking over from the old?
As we seek to answer those questions and prepare for the new societal order that is being shaped, what are the prospects for our profession? I believe there has never been a better time to be, or contemplating a career, in international public relations.
There is a coincidence of five factors that make it so:
1. There are the tools and technology that empower PR professionals
2. There is the need and demand
3. There is a new level and availability of education and training
4. There is a new-found recognition of PR
5. There are resources being devoted to PR
Let’s examine each of these:
Tools and Technology
• We are living during a digital media revolution that is linking people all over the world, exposing individuals to other cultures, ideas and philosophies and enabling those who want to establish direct virtual relationships with many others. Some governments and other powerful institutions are threatened by this development and seek to suppress freedom of access to the Internet either by decree, coercion or technical blocking devices. However, the surge towards freedom of access is relentless. Those who would control and create laws or regulations to limit freedom of information are matched by brave citizens who defy them. Witness how earlier this year the world learned about the public outcry over electoral fraud in Iran in spite of attempts by the established authorities to suppress any reporting. The kind of enforced “news blackout” that might once have worked is no longer possible in the Internet age. And an attempt by the Chinese government to make a regulation forcing all computer makers to install a chip that would block the receipt of pornographic material harmful to children has been abandoned. People viewed the motives of the government with skepticism and almost immediately ingenious minds had invented devices to circumvent the chip.
• The new era of unmediated digital contact with publics is a fresh experience for many practitioners in mid career, all of whom will have grown up working on the basis that the foundation of successful public relations practice is to win the approval of influential experts and the media, and their public endorsement for your corporation, product, service or idea. But one long term trend seen in the annual Edelman Trust Barometer is a decline in trust placed in traditional authority figures or institutions such as the media, government, business, doctors and celebrities and an increase in trust placed in peers, people “like you and me.” (Caution: the data varies considerably from region to region and country to country). At the same time the survey finds that trust is fostered only when people have a positive echo from multiple sources. It is hard to believe that the influence of “authority” experts will ever disappear altogether and they will continue to be important in public relations outreach. But we must educate ourselves in engaging directly with our ultimate audiences who themselves do not want to have their conversations mediated by interlocutors.
• PR practitioners have the motivation to lead communications in this new world. We are different from other communicators in that we have always – even in the pre- web 2.0 era – believed passionately in dialogue over dictation, influence over control, and conversation over coercion as the most effective means of communication. Richard Edelman has articulated with passion and clarity his conviction that our role as public relations practitioners will change into that of facilitating public engagement. We have sought to encourage that approach, sometimes against the wishes of clients or employers who simply wanted us to act as megaphones for their messages.
Now more than ever before, technology has created the kind of forums and networks that can bring our dream closer to reality. But that will not be enough for public relations to establish itself at the head of the table. It will need new skills, constantly updated to keep pace with constant change, if we are to reap the rewards now that the world we have wished for has actually arrived.
The Need and Demand The opportunities and challenges facing public relations practitioners over the next decade and beyond are as great as any time in history. For anyone who sees a career in public relations as a vocation with a social purpose there is a long list of needs which might be met, in part, through purposeful persuasive communications. My list includes the following, but each reader of this paper might have other needs or topics which are equally pressing and susceptible to improvement through communications.
• Job creation: as we move towards the end of the year 2009 the most pressing problem for most of the world’s economies is unemployment. As public relations is increasingly recognized as the most cost-effective market and brand building technique available, PR practitioners should be prepared to play a more important role in stimulating the economic activity needed to create new jobs.
• Environmental protection: public relations practitioners can take some credit for encouraging the movement toward sustainable development and creating an increasing recognition of the importance of caring for the environment. But this work has only just begun and will encounter many reverses in the years ahead. There is a vital role for us, using examples like GE and Siemens, to persuade more corporations, governments and consumers that good environmental practice is not a costly luxury but a business opportunity.