Public relations is both an art and science, but somewhere between these two worlds resides a mystery dating back to before humankind began using words to communicate. The Tao, which loosely means the way or path, can help us understand how this mystery impacts our professional journeys and our responsibilities as PR practitioners.
The mystery begins with the apparent contradictions presented in the field of PR. Successful PR is transparent, but never seen. PR cradles credibility, but it never leaves fingerprints. PR professionals are adept at delivering persuasive messages, but never subjugate the conversation.
We experience this mysterious force on a daily basis. It's so obvious that we rarely recognize it, but it becomes evident when we are asked by friends, family, and colleagues: “What is public relations?”
I've learned over time that instead of trying to explain PR, I counter by asking “what do they think PR means?” The answers are predictably as different as the people, and they begin to reveal the Tao that is public relations:
- “PR is spinning a story.”
- “It's getting publicity and writing press releases.”
- “You write up messages and try to get them in the media.”
- “It's the business of turning perceptions into reality.”
- “You get peoples' attention.”
- “It's establishing relationships.”
The answers are neither completely wrong nor fully accurate. I believe the diversity of answers reflects a greater answer that truly begins to define the “Tao of PR.”
The Tao also has numerous definitions, but it's mostly considered “eternally nameless.” As described in the sixth century B.C. book Tao Te Ching, written by Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, to name the Tao is to not know the name:
“The Tao that can be told
is not the universal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the universal name.”
A successful PR campaign tells a story that stakeholders don't recognize as public relations. If it's recognized, then the narrative is rejected and considered contrived.
A PR campaign tells a story that has a message that's not defined by the PR professional, but rather by the audience. When stakeholders internalize the message and allow it to influence their opinions, attitudes, and action, then that's the Tao of PR.
The relevance and success of PR is determined by the eye of the beholder. Therefore, the mystery that resides between the art and science of PR relations is simply, but profoundly, humanity itself.
This explains why it's difficult to give one definition of public relations that can be universally accepted. As a species, we believe PR is part of our human condition and continued survival as a society. This goes all the way back to telling fireside stories, so it's intrinsic, which is why PR has many meanings, but is eternally nameless.
As PR practitioners, it's our responsibility to further the public dialogue. It's our charge to educate and inform audiences and allow them the opportunity to reject or accept our messages, impressions, and meanings, which is the way of public relations.
Patrick Slevin is SVP and general manager of the Tallahassee office of Hill+Knowlton Strategies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.