Public relations has a paradox: on the one hand it needs to measure to the nth degree its impact in the digital world and embrace Search Engine Optimization (SEO) led PR. (Check out Stella Bayles’ excellent introduction).
On the other, it needs to calmly accept the fact that, like the ancient mariners who put monsters or dragons on their maps to indicate the unknown, we in public relations need to do the same – or what I call NEO – Nothing Evidently Observable.
We exist and operate in a world of increasing granularity where can know of things to precise detail. Yet, paradoxically, we operate at the same time in a world of deep darkness.
We can often be needlessly, and unhelpfully beating ourselves up, allowing ourselves to be put down because of a failure to recognise and respect this double-side reality.
Our PR world is increasingly becoming more granular in how it goes about measuring what it does. Forward-thinking communicators urgently need to address its big wake up call to measure, evaluate and iterate.
Yet we must also accept communications and PR operate in a world where we need to identify and consolidate our understanding of the equivalent of the dragons on our map – the NEO: Nothing Evidently Observable.
If scientists can accept the existence of Dark Matter – where they readily admit that parts of our universe are beyond comprehension, or financial experts recognise ‘radical uncertainty’ where we cannot compute an outcome, shouldn’t we in PR be honest and comfortable to recognise at there is stuff in human activity and our communications universe that eludes definition and direct control?
In her book ‘Dark matter and the dinosaurs’ scientist Lisa Randall highlights how science recognises three components of our universe: dark energy – the expansive and delocalised property of space itself, ordinary matter – that includes atoms, subatomic particles and even Black Holes – and lastly, Dark matter.
Dark matter is only known through its gravitational pull and influence on ordinary matter. There’s no other inter-action. No one knows what it consists of.
Essentially, it’s ‘stuff we don’t know about’, but at least the scientists recognise it’s there and it is a fact of our universe.
Mervyn King, the former Governor of the Bank of England in his ‘The end of alchemy: money, banking and the future of the global economy’ highlights a world of growing complexity.
King argues that in a world of what economists now call ‘radical uncertainty’ it is not possible compute the expected utility of any action. There is simply no way of identifying the probabilities of all future events and no set of economists’ equations that describe people’s attempts to cope with that uncertainty.
King’s view has been expanded upon by former US regulator Richard Bookstaber. In his latest work ‘The End of Theory’ he challenges the conventional wisdom of how mathematical models can define and predict the market. He argues that the deductive science of maths, the very thing modern economics is based upon, is fundamentally flawed.
“We are not robots with fixed mechanical responses to inputs” he writes. “We face a changing world that, in turn, changes the context with which we view the world, and that changes us, again all the more so during periods of crisis. The critical implication is that we cannot plug numbers into a model and solve for the future. We cannot know where we will end up until we take the journey. And we cannot retake that journey once completed.”
Public Relations’ Holy Grail
Public relations people on the other hand are on a quest to quantify everything. In their universe. In search of a Holy Grail that will provide conclusive proof of the power and impact of their communications – and their validity.
For much of their quest I’m in total accord with them.
We now have a digital age of communications, with the world’s largest media platform, Google providing a heaven-sent opportunity to public relations people, through Penguin, to provide great tangible evidence of the results and impact of their work.
So now we are hurtling to create new frameworks, such as the Barcelona Principle 2.0, AMEC, the Government Communications Service OASIS model to provide new ways to create a direct measurement of causal links between communications activity, and ultimately behavioural change with bottom-line impacts.
Although, I believe much more needs to be done, to translate the warm reassuring feeling of these frameworks into everyday use, they do present a bridge to a better world of measuring what we do.
That’s good news. And offers much promise.
But there’s a danger.
There’s still stuff that never will be measured.
In her book Lisa Randall theorises about a causal link between the meteors that crashed into the Earth 66 million years ago resulting in the wiping out of much of life on earth – notably the dinosaurs.
Now, we face a challenge of PR heretics who believe there is the equivalent of dark matter in our communications universe, stuff that can’t be measured being labelled ‘dinosaurs’ alongside those who blindly refuse to change and adapt.
Instead, we need a paradoxical approach of both SEO and NEO, where we need to intensely address the task of measuring as much as we can with our newly discovered powers and capabilities in the digital world of communications.
Parallel to this, we need to be honest and admit what we can’t measure, what is beyond our power to comprehend. The deepest complexities of ‘wicked problems’ in our world are not just systemic problems like Global warming, the rising power of China, or Brexit but something much more closer at hand – human beings.
Humans are living, breathing complex problems on legs.
But why have we allowed this happen?
The curse of 2 way communications
One reason is our infatuation and comfort blanket of the concept of ‘2 Way Communications’.
The 2 Way Communications model assumes a static world, where it is possible to seek to establish a balance, a management of what’s out there. Our task being in PR to establish 2 Way communications.
I’d really like to believe this.
But 2 Way Communications fails to identify and respect complexity. It imposes a simplistic model on a chaotic world.
I really like Philip Sheldrake’s ‘6 Way Flow Model’ (or what I think is more accurately described as the ‘2×3 Flow Model’) as a way of breaking out of the 2 Way Flow model, to start recognising that there are different dimensions at work within our world. It’s a good tool to get you start interrogating your world.
Yet even Philip’s model has its limitations. I would add to it the dimensions of ‘Complexity’ and ‘Inertia’.
While we need to reject, or treat with cautious respect, simplistic models imposed on our world, ostensibly designed to enable us to think, manage and respond better, these in the end, can constrain our potential to understand our universe.
Instead, we need to embrace simplicity – that there is inevitably ‘stuff we don’t know about’.
On the one hand we need to be on a super-charged mission of embracing granularity and measurement.
On the other, we need to assert the reality that there is stuff we can never manage. The more we recognise this, starting scoping our dark matter, the more confidence this will give us in tackling the uncertainty in our world.
For NEO activity is it is about identifying wider narrative and narrative-patterns to guide actions. This needs to be coupled with great intra-personal skills of listening to one’s own instincts and ‘gut-feel’, a greater mindfulness, alongside any steer from SEO, digital, data-led intuition.
Other have their memes for the unknown. Scientists call it ‘dark matter’. Bankers refer to ‘radical uncertainty’. Ancient mariners had their dragons. I would call it ‘NEO’.
We need to wake up to our equivalent, and stop beating ourselves up about it, and stop others putting us down because ostensibly we are ‘weak at evaluation’.
Isn’t it time we all started talking about PR’s ‘dark holes’, the NEO part reality of our world?
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