How to create a purposeful future for public relations

The Dublin Conversations is a fascinating project looking at the potential future of public relations and communications. Its cofounder is my old friend Andy Green who has roped in industry luminaries from around the world to have inspiring conversations about what the future might look like and should look like.

The Dublin Conversations is a non-commercial global project on a mission to kickstart faster change. It is running a conference in Sligo, Ireland over the weekend of September 29 to October 1 where it is sharing its accumulated wisdom and knowhow as well as providing a space to co-create and co-produce new thinking and doing.

I was lucky enough to be one of those 231 Dublin Conversations to co-create and co-produce new thinking and better ways ahead for our industry… or profession if you prefer. Is it called public relations, communications, corporate affairs or do we need something else?

Other people that Andy has spoken to include Alex Aiken (former head of the UK’s Government Communications Service), Anne Gregory (Professor Emeritus of Corporate Communication at the University of Huddersfield, UK), Graham Goodkind (chairman and founder of Frank PR, UK), Steve Shepperson-Smith (CIPR president 2023 and senior Vodafone PR leader), Gini Dietrich (founder of Spin Sucks and creator of the PESO graphic), Darryl Sparey (MD and co-founder of Hard Numbers), and many more.

The Dublin Conversations is also providing a free toolkit of tools, free training programmes on ‘Discover your Purpose’ and ‘How to tackle Fake Purpose’.

My Dublin Conversation consisted of exploring the conversations’ ‘Five Steps to Dublin Window’. The ‘Dublin Window’ addresses the problem of how we see the world through our lenses of our worked experience, through lenses of ‘communications’, ‘advertising’, ‘public relations’, ‘digital marketing’ – the equivalent of seeing the world peeping through a keyhole.

The ‘Dublin Window’ is intended to provide “a way to step out of our existing boxes of thinking, to unlearn these ideas, to enable you to see a bigger picture for coming up with new ideas.”

You can read a summary and watch our recorded interview. You can find links to the other summaries and videos here. Some of the topics and issues we explored included:

I was asked why does your business have purpose in its name? The rationale was basically the business was set-up to help communications and PR teams with digital transformation, whether it’s in-house or agencies. However, the actual digital transformation has little to do with technology. It’s actually to do with people and culture. To make this process work, you need to have a purpose, and the purpose behind all of these things is to create purposeful relationships, because that’s what helps organisations or individuals achieve what they need to achieve.

When asked, “How would I define a purposeful relationship?’ my response was how it’s something that has value to all of those involved in the relationship. Both sides have to get value. It’s not always going to be equal value. There might be more than one person or organisation involved in those relationships, but everybody has to take value out.

We also talked about labels and the thorny issue of what do we call what we do. My perspective is yes PR or public relations comes with reputational baggage and negative connotations, but what’s the alternative? Public relations is far bigger and broader than just communications so for me that’s a non-starter as an alternative. We explored how it’s about relationships and reputations. These are about how an organisation behaves and how it interacts with its stakeholders. That’s actually what we’re talking about when we talk about things like purpose.

I talked about how public relations became corrupted in the 1950s as the growth of mass media channels meant it became primarily about media relations and pumping out messages on what we now call earned media channels.

We also explored how I think the challenge of any new label is getting enough people to accept it, understand it, and use it. I’m not convinced. PR’s reputational issues partially derive from the fact that lots of people claiming to do PR don’t actually know what it is and think it is just about communications and publicity. Just coming up with a new label is going to run into the same problems of people misunderstanding and misusing it.

It’s a bit like the whole idea of talking about ‘purpose’. People have discredited the term ‘corporate social responsibility’ and start talking about corporate purpose instead. But why? Because CSR was done badly. It wasn’t the fundamental idea behind it – about organisations behaving more responsibly. That’s a good thing. That’s what purpose is. The two should be one and the same thing. It’s just that one (CSR) has become discredited. One (purpose) is currently trendy. But they’re just words. It’s what you do underneath them that matters. I’m dubious about the idea of labels for, for that reason.

The Dublin Conversations is an interesting concept and I think a challenge it faces is how it moves from being a very theoretical conversation into something that creates real change. I enjoyed the conversation with Andy as it was thought provoking.

Further details about the Dublin Conversations and its Sligo conference are at www.dublinconversations.org.