Law vs PR: is there an arena or a court of public opinion

I have been thinking about what it means to manage a reputation or deploy a communications strategy. So often, public relations professionals will start with a strategic vision for a brand, public figure or idea and then quickly be pulled into the vortex of tactical responses as context and circumstances overwhelm strategy.

Why does this happen?

Let’s think for a moment about what communications or reputation managers are trying to do. In modelling and shaping the reputation and relations of an organization, you’re trying to create a mental representation of your organization’s reputation in the minds of the people paying attention. In a perfect world, you would have a telepathic link to your publics and there would be no noise. You could communicate directly and earnestly with them the special mission, vision and values or your organization. Or you could tell the story of your product of service.

Unfortunately, we live in a noisy world. There are many voices to contend with: competitors who are trying to establish their reputations, a current affairs media serving up anecdotes 24/7 and, sadly, those who may wish to spread falsehoods, rumour or innuendo about your organization and your brand.  How do you deal with this?

I like to look to the legal profession for inspiration, or at least a foil, when thinking through public relations or reputation management puzzles. But is law an apt comparator? Lawyers work in the court of law and use the tools of effective communication: storytelling, evidence, research, and others. However, they work in a constrained court room environment, in a highly formal and ritualized procedure: there is always a verdict, decided by a judge or jurors. There is always a judge to monitor and police the line of argumentation. There is always the law and precedent to be interpreted and referred to.

In public relations and communications management, there is no judge to monitor the correctness of the proceedings. There is no law except copyright, libel and defamation, hate speech, etc. There is no jury and, most importantly, there is no defined end-point: no verdict. The challenge for professional communicators is that the struggle to manage reputation is on-going, goal posts are always shifting and perceptions can be moved by pure externalities. Therefore, the process of managing relationships and reputations to build trust, credibility and confidence is actually a much more complicated and challenging puzzle than cleverly arguing within a court of law. In fact, it is more akin to competing in an arena of ever-chaging circumstances,  like playing a multiplayer online video game or trying to competing for popularity and attention in a social club.

This means that having a good general education, subject matter expertise and belief in the product, person, idea or service you are representing is key. However, even those assets will not make you a strategic communicator or reputation manager.

Stay tuned for thoughts on what effective strategy might mean in the arena of public opinion.

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