I only half heard it, but the comment that most caught my attention at the Euprera Spring Symposium in Lisbon was Anne Gregory suggesting that public relations is about "changing reality."
There are many ways of reading this suggestion. An obvious interpretation is that PR is so invasive and ever-present in our lives that for much of the time we have little choice but to accept a world view manufactured by organisational image-makers. Further, it is almost impossible not to go on to see this as being a bad thing.
But I interpreted Anne to be saying something rather different, that effective communication demands there to be as little difference between the image an organisation seeks to project and its perception by a range of stakeholders.
Bluntly, this boils down to an organisation doing what it says it does. But this is quite a sophisticated position. It is not simply suggesting that PR is concerned with messaging, about ensuring that an organisation communicates honestly about its values and performance (which is pretty a challening definition in itself).
It goes a lot further. The understanding that PR is "changing reality" picks up on ideas of brands being what people say they are, that organisations are defined by their stakeholders.
It means that there should little difference between the discourse surrounding a product or service and the identity the organisation seeks to construct. An organisation will seek to be defined by a set of values (which can be characterised as desired reputation) but its reality is the reputation that emerges from various stakeholder experiences. As we argue in Online Public Relations, these experiences shape opinion, and this is aggregated into a reputation which in turn shapes relationships.
David Phillips and I believe that the rise of social media has tipped the dominant vector of communication through 90 degrees, thereby placing significantly greater emphasis on the discourse surrounding an organisation compared to the "reputation" is seeks to project through PR messaging.
PR's job then is to provide information and and resources that can shape the discourse, but at the same time monitor that discourse to identify dissonance between the reality that forms from aggregated experience. It must then either improve the messaging to ensure that the organisation's true nature is represented, or persuade the managers of the organisation to change delivery, culture or engagement, if the actions of the organisation clash with stakeholder expectations.
Of course, these are not fixed realities, and the gaps, frictions and dissonance between them can arise from many directions, including the evolution of the organisation, where it is the job of PR to inform the audience of new developments, to the impact on reputation that arises when an organisation's performance fails to meet stakeholder expectations.
This reading does not diminish the importance of persuasive messaging. Relationships are dynamic and need to be developed. There is nothing wrong with telling people about new things or seeking to influence their behaviour. Furthermore it is ethical, and perhaps even desorable on occasion, for PR to play a role in creating a (consensual) shared un-reality....
But that is for another discussion...
For now, let us agree that the role of public relations is to harmonise differing discourses, thereby changing the realitiy that arises from organisational and individual experience.