Ambitiously, the 25th annual BledCom conference set out to take on the problems of a world in crisis, and to find a role for public relations in dealing with these.
The conference, concluded a few days ago, in Bled, Slovenia, has not shied away from examining central concerns in public relations practice. Over the years, it has confronted these in meetings which bring together researchers and practitioners from around the world – this year 175 participants from 35 countries
This year’s conclusions are optimistic and challenging. A world seen as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – and creating ‘wicked problems’ for decision-makers – is, on many measures, changing for the better.
This, from the conference founder, Dejan Vercic, now a professor at the University of Ljubljana, doesn’t mean that we don’t face serious and large-scale problems. These include climate change, conflict, immigration and technologically-enabled social change.
In a keynote speech, he was quite clear that public relations practitioners need to be better informed – they need to study more – to work towards solutions to problems and advise on these.
They also need to recognise the role of power in public relations practice, accept that they have power and be prepared to use it.
Finally, he said, they should accept and work to aesthetic values. There is beauty in the world and surely public relations, in the end, should play its part in achieving this value – not an obviously relevant or practical conclusion until the need for cultural appreciation, the ability to understand cultural differences, and the development of the best possible relations are taken into account as features of good public relations practice.
To play a larger role, there are minefields to negotiate. Craig Fleisher, who has written extensively on the underpinnings of public affairs practice, and now works in corporate intelligence with Aurora WDC in the US, talked about the difficulties of sorting out significant signals against the background of noise. Data is not the be-all and end-all, he said.
Technology is complicating public relations work, and lack of understanding on the part of bosses, employers, clients is damaging possibilities.
He also pointed to ‘a dearth of analytic fitness’ on the part of practitioners, well established in other research.
CIPR’s president Sarah Hall argued in the same session for professional associations to set higher thresholds for professional conduct.
Later in the conference programme, others talked about ways in which public relations can contribute to peace-building, in countries like Colombia, divided over years by guerrilla warfare, and to achieving the objectives of public health programmes aimed at bringing infectious diseases under control.
Open questions remain about the scale and value of public relations’ social contribution – does public relations contribute to value creation in society? – and the difficulties of measuring this.
It is very difficult to leave Bled meetings feeling less than optimistic. The several days of conversation overflow with ideas. Many of these are immediately translatable into practice, or provide new ways of looking at what is done in public relations.
Perhaps what is most encouraging is that the vitality of the discussion reflects that of public relations itself, to be channelled in ways yet to be discovered.
The discussion will continue. BledCom 2019 will deal with the themes of Trust and Reputation.
It would be wrong to end of short summary of this year’s Bled conference without recognising the achievement of the founders of the meetings, Dejan Vercic, who started what was then called the Bled International Public Relations Research Symposium in 1994 with the help of professional colleagues in Slovenia and academic colleagues from the UK, Danny Moss and Toby MacManus. The current organisers, Dejan Vercic, Ana Tkalac Vercic and Krishnamurthy Sriramesh, have successfully sustained and built the conference as a significant event in the world-wide discussion of public relations and corporate communication practice and research.
More on the content of the conference on www.bledcom.com or hashtag #bledcom.
Image courtesy of flickr user Jorge Franganillo