‘Social Capital PR’ – a new branch of public relations practice

With declining levels of trust in media, influencers and experts, coupled with growing media fragmentation is the way forward to go back to the very basics of social interaction? Do we need to do less digital default and more face-to-face communications, building on relationships and shared identities? All of which helps build what is known as ‘Social Capital’.

Most will recognise the term ‘Social Capital’, yet few really understand what it is, how it works and how it could be harnessed to provide an improved way of doing ‘Public Relations’.

Social Capital focuses on the social networks that exist between us, the character of those networks, the strength of the ties, and the extent to which those networks foster trust and reciprocity. Social Capital is defined by the World Bank for example, as ‘referring to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions… Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions which underpin a society – it is the glue that holds them together’.

Could ‘Social Capital PR’ become a new branch of public relations practice, using social connections, relationships, norms, mutual obligations and identity to a place to achieve communication, engagement or behaviour change outcomes?

To understand Social Capital you need to recognise it has three key dimensions:

Bonding Social Capital – the potency of a sense of belonging to a group or place, and being a part of a bigger whole, for example “I’m a West Ham football club fan.”

Bridging Social Capital – connecting with like-minded others, “I like to engage with those who are like me university-educated, of liberal opinions or share my interest in archaeology, dogs, and travel.”

Linking Social Capital – connecting with people unlike you, but who occupy the same space where you live or work. “That’s the person who lives down the street: although I don’t know them we do have shared interests of our neighbourhood and community…”

21 characteristics of Social Capital PR

Public Relations is about earning trust in the relationships around you. Trust is at the heart of reputation, influence, relationships or mutual understanding. No man or woman is an island. The species that co-exist, co-operate or collaborate better survive and thrive.

Social Capital PR is characterised by:

1 A change of mindset: It’s not about you doing things to other people where, as a result of your one-way interaction they act or change in isolation. Social Capital PR is rather about your changing together as a result of coming together, creating either deeper bonds or changes on both sides as a result of the social interaction. It is about the connections of ‘we’ rather than ‘me’. It creates change within the context of individuals and their relationships with their wider communities or networks, where there is mutual respect and mutual change or creation of a sense of mutual obligations: if you ask others to change, you should expect to change as well. Together you become stronger.

2 About value within: It uses relationships not as conduits for communication, but through engaging and nurturing the assets and power within these relationships. It seeks to use the relationships of bonding, bridging and linking social capitals as instruments for change.

3 Is rooted in behaviour change: of others and yourself. You create change not by providing information to change awareness, attitudes or opinions but through identifying and leveraging shared beliefs, values, norms, narratives and levels of trust and trustworthiness.

4 Engagement is different to communication: ‘Communication’ is the transfer of information to another party. ‘Engagement’ is the authentic collaboration, co-creation and co-production between two parties.

5 Reciprocity is at the heart of building Social Capital: You should wherever possible make an ask in any social interaction. At the very least ask for feedback, spread where necessary word-of-mouth or share any learning. By invoking reciprocity you can generate greater collective resource and more importantly change the underlying narrative of working together, a partnership, ideally od equals in your relationship.

6 Addresses the intangibles in social networks: It leverages the resource and assets within relationships, addressing non-concrete issues including:

  • Earning trust. ‘Trust’ is not built. It is earned. Trust can only be obtained by someone else giving it to you
  • Building confidence – perhaps the most unrecognised ingredient to successful communication and engagement. You cannot demand people ‘be confident’. Yet by providing authentic, credible role models can inspire others to grow confidence.
  • Being part of somewhere – leveraging the value from a sense of belonging to a larger group or place.
  • Tacit knowledge – the unwritten, not formally coded knowhow within a situation.

7 Is about communities rather than interest groups, publics or stakeholders: You can belong to a community and seek to change its prevailing goals and values. If you disagree with the core goals of an interest group, you are apart from it.

8 Social Capital PR typically harnesses emergent, bottom-up change. or rhizomatic change, rather than top-down direction. This is because social capital activity is rooted and grows up or from any direction from the assets within the environment; working with what is already there within a place or community.

9 Is usually about starting small, often person-to-person, face-to-face engagements, rather than seeking to connect as quickly as possible with the largest mass of people. Change is created through a process of building a compelling coalition around ‘innovators’, someone holding a distinct point of view or behaviour who are able to attract small numbers of ‘early adopters’, people willing to adopt the innovator’s new behaviours.

10 You grow the change you seek by creating movements for change. You invest in the capacity-building of the community of ‘innovators’ and ‘early adopters’ to create a growing critical mass for challenging an existing established way of thinking or doing.

11 Is more about creating new social norms rather than delivering messages: a social norm contains within it a sense of obligation both for you and what you perceive and expect from others. Major change occurs in a community through the actions of ‘Innovator ‘ and ‘Early Adopters’ who, through their actions, create new social norms that make it less comfortable or more risky for the ‘Early’ and ‘Late Majority’ of people to resist change. Inertia, not opposition, is often the biggest barrier to change.

12 You can leverage shared identities to engage and motivate people. By appealing to a common shared identity facilitates bonding and mutually supporting activity.

13 Is non-linear, rhizomatic in character. It is about embracing tactics such as creating opportunities for people to share in a non-directed way the same space and time together, to encourage a sense of similarity and increase in liking, without any formal activity, agenda or communication.

14 Is about operating to a bigger dashboard ‘listening to a bigger picture’, absorbing more informal data or heuristics, and being receptive to more intuitive, relationship and place-based responses. It is the ‘wider space’, the spaces in the background on a plan, between the boxes that mark target groups and around the arrows that indicate a connection between groups. It is about the indirect connections, the dialogical, rather than the direct dialectical connections.

15 Measuring Social Capital is a challenging, complex, and often elusive task of measuring the value of human interaction: Much of its value resides in intangible, emotional elements. It is possible however, to create a dashboard of behaviour and attitude change and other indirect measures. Scientists in studying the cosmos are comfortable with the concept of ‘Dark Matter’ – space where they have no idea what goes on inside it. Understanding the complex, ambiguous map of emotional connections will inherently involve accepting the equivalent of ‘dark matter’ in our landscape.

16 It is a double-edged asset in addressing social justice. Bonding Social Capital can drive ordinary people to do extra-ordinary things with either negative or positive outcomes. Bridging Social Capital can be used to maintain exclusive social networks to the detriment of the wider common good.

17 Indicators for levels of Social Capital are inherently mixed and even contradictory. Indicators of Social Capital will usually produce mixed or even contrary signals.

There has for example, in modern western societies been a significant increase in levels of bridging social capital, where people know more people like them. Yet there is also witnessed significant declines in linking social capital – connections with people unlike you declining.

For the task of achieving social justice, bonding social capital can operate in a positive sense, empowering ordinary people to do extra-ordinary things. Yet, can also be a force for inertia or negative resistance to change, or supporting anti-social behaviour.

18 You design small asks in your calls to action and embrace nudge theory to enable them to easier to do and more likely to be adopted. General calls to action like ‘can you lend a hand’ or ‘we need volunteers’, even worse ‘can you join the committee’ require too big a step for the other person to make. Identify instead small asks, for example ‘Can you give out this leaflet to houses in your street?’ or ‘Can you retweet this Tweet?’ are easily do-able, do not invoke a sense of risk of greater commitment or uncertainty.

19 Change your job title to be a ‘Tummler’: A ‘Tummler’ is a Yiddish word for some who get a party going. (Think about parties where despite the music playing, no one is dancing, until a few are on the dance floor and others are encouraged to follow). Unlike a ‘Cruise Director model which stimulates activity through their presence, but the activity dies away once they are no longer there, the ‘Tummler’ builds the capacity of others to sustain the activity to carry on without them.

20 Nurture your 12 ‘Connectors’, people who make things happen for you, recommend you to others without prompting. The number and calibre of your Connectors will probably determine the success of your next campaign, or even your life.

21 Reflect how Social Capital is evident in much of existing public relations practice. Outstanding media relations, public affairs, influence campaigns, engagement or networking practice are based on relationships, who you know rather than what you know – Social Capital. Social Capital can also be a potent element within narratives, news or content, word-of-mouth leveraging shared identities or relationships.

Although Social Capital may be present at an unconscious level within much current communications activity, by making it explicit rather than tacit, through understanding its processes and tactics, we can reinvigorate practice through a new dimension of public relations called ‘Social Capital PR’ to harness a back-to-fundamentals approach in our social inter-actions.

If you would like to find out more look out for more info during Social Capital Week Feb 24th -28th www.growsocialcapital.org.uk.

Photo by Sidharth Bhatia on Unsplash


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