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August 11, 2010
Advice Giving: Avoid Dangerous Deference
 

In public relations planning, questions that don't get asked, or issues that aren't joined, can be important ones. The practitioner-client communication atmosphere needs to be as open as possible. Sometimes, power relationships can frustrate open communication. That can happen almost unwittingly but needs to be consciously avoided. 

 

Call it dangerous deference. Undo deference can be damaging to effective planning. The PR practitioner needs to insure that advice-giving relationships are open and equal ones.

 

Malcolm Gladwell has a fancy term for relational deference -- in his book "Outliers," he calls it "Mitigated Speech," meaning "any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said."

 

This is all by way of an introduction to a post on the Core 77 design blog by Fernd Van Engelen, Director of Industrial Design at Seattle's Artefact. He uses the Gladwell term in providing some pointers on building creative relationships. 

 

Van Engelen places undue deference in the context of "Power Distance," a term that was coined by Dutch organizational sociologist Geert Hofstede who defined it as "the extent to which a society accepts hierarchical differences." Here, we're not concerned about a whole society's tendency to cramp communication, but with a would-be creative relationship between a PR counsellor and a client. The client pays, or otherwise influences a counsellor's fortunes, and that can make him or her unintentionally deterring. Be careful of that.

 

The best approach is to be respectfully straightforward. Raise any necessary questions or concerns in a dutiful manner. Questions unasked can prove to be damaging ones. Involve others at the earliest opportunity. 

 

Van Engelen's principles are to the point. He counsels (with a good deal more to say on each):

 

1.) Build a shared definition of success. Agree at the outset on an aim or objective.
 

2.) Treat the macro and the micro as equally important. "Both 'god' and 'the devil' are in the details." 
 

3.) Focus on the "merit of an opinion" rather than the "source of the opinion." Don't get unnecessarily personal.
 

4.) Actions speak louder than words. Be on the lookout for intimidating gestures and discourage them.
 

5.) Awareness. Stay focused on issues, objectives, and content.

 

Van Engelen adds an endorsement of a team approach whenever possible.

"I believe the days of the lone designer as visionary superstar (substitute counsellor) are over," he said, "and that a well-functioning team will outperform a group of individuals every single time. The more complex the design challenges we face, the higher the stakes, the more important teamwork becomes."

 

Be aware, continually, of what might be blocking creative participation in your client's fortunes, and seek to widen the circle of involvement. Be conciliatory, but not cowed.  


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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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