we need a resolution

Agile working requires total theoretical change

Prof.dr. Betteke van Ruler


‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change’

Charles Darwin


Business models are changing, and agile models are the best for creating value, according to McKinsey. As Stella Bayles wrote in her blog [ING communications team], agile methodologies are a hot topic, but agility in PR has been minimal so far. Simon Collister argues that there is a lack of innovation in the PR industry, not because of money but because of organisational culture [how PR can innovate in 2016]. The PR industry is too much oriented at short term needs and output, he argues.


I believe that there is an even deeper structural problem and that is the old fashioned, linear orientation the PR industry still holds on how communication works and – consequently - on communication planning.


In traditional corporate communication or public relations planning results and actions are precisely defined in advance. Changing conditions along the way, or proof of any unanticipated negative effects of your actions will impel you to admit in hindsight that your goals had not been realistic, that you had aimed at the wrong targets or that you had not had the right strategy or taken the correct actions, and that your actions had therefore been misconstrued. In short: a waste of (most of your) time and the money.


But it is still the common way of working. Why?



Communication planning models

It is because most PR people are educated this way, with very traditional planning methods and old-fashioned communication theory. All the books of PR planning I know of, are handling PR planning as a linear process of steps to be taken one after the other;


  • The first step is analysis of the situation, the organisation and the publics
  • The second is to draw up a strategic plan, which means establishing goals and objectives, formulating action and response strategies and a key message or message platform
  • The third is tactics to implement the strategy
  • The final step is evaluation: to verify whether the objectives have been achieved. This method is also known as RACE: Research, Action plan, Communications, Evaluation


This method implies that the effects of communication are assumed to be predictable. In fact, communication is seen as a magic bullet which – if properly orchestrated (usually with a core message) and smartly distributed – may well predict success. This is a pre-scientific approach to how communication works. Of course, everyone knows it is not that simple. “If only you knew what I know, you would have the same idea” is no more than an illusion. But orchestration and multi-channeling is not the answer.


We need to adopt another approach to communication.



Evolutionary communication theory

The common communication model is as follows: Sender sends Message through Channels to Receivers in order to get a predefined effect. A linear transmission of messages from a sender to a receiver. Often a feed forward stream is added to the model to get to know your target group and a feedback stream to evaluate the outcome. Most people nowadays comment on it because of the one-sidedness of the model and replace it by a dialogue model of actors communicating in order to receive a mutual agreement on the meaning of the issue they communicate about. In communication theory these models are called “co-orientation” or “convergence” models.


There is yet another tradition in communication theory, and that emphasizes the continuous evolution of meanings. It is a vision of communication as a dynamic process of transactions of meanings, which evolve in time and place. Who is going to participate is unknown beforehand. No one knows in advance how the process will turn out and what meanings (concepts, ideas about how something is or works) will develop. That will only unfold during the process. 


The American communication philosopher Lee Thayer speaks of communication as a diachronic process: developing over time. As long as an issue is being discussed the meanings given to it remain under construction. Sometimes it is in line with what the initiator desired for an effect, but it might equally be producing unintended effects. What and how people think and talk is not written in stone. If you want to know, you need to periodically research it. In the 1960s Dance developed the helical model of communication, which perfectly shows the evolution of meanings. 



I prefer this perspective on how communication works. How people will think is simply not fixed and depends not only on their personal capacities and feelings. Moreover, in corporate communication and public relations one often really does not know who is taking part in the communication processes, and that makes it even more complicated to identify in advance what a smart goal of your project might be. 



I prefer scrum as an agile planning model

You might want to ask whether you can still manage the PR process from such an evolutionary approach to communication. I would argue: of course, but only with agile ways of working, because adaptation to change is key. That implies continuous research for gathering new insights.


So, evaluation is not the end of the project but part of it. After many talks with agile and scrum experts, having read many books and websites on scrum, and experimenting with agile and scrum in PR projects, I'm sure scrum answers the demands of the new reality of corporate communication and public relations.


First of all, because even unforeseen dynamics and complexity are no longer seen as obstacles. They are cleverly accommodated in the method. Second, because time has past that it was only after the event, if at all, that you had to justify your choices and decisions. With this method, you are automatically accountable throughout the process. It comes with the territory. And who would not want that?



Prof.dr. Betteke van Ruler



Prof. em. dr. Betteke van Ruler is a leading scholar in corporate communication and public relations in the Netherlands. She began her career as a communication professional herself, moving to teaching in the 1980s and to academic research in the 1990s. She was recently awarded the honorary title of Officer in the Order of Orange Nassau for her work in bridging the gap between academia and practice.


She recently wrote a book on agile and scrum: Reflective Communication Scrum: recipe for accountability, ISBN 978-94-6236-461-5, and one on agile strategy development (only in Dutch).





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