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PR Observations: Drucker and PR

I had the pleasure of attending the Global Peter Drucker Forum in Vienna last week – it’s like a Davos for management in a really lovely setting, except Davos is kind of that already. It features a lot of very interesting people talking in very interesting ways about very interesting businessy-type stuff. 

There was a certain irony, sitting in the extremely man-made and imposing rooms of the imperial palace of the Habsburgs, to be listening to a panel discussion about AI. I was going to make an Ernest the Irony joke there but that’s one only for the deep history buffs.

Peter Drucker, the reason so many thinkers and businesspeople descend annually on the Austrian capital, was the father of modern management theory. At one point I overheard one of his disciples quoting him:

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

Admittedly, my first reaction was to look for any Anglo-Saxon hand signals, but in the absence of those I had a good old think about the quote.

I decided, ultimately, that it talks to the job of a communicator as an interpreter:

The client needs more coverage in very specific publications you say? Ah, the CEO has seen his or her rivals there and wants an ego-boost. 

A journalist starts to ask some tangential questions during an interview maybe? Best figure out what they’re actually speaking to you about. 

Your internal newsletter readership begins to dip? Are you boring them, or is it just the holiday season?

So much of communication is about interpretation and reacting. So little of it is about sticking rigidly to a tried and tested plan.

Ed Williams, president and CEO at Edelman, gave a good example on a panel about geopolitics: "CEOs will begin to speak less about societal issues and geopolitical subjects." 

He made the comment because leaders are frequently getting forced into taking a position and it's rarely to any benefit. If the market is going to hammer you either way, sometimes it's just best to keep your mouth shut. That's listening, and that's reacting by not speaking.

And I think that’s broadly what Pete D was on about: listen to your audience, react to your audience, and don’t keep trying to force feed them the same dinner if they’re constantly turning their heads the other way.

This PR Observations column was written by David Quainton, head of communications at the digital consultancy Emergn.

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