The conference had been organised by the Global Alliance for Public Relations.
The name could have been plucked from some B-grade futuristic war film like Starship Troopers, and immediately my head filled with images of armies massing for an interplanetary battle.
And as former journalist now working in communications, I certainly felt like I was entering a different world: a lone solider in the enemy’s nest.
You see, it’s now been six months since I left journalism but I still identify with the craft. Perhaps more than ever. As anybody who has made the transition will tell you, I have become ‘the journalist’ in my new office: explaining, contextualising, defending and (occasionally) apologising for the acts of my former colleagues.
It’s with the burden of this split personality that I attended this week’s World Public Relations Forum in Melbourne. The place was filled with what I would confidently call ‘PR types’, knowing you know exactly what I mean.
A year ago I wouldn’t have been caught dead at this event. After all, these are members of the dark side. Was I now part of their shifty brotherhood?
ABC TV’s Virginia Trioli might have been an odd choice as conference host, but I was glad she was there. She was one of my people. I enjoyed a smug chuckle when she told attendees that, despite being a journalist, she wouldn’t bite “though may nibble”.
The PR flaks who spoke at this conference disappointed me greatly.
Not because of what they said, what they did or who they represented. But rather because of what they didn’t do.
They didn’t advocate outright lying or secrecy. They didn’t speak of ways to frustrate or mislead journalists. They didn’t preach pure evil or share innovative ways to eat their young.
What they did do was spend a lot of time discussing how they (PR operatives) might persuade corporate leaders that genuine openness and engagement are worthwhile.
They discussed how frank communication is desirable, and obfuscation is counterproductive.
There was even some debate about whether the term “PR” was now toxic, given the industry’s poor reputation.
How dare they seem so bloody… noble.
The nibbling Virginia Trioli wasn’t easily fooled, pointing out words are cheap. When will things really change? she asked.
It’s a fair question, but one nobody can yet answer.
But I do take heart that my latest profession does seem to be undergoing something of a slow and subtle revolution.
Those who preach obfuscation and believe power resides with them as gatekeepers or disseminators, are on the way out. Replacing them is a group of people who understand the democratising potency of social media, and how the internet has given global communication power to the people.
This group truly champions engagement and “co-creation” (a conference buzzword).
These new age communications professionals might reside on ‘the dark side’ but they haven’t drunk the conniving corporate Cool Aid.
So here’s my take away message from the conference and this blog post; not all PR operatives are bad. Most are arguing your case within an organisation. And many are genuinely trying to change that organisation from within.
The ‘new age’ communications worker might just be the modern journalist’s best friend.