How Can PR Solve “Wicked Problems?”

by PR Coach on July 16, 2012

Strategic public relations

What’s a PR strategist?

You can always count on Jay Rosen for thought-provoking ideas and insight. None better than his recent speech called “Covering Wicked Problems.” While he spoke about the challenge of creating and covering a “wicked problems beat” by journalists, what’s interesting is how precisely it applies to strategic public relations too.

First, what are “wicked problems?” Rosen gives us this definition:

Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.”

Rosen doesn’t mean wicked problems are “evil” problems. Rather, they are nearly impossible to solve in most cases because they don’t have a definition like “tame” problems.

Sound like your most recent PR crisis, development approval application, conversations with environmental opponents or new product launch? Or how about trying to solve the wicked problem of global warming?

When you think about some of the challenges PR pros deal with, many fall within the definition of wicked problems. That’s why there’s so much art in the science of public relations.

How can PR solve wicked problems?

In providing 10 descriptions of how a “wicked problems” journalism beat would work, Rosen offers some interesting ways that PR can respond as well. In fact, it’s a wonderful blueprint for strategic public relations.

With apologies and thanks to Rosen, here’s how I’d reframe his “beat” to guide PR strategists:

  1. Look to your network, including social media, for solutions.
  2. Search for patterns in places where people get stuck.
  3. Develop a possible solution and you can define your problem more easily.
  4. Think globally.
  5. Don’t rely on experts only (the “authorized knowers and institutional experts”).
  6. Find people with good judgment around the world.
  7. Watch out for denial, especially by educated “denialists.”
  8. Scan for weak signals for potential solutions
  9. Write with “savage clarity.” (“Journalism belongs to the vernacular, or it has no place in the world.”)
  10. Have a point of view. Tell us where you’re coming from.

It’s a really intriguing speech. I’ll leave it to Rosen to inspire PR pros with his final remarks:

“The wicked problems beat is not a View from Nowhere thing. It starts from the limits of professional expertise. It is a reflection on unmanageable complexity. It preaches humility to the authorized knowers. It mocks the one best answer and single issue people. It seeks to deliver us from denial.”

If there’s anything that defines strategic public relations better, I can’t think of it.

What do you think? Will Rosen’s ideas help us be better PR strategists? Love to get your thoughts in the comments below.

You’ll find lots of wicked ideas in our virtual PR Library with more than 7,500 links to PR articles, tips and resources including a section on strategic PR. Sign up for our blog for more wicked ideas every week too.

Author: Jeff Domansky
Photo credit: Sean MacEntee via Flickr