The following column is the sixth in a series discussing how organizations can harness the power of the public.

Over the past few months, I’ve written about a new communications landscape that is increasingly shaped by a more authentic relationship with the public.  Exploring this premise further, in this post I would like to talk about the word influence and what I refer to as the ‘two sides of influence.’

The word influence is frequently met with a degree of suspicion by those who associate it with wielding great power to manipulate hearts and minds, even coerce people.  In contrast, as PR practitioners, our definition is linked to helping people make decisions grounded in trust and strong relationships.

The ‘two sides of influence’ is somewhat of a metaphor for this divide.  Often the cynicism the PR industry faces from the public is because we are not always true to our objectives and how we get there. I propose we ask ourselves the following question:  Are we trying to influence public opinions OR are we trying to allow the public to influence the outcome?

While the objectives are quite different, each question is legitimate and requires a different approach. Influencing public opinions is about sharing content that reinforces an intended outcome.  This can include promoting a position, addressing questions and busting myths for example.

Allowing the public to influence outcomes is about creating a process for meaningful participation that results in a shared or co-created end state.  This means allowing those interested to get involved and influence the final decision.

In the end, the thread that binds us together as practitioners, regardless of which side of influence you are pursuing, is the commitment to engaging the public in a manner that is truthful and respectful.  Whether we are trying to influence the public, or allowing the public to influence the outcome, both require credible information, transparency and integrity.

Rob Mariani is a senior vice-president with Hill+Knowlton Strategies and serves as general manager of their Ottawa offices.

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