Big Story


Public Relations’ problems are social in nature. They present themselves in the form of stakeholders’ hostility and prejudice towards an organization, stakeholders’ apathy towards an organization’s activities and stakeholders’ ignorance of an organization and what it does. For years now, Public Relations practitioners have been using the traditional problem-solving approach of research, analysis, solution formulation and implementation to enact a transfer process by changing hostility to sympathy, apathy to interest, prejudice to acceptance and ignorance to knowledge, using communication tools and strategies.  But today, many Public Relations problems are super-complex and wicked; adopting the traditional approach for their resolution is like trying to use malaria medicine to cure tuberculosis. To develop and implement a Public Relations strategy capable of resolving or taming wicked problems, the PR practitioner needs to know which of the Public Relations’ problems he encounters is wicked; and which is not, where to find wicked problems in Public Relations and the strategies to adopt in order to tackle them successfully.

What Is A Wicked Problem?

It was in a landmark article in 1973 titled, Dilemma in a General theory of Planning that Horst Ritter and Melvin Webber coined the term “Wicked Problem” to refer to those problems that are very complex, difficult to define and inherently unsolvable. They explained that the problems are not called “Wicked” because they are ethically deplorable, but because they are beyond complexity and, they are “vicious like a circle, and tricky like a leprechaun.” They suggested the following ten characteristics to help differentiate them from other kinds of problems:

  • A lack of definitive formulation. Wicked problems are difficult to define, and often include interlocking issues.
  • Wicked problems have no stopping rule. The search for problem formulation and resolution never ends, and there are no optimal solutions.
  • Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false but good or bad because they are assessed in a social context where a range of stakeholders present different perspectives.
  • There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of a solution to a wicked problem.
  • Every solution to a wicked problem is a one-shot operation because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error; every attempt counts significantly. Wicked problems are unlike ordinary ones where you can try and abandon a solution that does not work without any consequence. Every solution that you implement has consequences you cannot undo.
  • There is a lack of criteria to indicate that all solutions have been identified.
  • Every wicked problem is essentially unique. You cannot draw from your experience to address them because they are not similar to other problems you have addressed.
  • Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem
  • Any discrepancy in a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways because it usually involves many stakeholders with different ideas of what the problem is, and what caused it.
  • Planners have no right to be wrong because they will be held responsible for the actions they take, for such actions are capable of generating enormous impact on others, and may be difficult to justify.

The Flip Side Of Wicked Problems

On the flipside of wicked problems are tame problems. These are problems which are easy to define with clear problem statements. They have clear ending points, meaning they can solved unlike wicked problems which can only be managed. They possess clear measurable solutions criteria, and are similar to other everyday problems which are already addressed. Tame problems usually involve limited number of stakeholders with little or no conflicting values. They may be complex or difficult to handle but they are solvable.

Sources Of Wicked Problems

In his book, Wicked Strategies: How Companied Conquer Complexity and Confound Competitors, John C Camillus identifies three mega-forces that are the major sources of wicked problems, namely: the inevitability of globalization, the imperative of innovation and the importance of shared value – the notion that social benefit and economic value are synergistic and that value should be shared across diverse stakeholders.

He explains that these three ubiquitous mega-forces among several other forces interact to create wicked problems. For instance, innovation gives birth to disruptive technologies and creates changes that impact stakeholders in different ways, creating conflicts between stakeholders as an organization transforms. He concludes that the extreme complexity and uncertainty in the global economy coupled with conflicting priorities of multiple stakeholders create unknowable futures and spawn wicked problems. I cannot agree less.

Wicked Problems Are Everywhere

Rittel and Webber believed that wicked problems could only be found in governmental, social or policy planning. But today we know better. Wicked problems are everywhere. Terrorism, child abuse, overpopulation, sex trafficking and poverty are now recognized as wicked problems. Others are shortage of clean water, inadequate health care, poor education, global warming and domestic violence to name but a few.

Wicked problems occur in teams, in families and in business. In his book, The Designful Company: How to Build a Culture of Non-stop Innovation, Marty Neumeier identifies the top ten wicked problems businesses face based on a survey conducted by his company, Neutron and Stanford University as follows:

1.       Balancing long-term goals with short-term demands.

2.       Predicting the returns on innovative concepts.

3.       Innovating at the increasing speed of change.

4.       Winning the war for world-class talents.

5.       Combining profitability with social responsibility.

6.       Protecting margins in a commoditizing industry.

7.       Multiplying success by collaborating across silos.

8.       Finding unclaimed, yet profitable market space.

9.       Addressing the challenge of eco-sustainability.

10.     Aligning strategy with customer experience.

Are PR Problems Wicked Problems?

In their article, Two Types of Public Relations Problems and Integrating Formative and Evaluative Research, published in Journal of Public Relations Research, Jeong-Nam Kim and Lan Ni identified two types of PR problems; namely, Publics-initiated PR problems and organization-initiated PR problems.

Publics-initiated PR problems often arise because the publics of an organization have sensed a problem in its decisions or actions. These problems are usually related to policies or issues that are controversial in nature and involving conflicting situations between the organization and publics.

On the other hand, organization-initiated PR problems often start because an organization has sensed potential problems affecting its publics or its own interests. For example, if an organization discovers that its publics are not aware of its CSR projects, such a problem is an organization-initiated PR problem.

Because organization-initiated PR problems often relate to non-conflicting situations, you will not easily find wicked problems emanating from there. But some public-initiated PR problems can become so complex and metamorphose into wicked problems. This happens when the number of stakeholders involved is very large because the matter has gone to the public domain; when the stakeholders are divided in their opinions on what the problem really is and how it should be solved; when they form alliances to defend their positions; and when the constraints to solving the problem mounts up, such that it becomes difficult to know where to start and how to go about it.

The Niger Delta region of Nigeria is a case in point. Oil companies could not see the environmental damage their activities were causing and the attendant destruction of the means of livelihood of the people of the region. So. it became a publics-initiated PR problem for them. The affected communities, civil society, and eventually violence and militancy made them to realize that their insensitivity had given birth to a complex web of interlocking political, economic and social issues, making the Niger Delta problem a super-wicked problem not just to the oil companies, but also to Nigeria and the international community.

Organizational Relations As Wicked Problems

Today, relationship is the central point around which Public Relations is studied and practiced. This makes a lot of sense because Public Relations can only demonstrate value and accountability by linking its activities to organizational relationship results. Since a good relationship is a scarce resource and a source of competitive advantage, no organization can afford to ignore Public Relations as the achievement of organizational goals is dependent on it.

The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management (GA), a confederation of professional associations and institutions representing over 160,000 practitioners and academics worldwide, at its annual conference in Melbourne, Australia in November 2012, endorsed a new mandate for Public Relation practitioners, known as the Melbourne Mandate. It states that Public Relations role is to “build and maintain strong relationships between an organization and its publics and in so doing, contribute to society”. This mandate puts a stamp of approval on relationship management as the right and accepted approach to practicing Public Relations.

In their 1998 article in Public Relations Review, Relationship management and Public Relations: Dimension of organization – Public Relationship, the pioneers of the relationship management school of thoughts, John A. Ledingham and Stephen D. Bruning, defined organization-public relationship as “the state which exists between an organizational and its key publics in which the actions of either entity impact the economic, social, cultural or political well-being of the other.”

Buried in this definition is a deep level of complexity that gives organization- public relationship away as not only a wicked problem, but also as a hot bed of wicked problems. This is why:

  • Every organization-public relationship is a nexus of several other relationships leading to multiple interactions, multiple actors and multiple influences which cannot be completely understood by a Public Relations practitioner managing the relationship. This different influences and actors shape how an individual perceives an organization and how he interprets the communications and actions of the organization, making decisions on how to engage each of the stakeholder groups very difficult no matter how proficient a Public Relations professional may be in stakeholder analysis and mapping. It explains why there is no end to stakeholders concerns, no end to emerging constraints in managing the relationships, no ultimate solution to organization public relationship problems and therefore, no end to finding solutions for effective stakeholder engagement. Stakeholder problems continue to move in a vicious circle from ignorance, hostility to prejudice or apathy and back to ignorance, depending on the situation.
  • Each stakeholder group is made up of unique individuals with different needs, values, expectations, tastes and preferences. Problems and issues from each of the groups never stop as their needs, values, expectations and preference continue to evolve. They come in different shades and colors. Therefore, the search for solutions to effective stakeholder engagement never stops. It is always work in progress. And it is always impossible to know whether the chosen solutions will go down well with the stakeholders, or whether they will bring unintended consequences.
  • In organization-public relationship, uncertainty is the name of the game. No Public Relations professional can predict exactly where an organization stands on the key measures of organization-public relationship such as stakeholder trust, stakeholder commitment or relationship satisfaction. This is largely because organization-public relationships are never stable. They move through different phases across different stakeholders and stakeholder groups. And the phase of relationship a stakeholder belongs is not defined solely by what an organization says or does, but by different actors and factors in the environment which may be difficult to track.
  • Most problems of organization-public relationships are symptoms of other problems. A problem of media hostility may be connected to some factors, such as: an organization’s position on an issue, the character of leaders of the organization, poor treatment of journalists by the Public Relations team, the personality of the journalist, the journalist’s lack of knowledge and understanding of the industry and a host of other factors.
  • It is difficult to have an exhaustively describable set of solutions to organization-public relationship problems because the problems always change according to the needs, expectations of stakeholders and other external factors such as government policies, regulations and socio-cultural imperatives of the day.
  • Trust, which has been acknowledged as the most central component of a satisfied relationship, is not easy to define. How is it then possible to define stakeholders trust problems when they occur? Writing in the Essential Knowledge Project of the Institute for Public Relations, Brad Rawlins notes: “if the purpose for Public Relations is to establish and maintain relationship with key stakeholders through communication and other efforts, then Public Relations is in the trust-building business”.

He includes that attempts at defining trust have been called everything from a confusing potpourri to a conceptual morass.

No matter how you look at it, managing organizational-public relationships is a task that is beyond complexity. The multiplicity of stakeholders and stakeholder networks involved, both openly and covertly; the conflicting and evolving nature of their needs, expectations and values; and the continuous stream of interconnected issues emanating from the relationships make it a task you cannot complete and therefore a wicked problem.

Other Wicked Problems In Public Relations

Apart from organization-public relationships, there are other wicked problems linked to it which the Public Relations practitioner has to contend with in the course of his work. In this article, I intend to address four of them, as follows:

i.        Corporate Reputation

Wicked problems are defined mostly by: incomplete or contradictory knowledge of the issues involved, a large number of stakeholders with conflicting opinions and values of stakeholders, interconnectedness of the problems and the sheer financial burden required to manage the problem.

Corporate reputation passes off easily as a wicked problem and should be treated as such by Public Relations professionals.

Defined as a stakeholders’ overall evaluation of an organization over time, corporate reputation involves several layers of stakeholders such as: employees, media workers, bloggers, digital influencers and consumers of news. Each group of stakeholders contains different individuals with different needs and expectations which the Public Relations practitioner cannot have complete knowledge about.

Players and issues involved in the construction of an organization’s reputation interlock. For instance, employees, community, government, corporate governance and compliance issues have many points where they interlock. These issues play out in a complex environment where the needs and expectations of multi-layers of stakeholders, events (both planned and unplanned) socio-cultural values, corporate symbolism, communication and behavior work together to construct a corporate reputation.

Given the number of actors involved, constructing reputation is not within the powers of the Public Relations professional. So, corporate reputation is uncontrollable and its problems cannot be completely resolved the same way problems of global warming, global poverty, over-population and other social issues universally recognized as wicked problems cannot be solved, but they can only be managed. You cannot help but accept this fact when you know that the complex nature of the environment where it is constructed is dependent on so many factors outside complete control of the PR practitioner or anybody for that matter.

ii.       Strategic Planning

In Public Relations, the strategic planning process begins with research where you try to make sense of the root cause(s) of a PR problem in order to determine the best method for its resolution. This process has all the trappings of a wicked problem.

In our complex communication environment populated with several actors, coupled with multiple layers of organizational stakeholders who jostle to meet their interests and needs in an organization and the speed of change in the business environment, establishing the root cause of a PR problem is very difficult, if not impossible. And the reason is simple: you cannot obtain full information about the issues in contention, so you cannot define them clearly and break them down into manageable units to arrive at a better understanding of the problem in order to plan effectively.

iii.      Media Landscape

The Public Relations professional rely on the media to get his messages across to the dispersed stakeholders of his organization. But today, the media is very complex and in a state of flux. With new media platforms, tools and other digital products invading the media space in quick successions, Public Relations professionals are required to continuously spend time and other resources to develop their knowledge and skills in order to use these platforms and tools effectively.

As regulatory and legal frameworks change, so are the players. Today one blogger or digital influencer may be the rave of the moment and tomorrow, it is another. The same can be said of the media platforms. The media landscape remains undeniable unstable and uncontrollable. PR professional can accurately define the state of the media at a given point in time and therefore cannot determine the best solutions to media-related problems. And it is difficult, if not impossible, to draw from experiences of the past to solve media-related problems.  The Public Relations professional cannot help but to play catch up.

iv.      Societal Issues

The first set of issues classified by scholars as wicked problems  are societal issues such as global warming, human rights, global poverty, obesity, overpopulation and others which are so complex that they cannot be solved, but can only be managed.

As organizations are seen today not just as commercial or business entities but also as social entitles which are expected to contribute to the advancement of society, leaders of these organizations depend on Public Relations professionals to help them scan their stakeholders’ environment to identify those social issues and needs that align with their operations. PR professionals are expected to study and understand these problems so that they can help their organizations develop CSR or social purpose strategies that address the social issues in a way that meets their stakeholders’ expectations.

Navigating Wicked Public Relations Problems

Wicked PR problems do not lend themselves to easy answers. Public Relations professionals need a new mindset – a mindset that embraces complexity. This demands new ways of doing things. It demands a focus on continuous adaptation to uncertainties.

In her year 2000 article titled, Wicked Problems and Network Approaches to Resolution, published in International Public Management Review, Nancy Robert offers three strategies for tackling wicked problems which Public Relations professionals can adopt. Here are the strategies:

1.       Authoritative Strategy

In this strategy, you are required to put the problem in the hands of a few stakeholders who have the authority to define it and come up with solutions. Selection of these stakeholders should be based on their level of knowledge relating to the problem, expertise, coercive power or information possessed concerning the problem. They should be those respected by other stakeholders to do a good job on their behalf. This reduces the number of people involved in sorting out the problem and reduces the complexity of the problem-solving process as well. It has the capacity to quicken the process, but the experts could have a narrow view of the problem resulting in a solution that does not satisfy majority of the stakeholders.

In Public Relations this strategy could work in strategic planning for the resolution of Public Relations problems in specialized industries.

2.       Competitive Strategy

Here, attempts are made to solve a wicked problem by pitting opposing points of view against each other, and getting those who hold those views to generate as many solutions as possible. Thereafter, the different solutions are weighed for their ability to resolve the problem, and the best solution is chosen. This strategy embraces a winner-takes all mentality. It could therefore lead to stalemates.

3.       Collaborative Strategy

Because complex systems, like wicked problems, often require inputs from various sources, collaboration remains the best approach and stakeholder-engagement is the name of the game.  Collaboration fosters a shared understanding of the problems, promotes dialogue and makes it easy for the concerns of all stakeholders to be taken into consideration to reach an agreement that is acceptable to all. It is the way to go; it is the way of Public Relations. Public Relations professionals may be condemned to work in and with complex social systems where wicked problems abound. There is nothing to worry about. All that they need is a recalibrated thinking process and an expanded consciousness in order to know when a PR problem is wicked and when it is not. PR professionals should know that PR’s traditional problem-solving strategy will only fumble at the margins of wicked problems. The most reliable approach is to recruit the insight and commitment of relevant stakeholders through collaboration, and a wicked problem will be tamed; if not solved.