Five Lessons in PR from Game of Thrones

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A Guest Post By Priya Doshi, Professorial Lecturer, American University

Winter is almost here! Okay I know it’s officially spring now, but for fans like me of the hugely popular HBO series “Game of Thrones” (GoT), winter will arrive on April 14 when the show debuts its final season. For all the anticipation of shocking storylines and complex character clashes, I’m also avidly awaiting the lessons the show offers on strategic communication. That’s because the show depicts how some of the same rules that apply in a fictional kingdom of a long, long time ago, are still relevant today. We may not be jostling for a throne, but we are still vying for influence.

Here are the top five best PR tips from last season. If you haven’t seen Season 7 yet,

1. Get on it– you have less than two weeks! 2. Don’t keep reading…spoilers ahead!

  1. Two-way symmetric communication is key: Two-way symmetric communications, a term defined by PR theorist James Grunig, is when an organization seeks feedback from its audience in order to understand the audience’s needs and wants better to come closer to achieving mutually beneficial goals. The way that Tyrion handles the impasse between his boss Daenerys Targaryan and the King in the North Jon Snow is a great example. During the first meeting, Fire and Ice cannot achieve anything but an exchange of hostile language, so Tyrion steps in to broker a peace. He persuades Jon to reduce his ask of Daenerys to a request to mine dragon glass that Jon needs to fight the white walkers. Tyrion then asks Daenerys to let Jon have the dragon glass as a conciliation that may later convince Jon to support Daenerys. By discovering this common ground option through actively listening to both parties, Tyrion begins to build bridges between these great forces.
  • Trust is everything: Trust in PR is hard to earn and easy to lose. The public has no reason to trust an organization until it proves itself. But if an organization blows that trust once, it will be very hard to reestablish. Daenerys has her well-founded trust issues with supposed allies given her past. That’s why when Varys joins her team, Daenerys remains skeptical and questions his loyalty. Varys attests that he has proven himself through the alliances he built for her with Dorne, the Greyjoys, and the Tyrells. However, Daenerys may be right to suspect Varys whose motivation has always been opaque at best. After all, shortly after these alliances are built, Daenerys’ new allies are destroyed, likely through some internal leak about their strategic plans. Get the fire extinguisher ready for when Daenerys discovers who is responsible that breach of trust!
  • Seeing is believing:  Although many people see words as what PR is built upon,words are never enough without the actions to back them up. If an organization simply tries to say it stands for something, no one is likely to pay attention to it until it starts proving itself. This is what Jon Snow does to convince Daenerys and the rest of the doubting leaders of Westeros that the threat from the undead army is real. First, Jon shows Daenerys the cave etchings that tell the history of the last time the White Walkers came. Then, he kidnaps a white walker from beyond the wall for show and tell in King’s Landing. This incontrovertible truth about the threat that they all face is the factor that finally gets the parties to begin to listen to one another rather than bickering among themselves.
  • Transparency matters in public relations: Transparency in PR is when an organization is clear about what its goals are, how it is achieving them, and what the impact will be on its various stakeholders, including consumers, employees, the community, partners, and others affected by its operations. Transparency can earn trust among your allies and protect you against manipulation by those who want to damage your brand. We see this dynamic between Little Finger and the Stark sisters. Little Finger is up to his usual shenanigans when he tries to place a seed of suspicion between the Stark sisters Sansa and Arya. It appears he has succeeded in laying the groundwork for Arya to believe that Sansa had long ago betrayed their family for her personal gain, and in persuading Sansa that her little sister is a ruthless assassin bent on her sister’s destruction. For most of the season it looks like the lack of transparency between the sisters is going to result in them destroying each other, until it becomes clear that they have been transparent with one another all along. One could imagine how a transparent conversation among the Stark girls would dissolve their suspicions about one another and more importantly, reveal that they both seek the same thing: peace for their family and vengeance for those who have wronged them. The result of this transparency in the face of a common threat is that together, they entrap Little Finger and destroy him rather than turning on one another. Score 1 for Brand Stark!
  • Making good on one’s commitments is the cornerstone of relationship management. In PR when an organization states something publicly, it must follow through on its commitments or risk losing face and faith with its key stakeholders. This is exactly what happens when Cersei lies to everyone, including her brother Jaime, about her intention to join the alliance to fight the white walkers. When Jaime realizes her deception, it’s the last straw as he has watched her continue to manipulate, conceal truths, and pit her allies against one another for her own personal gain, while continuing to tell those she needs what she thinks they need to hear. Not only is Cersei’s approach poor PR, but it is poor strategy because as Jaime demonstrates, it will leave her alone to face all the threats herself. Without maintaining long-term relationships, PR remains haphazard and vulnerable.

In the Game of Thrones you either “win or die,” as Cersei once famously said, but in order to really “win,” in the long-term, one needs best practice public relations. Through these simple yet profound lessons, the show reveals key takeaways for communicators: namely, say what you’ll do and do what you say to ensure the best sustainable relationships, which are the heart of PR.

What lessons for communicators have you seen in GoT over the years? What new lessons do you anticipate for the new and final season?

Priya Doshi, Professorial Lecturer, American University

Priya Doshi is a professorial lecturer at American University where she teaches public relations and strategic communications and avidly awaits the next season of “Game of Thrones.”  You can learn more about Priya here.

Featured Image: Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) and Kit Harrington (Jon Snow) in Game of Thrones Season 7. Image credit: HBO

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