It has been something of an odd couple of weeks, with some of my professional peers either brazenly speaking of lying (PR Week, February 3rd), or offering somewhat antediluvian points of view about what PR really is and how we go about our everyday business. Having recorded the BBC’s The Bottom Line with the erudite Evan Davis on Wednesday, I was fascinated by the content and tone of the two edits: the slightly ill-tempered exchanges on the radio version were thankfully usurped by the more thoughtful, directional and content-rich discussion on the broadcast edition.
Does all this matter – or are these merely the narcissistic ramblings of an introspective bunch of PR people? Well, yes, it does matter – and here’s why:
As one of the central tenets of Citizen Renaissance argues, the construction and the approach of the communications industry for the past fifty years or so has contributed significantly to the mess and the muddle in which we now find ourselves. We see this manifest in the historical inversion of the Wants & Needs relationship; the consumerisation of everything, not least in politics; and a relentless drive towards super-consumption that is simply unsustainable, both for our own wellbeing and the finite resources of the planet.
Yet, communications can – and must – be a powerful agent of change, especially in the post-Crisis world. However, no such change is possible if the communications industry itself does not get its house in order first.
In The Bottom Line exchanges with the formidable (Lord) Tim Bell, I tried to get across three fundamentally differentiating points:
The Vitality of Trust: Just as we now recognize (and can quantify) that, for both business leaders and politicians, Trust is an effective line of business, we must understand that a PR industry without Trust simply cannot function, let alone be a reformative/ restorative force for good. I would take issue with those who say that ‘Trust’ is only one small part of the communications equation or who happily apply the taxi rank principle when it comes to working with despots, tyrannies or organisations with dubious ethics. Instead, Trust sits at the very core. Our failure to understand both the nuances and the fragility of Trust – and the relationship between Trust and principled behaviour – can only lead to a cataclysmic failure of effort. Trust (http://www.edelman.co.uk/trustbarometer/) is therefore not there to be bandied about with platitudes and cliché. It must be studied, respected and sensitively handled to make sure that where it is needed, it is gained; and where it is lost, it is properly restored. This is the responsibility of the communications professional, working with the institutions of government, business and media alike.
The Call for Engagement: It is fascinating to listen to others debate definitions of Public Relations dating from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. The world has evolved since Vance Packard’s (1957) dystopia of Hidden Persuaders. Unlike fellow guest Julia Hobsbawm, Bell showed something of a reluctance to move on – resolute in the belief that PR was merely the art of crafting messages and persuading others to fall into line and ‘believe’. The communications industry cannot afford to behave like this anymore. In an era of active engagement, the PR professional can no longer be either kingmaker or communications serf, but instead a true and substantive facilitator: bringing together networks and active partnerships that can share and advance interests for the common good. Those who fail to recognize this seismic shift from broadcast models to engaged networks fail to understand the profession in which we now work.
Digital has changed the game forever: The (occasionally deliberate) misunderstanding of the democratizing and empowering force of Digital is one of the greatest shortcomings of a number in the communications industry today. As Citizen Renaissance powerfully portrays, a digitally active citizenship drives transparency and accountability and, itself, becomes a reforming force for good. To belittle it as ‘just another channel’ or ‘geeks who get excited about stuff like Twitter’ is as dangerous as it is patronizing. The point is not the technology itself, but the permanent behavioural change that the technology has induced – driving us forward as a society that not only better understands our civic and societal responsibilities, but one that has found our collective voice. That voice had previously been lost and emasculated in the middle of a pyramid of self-anointed elites.
Which brings me to a final point on the role of vested interests – always obstructive in the wider sense but increasingly so in the rapidly evolving world of communications. If, like me, you believe that communications can be a force for good, then you will also recognize the convergence of all the marketing disciplines into one, interdependent sphere of cross influence (an early version of this appears in Citizen Renaissance). This is therefore no longer about the narrow channel of PR but about the wider construct of communications. PR, as the discipline that has always understood the Government, Business, Investor/Analyst, Citizen/Consumer and Third Sector agendas in equal measure, is uniquely placed to lead – and therefore to build both Engagement and Trust, in turn leading to reformation and ultimate societal benefit. But the business models of many in the communications world – which force the separation of advertising, media, Digital and PR etc – remain forever in sales mode; in effect, propagating the silo approach for financial gain at the expense of societal interest (open disclosure: Edelman is family-owned and independent).
In the radio broadcast, Tim Bell ridiculed my point on this, justifying his assertion because the likes of WPP, Omnicom etc represented 85% of the market power of communications. Yet principle cannot be sacrificed on the altar of market share. Business models will need to change as rapidly as attitudes towards the new communications landscape.
The communications industry has to elevate itself beyond being the ‘joke butt’ differentiator between the rat and the squirrel. We have an important but not self-important role to play. We need to be able to advise on matters of policy and with insight, evidence and substance. The industry needs to dispel the myth that we are opaque deal-makers or the masters or mistresses of spin – this belittles the industry and sets us back decades at a time where such regressions are ill-afforded. There are indeed chimes of freedom flashing but now is the point at which we must look – and move – forward and not anchor ourselves in a somewhat un-romantic and murky past.