Argyle Public Relationships

Communication with Conscience: PR’s 21st century challenge

By Daniel Tisch

/ Posted in Leadership

Map of Spain with push pin marking Madrid
Map of Spain with push pin marking Madrid

In September, I had the unforgettable experience of co-chairing the Eighth World Public Relations Forum – likely the most diverse global public relations conference in history. More than 800 delegates from 66 countries came together in Madrid for three days of dialogue and presentations from speakers representing global corporations, organizations such as the OECD and the World Economic Forum, and governments, including an address by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain. The theme was an apt one for our times: communication with conscience. Here is an edited version of my remarks to the conference.

With public relations practiced in so many countries, cultures and contexts, many individual journeys brought us to Madrid. But we are also on a collective journey – the one our profession has travelled in the early years of this century.

PR in the 21st century: Why communication with conscience matters
To consider where public relations has been – and where it is going — we must think about the context in which we communicate – the state of global society.

Not that long ago – when the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management was planning the first World PR Forum in 2001 – the world seemed like a more optimistic place.

  1. In politics: Democracy was flourishing around the world in the wake of the Cold War.
    In economics: Trade barriers were coming down, and the European monetary union seemed to herald a new age of economic co-operation.
  2. In social development: Hunger and absolute poverty were in decline.
  3. In technology: The digital age tempted us with the astonishing possibility of connecting almost every person on the planet.
  4. And in the environment: at Kyoto, nations came together to address an existential threat to our world.

But something went wrong. The German word — Welt-Verzweiflung — or “world despair” — seems to be a more apt term for the zeitgeist of 2014.

Why?

First, we’ve learned that unprecedented interconnection means unprecedented interdependence – as Europe learned following debt crises in various Mediterranean countries, and as investors everywhere experience when headlines move markets.

Second, we’ve seen that even as communication power has become more diffused, economic power has become more concentrated. The economic might of corporations exceeds that of many countries. And as chronicled by both activists and economists, the gap between rich and poor widens – not necessarily because the poor are getting poorer, but because the rich are getting richer. Even things that have become conventional wisdom – such as the promise that consumption from emerging economies would power global growth and raise incomes – are no longer clear, as growth plunged in emerging markets in 2013.

Third, we have become a society of continuous partial attention. With a crisis of revenue and an impatient audience, it’s hardly surprising that we’ve seen a ‘tabloidization’ of media – a relentless search for scoops, scandals and screaming headlines.

No wonder trust in journalism has plummeted. This is dangerous when we desperately need a free and fair press not just to be a source of credible curation of information – but also an instrument of democracy.
And when citizens don’t pay attention — and when we don’t believe the media — how can we hold our leaders accountable? Perhaps we see an answer in the number of authoritarian regimes (Russia, Iran, Turkey and Venezuela, to name just a few) that are democracies in name only.

Fourth, we’re seeing a formidable challenge to our organizations’ resilience. An IBM study revealed a startling fact: the average life expectancy of a company in the S&P 500 has dropped from 75 years in 1937 to just 15 today.

This makes sense when you consider the shift in the composition of a typical company’s market value. A few decades ago, 80% of a company’s market value could be traced through to physical and financial assets. Today, it’s just 20%. What’s the new 80%? It’s intellectual capital — and, of course, it’s reputation.

That’s why communication matters more than ever.

In all sectors today – business, government or NGOs – we see a new type of arms race. It’s a mix of hard information and soft power – in which the weapons are big data, owned media and public diplomacy – all driving an influence economy.
These strategies can be used for good or ill, for transparency or deception. They can be used ethically or unethically.

And that’s why communication with conscience matters more than ever.

Communication with conscience: Putting it into action
But PR has a problem. Too many executives – often abetted, sadly, by practitioners – still think PR is about messaging, marketing, spin and hype.

That is why, at the last World PR Forum in Melbourne in 2012, after a year of research and dialogue, 800 delegates from 30 countries unanimously endorsed a vision for the communicative organization: one that’s rooted in a clear sense of character and values; a culture of listening and engagement; and an understanding of our responsibility at all levels – to our organizations, to our profession, to our society and to our own consciences.

So, how do we put this Melbourne Mandate into action? How do we communicate with conscience?

Three ideas: reflection, collaboration and change.
Reflection is one of the oldest ideas in our society, dating back to the words on the Temple at Delphi – Know thyself. Reflect on your organization’s character and values. And as you listen to your stakeholders – measure the extent to which you live up to them.

Collaboration is both an internal and an external imperative. Internally, it’s showing leadership by being the convener of all the functions in the organization that touch communication. Externally, in the words of Sandra Duhe at yesterday’s Research Colloquium, it’s bringing the outside in – and making it meaningful, relevant and actionable. It’s adapting the mode of communication to the stakeholder based on our impact on them – and their influence on society.

Finally, communication with conscience is about embracing change. Many organizations now realize the importance of dialogue with stakeholders – but these dialogues are too often held only on the organizations’ terms – with no real openness to change. But as Professor Mohan Dutta told us in Melbourne two years ago, one of the pre-conditions of dialogue is that all parties have to be open to change.

An opportunity for shared value
Communication with conscience doesn’t mean we can’t think about profit; quite the contrary.
As the International Integrated Reporting Council has demonstrated, it means thinking about all the capital an organization uses – not just financial – and how that capital can be combined to add – or subtract – value.

Unlike many in this world, PR professionals tend to be optimists. We see opportunities for shared value: for the merging of capitalism and humanism. For seeing no contradiction – and every connection – between building business and doing good.

That’s what communication with conscience is all about.

And that is why public relations professionals have an opportunity – and a duty — to be the consciences of our organizations. Great public relations will help guide not just what organizations say, but also what they do.

Yes, our organizations might sacrifice some control over our messages, our decisions and our directions. But in the end, we will gain much more than we lose.

In words of Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, “The ultimate test of conscience may be our willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.”

Thank you for joining us in Madrid, and for believing in communication with conscience.

About the Author:
Daniel Tisch is the President and CEO for Argyle Public Relationships. He is one of Canada’s best-known communicators, having worked at senior levels in government before embarking on a 20-year consulting career in which he has advised CEOs, boards, government leaders and marketers for some of the world’s biggest brands.

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