PR professionals will increasingly see themselves as the conscience of their organizations
This article appeared previously in the Public Relations Society of America’s “PR in 2014″ series on January 23, 2014.
The Nestle Cocoa Plan and DHL are two examples of how to communicate with conscience.
In both public relations and marketing, the idea of using content to engage audiences was everywhere in 2013, marking a shift from transaction-driven communication to brand storytelling that provides information, education or entertainment to audiences, and to those who influence them.
As this trend accelerates in 2014, senior PR professionals will give more thought to what makes our profession distinct in this new environment. Because our core function is rooted not in the sale of products and services but rather in the building of relationships for mutual benefit, PR will see itself more and more as the conscience of the organization, as summed up in the theme of the 2014 World Public Relations Forum: Communication with conscience.
The stakes are high. It is too easy to idealize today’s social networks as instruments of consumer and citizen empowerment, compelling corporations and governments to be more truthful, transparent and accountable. The reality is far more complex: with audiences at once inundated with information, distracted by multiple devices, and yet paradoxically less trusting of the media as sources of content curation, the unethical use of communication to distract from or distort the truth is a clear and present danger.
In all sectors today – business, government or NGOs – we see a new type of arms race. It is a mixture of hard information and soft power: gathering data to enable influence; owning media channels in addition to earning or paying for them; using public diplomacy to reinforce private negotiation; and, in an age where control is elusive, using communication to gain influence.
While communication channels and tools are value-neutral, communication professionals are not. That is why I believe 2014 will see growing attention to a key emerging role for the modern communication professional: applying ethics to business communication.
What will this mean in day-to-day practice? Here are three ideas:
Letting stakeholders influence change
First, we’ll see growing momentum for the idea that the legitimacy of a business does not come only from shareholders, and that the legitimacy of a government does not come only from an election. Both come from ongoing accountability to their stakeholders and from public consensus about their moral right to govern or license to operate. Traditionally, this accountability flows through channels such as shareholder meetings, legislatures and professional journalism. However, in an age when these channels are weaker, communication professionals must help organizations achieve a new kind of legitimacy – one earned through ongoing, ethical communication. Brands and reputations often take hits due to poor listening, or for engaging stakeholders without a genuine openness to allowing them to influence change.
Aligning CSR and business strategy
Second, we’ll see a continued shift in the mainstream of business thought about corporate social responsibility and sustainability. Today, such strategies are driven principally by external pressures and/or a desire for a positive image and stakeholder goodwill. The trend in 2014 will be toward CSR that is driven more deeply by imperatives that are both ethical and integrated with business strategy. Expect more programs such as Nestle’s Cocoa Plan, which improves the sustainability of cocoa crops and the quality of life for cocoa farmers, or DHL’s large-scale global program built around small-scale local social commitment programs that enhance employee engagement, satisfaction and retention.
Diversifying professional development in PR
Finally, in order to be worthy of being the consciences of our organizations, smart PR professionals will seek greater diversification in their education, training and skill development. We will see more pursuing learning in data management and analysis; behavioral and social sciences; cultural studies and intercultural communication; the design and production of compelling visual content; public policy and regulation; new models of corporate reporting; and, as ever, business management and leadership.
There are many people communicating in this world, but only a small fraction of them have formal education in public relations, membership or accreditation from a professional society such as PRSA, or adherence to a code of ethics and standards of practice.
These can be huge competitive assets in turbulent times. And if members of this powerful profession hone, broaden and deepen those skills to gain greater influence over the way organizations communicate, we can enhance both our credibility and our opportunity – in 2014 and well beyond.