by Prof Dr Ana Adi (@Ana_Adi) and Thomas Stoeckle (@thomasstoeckle1)
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There is a shift going on in the communications world. It crept in slowly, building up crisis after crisis, election after election, questioning over and over again the role and purpose of communications and Public Relations (PR) itself.
To many people, PR and communications have overwhelmingly been understood as media relations and publicity, and perceived as either sophisticated spin or interested pampering.
Some, like Elon Musk, go to the other extreme and conclude that there is no longer value in the (traditional, professional) media. So they disband their PR department altogether in favour of communicating directly with ‘the public’ through owned media channels.
In practice, authenticity, trust, activism and purpose are increasingly setting the agenda of communicators. Add the Covid-19 pandemic to the mix and you find that topics such as diversity, inclusion, equity or mental health are no longer avoided and have instead become central to the practice.
There is, therefore, a potentially contradictory expectation from communicators:
- promote organizations and portray them in their best light but remain transparent,
- pursue organizational interests while enabling them to engage with stakeholders in a manner that is meaningful and impactful on the long term.
Perhaps it is time to start all over again, and for that we need to go back and answer the questions at the core of PR’s own discomfort. What are PR and communications for? What is their mission and social impact?
Here’s our take for PR firms and practitioners:
- Be upfront about how you achieve a balance between personal and organizational values;
- Abandon the organizational servant role and shift your focus to the public and long-term good;
- Go beyond self- or co-regulatory systems.
1- Be upfront about how you achieve a balance between personal and organizational values
PR is not neutral and practitioners, like everybody else, have values that guide their lives and practice. So, whose interest and benefits come first – the individual? the organization? stakeholders? or society at large?
Acknowledging that, may help individual communicators align with teams and organizations.
Moreover, it will help understand and to better navigate conflicts that emerge when values clash. In such situations reflective practice is essential. This requires finding time to ask “what happened, what was I feeling, what could I have done differently” as well as ask “who benefits from this, who cares about this?”. This needs to happen regularly, for individuals and with their teams.
PR ethics codes and guidelines are often too vague or focusing on extreme examples. Ethics meet-ups are recommended and would help communicators discuss their daily dilemmas, challenge their assumptions and reflect on their decisions and recommendations.
2 - Abandon the organizational servant role and shift your focus to the public and long-term good
Traditionally PR/Comms professionals have been presented as defenders of and spokespeople for organizations and were expected to take the side of the organization no matter what. Our research indicates that practitioners aspire to become trusted advisors in their organizations, who are valued for their insight. To achieve this position, PR and communications practitioners need to abandon the organizational servant role and shift focus to the public and long-term good. To do that, they need to ask (and be allowed to ask) the difficult questions that they might currently avoid.
No communication is without effect. PR/Comms professionals have the means to carry out research to understand their audiences’ demands, expectations and behaviors and should therefore apply this to their own way of working, not just as a service for clients. Working in an environment where personal values are known and embraced can be comfortable for the individual but also divisive for society as a whole. If PR/Comms professionals are to focus on the societal good in the long term, then more needs to be done to define how accountable and responsible PR/Comms can be practiced.
3 - Go beyond self- or co-regulatory systems
Licensing, cooperation and arbitration are some of the solutions to be considered. For example, Germany has a PR Council (Deutscher Rat fur Public Relations) whose aim is to “identify deficiencies and instances of misconduct in the way organizations communicate with the public and issue a reprimand if necessary”. Such initiatives would benefit from being adopted in other countries as well. IN Nigeria, all PR practitioners need to be registered… and that since 1990.
Needless to say, ethics are a difficult topic and they need more than just individual guidance and self-enforcement.
The future of PR is by no means an easy conversation to have, but the three points outlined here are a good place to start.
Until we come to terms with the fact that no persuasive communication effort is gratuitous and without effect, PR/Comms will remain in the shadows of spin.
About the authors:
Prof Dr Ana Adi is Professor of Public Relations and Corporate Communications at Quadriga University of Applied Sciences. She obtained her PhD from the University of the West of Scotland, UK having investigated from a framing perspective the discourses about China, the Olympics and human rights during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games of activist groups, Olympic organizers, international media and online public. Prior to her post at Quadriga University of Applied Sciences, Dr Adi has worked, lived and studied in the USA (with a Fulbright scholarship), Belgium, Bahrain, Thailand and the UK (and traveled far beyond). She is the Chair of the Digital Communication Awards in Berlin since 2015 and a member of the Institute for Public Relations Measurement Commission since 2018.
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