Public relations needs to recognise the potential impact of employees who are increasingly prepared to take a public stand in support of personal values. The latest to hit the headlines is ballerina, Simone Clarke whose membership of the British National Party has become a crisis for English National Ballet.
Similarly, BA’s failure to recognise the crisis potential in the demand for an employee to remove her religious cross – ultimately led to prime minister Tony Blair advising the company to back down.
This is difficult territory for organisations – and human resource solutions (such as codes of conduct) are ineffective when the issue becomes one of public relations. This requires skilled understanding if PR is to counsel organisational leaders on questions such as whether employees should be sacked over views on immigration, banned from wearing religious symbols or expressing personal opinions on personal blogs in their personal time.
If the PR role is simply one of one-way communications, such as issuing company statements, we will see more and more of such situations becoming major problems for a variety of organisations.
Such organisations often publicly state the importance of their employees and expect an increasing commitment to corporate values. The reality for many employees is poor job security, lack of respect for individuality, little personal input and being faced with asymmetric “toxic” communications (persuasion or coercion) rather than genuine dialogue.
Employees are frustrated by more and more policies impacting on what they are expected or allowed to do – even in their own time. Although they may not have the power of the Unions as in previous decades – employees do increasingly know how to be active and make use of traditional and online media.
Of course, Clarke’s position is contrary to equality policies and obligations on the ENB to promote good race relations (under the Race Relations Act of 2000). But she is capable of generating media and public attention. As other stakeholders, including funders, get involved – public relations is faced with the complexity of responding to various stakeholder demands in modern organisations.
I am currently reading Billy Bragg‘s book The Progressive Patriot, which “examines questions of identity and belonging” and aims to present a left-wing perspective on being English. This is interesting as debate in areas such as this seems to be replaced by societal censorship. In respect of immigration, there is a danger of extreme organisations such as BNP becoming the only outlet for those who feel concerned by an issue.
Racism and public relations are the core topic of the next assignment for those studying the CIPR Diploma – and I’m using Stephen P Banks book “Multicultural Public Relations” to look at issues in this regard.
Clearly such issues for serious public relations practitioners are more challenging than which celebrity to use to generate media coverage for the launch of national sausage week. If we are committed to PR as a strategic function then we have to be prepared to discuss some tough issues to help our organisations manage their reputations in the face of increasingly complex personal and professional issues.