PRs should hear this business perspective on the benefits of ‘new philanthropy’

I heard this great discussion on corporate responsibility on BBC Radio 4 programme The Bottom Line yesterday. Looking at ‘new philanthropy’ it discussed how modern altruism is “more about business than charity”. Participants in the debate include Sir Richard Branson (Chairman of the Virgin Group), Mike Lynch (Chief Executive of Autonomy), Doug Richard (Chairman of Library House and founder of Hotxt) and Robin Wight (Co-chairman of WCRS). Fascinating for anyone in public relations as it highlights views by CEOs on this vital topic.

To clog or not to clog, that’s PR’s question

Criticising the presence of public relations in developing corporate blogs (clogs), Richard Rothstein writes: “Word of mouth information is personal endorsement spread by independent individuals we trust, as opposed to paid spokespersons. Buzz originates with individuals who speak from the heart. And most importantly, the true power and influence of word of mouth and buzz is that they are “earned” not sponsored.”

This in undoubtedly true – but what people choose to “buzz” about is as likely to relate to the actions of organisations as anything else.  The adage is that “bad buzz” about negative customer experiences spreads quickly and widely.

Andy Green believes PR should be redefined, putting corporate memes (buzzable messages) at the heart of its responsibilities: ‘Public relations is about creating sustainable added value for an organisation’s reputation by managing its brand, actions, memes and networking’

Of course clogs differ from personal blogs in their remit to communicate about, or specifically promote, an organisation, but what is the matter with that?  Most bloggers have a personal agenda.  Aren’t organisations as entitled to speak from the heart and gain the trust of their publics as any individual?  Provided the clog is open and transparent about its roots, then it is the duty of PR to manage the memes and engage with public networks.

Public Relations must be honest and open

Yet more controversy about the practice of PR with the Guardian’s exposure that a new pan-European campaign group Cancer United  is solely funded by drug giant, Roche with its PR firm Weber Shandwick acting as the group’s secretariat.  This “support” is mentioned on the campaign site, but it smacks of Bernay’s Impropaganda rather than open and transparent campaigning.

In contrast, the fight to save Britain’s post offices by the National Federation of SubPostmasters is quite open about its purpose and has built a coalition of support from others who share this aim – from Citizens Advice and Help the Aged to 400 members of parliament.

Despite supporting the WOMMA code of ethics PR firm Edelman forgot the rule of openness in designing a pan-US tour for Working Families for Wal-Mart. The apology of Richard Edelman says it all: trust is not negotiable.

Maybe it is the presence of external PR consultancies that raises cynicism about the motives of organisations, but if PR is to be trusted, by organisations, the media and wider society, it has to ensure the mantra of honest and open communications is not only said, but practised.

History matters to Public Relations

What is the story of PR in 2006?  Take part in the History Matters  project on Tuesday 17 October and ensure that the profession of public relations is recorded as part of this magnificent diary of real life on one day. 

Perhaps the debate about whether PR is a management or technical function, engaged in the online world or busy organising parties, ethical public service or manipulative misinformation could be addressed if we all recorded our actions and thoughts within this project. 

Looking back at the history of PR is fascinating – I always include video of Edward Bernays from the BBC “Century of the Self” series in the sessions I lead for anyone studying the CIPR qualifications.  I have seen the film almost 100 times – and will watch it 6 times in the next 2 weeks as I use it in seminars for 1st year undergraduates at Bournemouth University.  It never fails to amaze, horrify and interest modern PR students to see how so many of the things we do today were developed a century ago. 

But it is difficult to tell whether this brilliant television programme is reflective of PR’s influence in reality – as it is edited with a clear narrative around the Freud family.  And, much of the history of PR is US-centric, which ignores how mass communications developed in the UK, Europe and elsewhere.  Jacquie L’Etang has recorded an excellent history of professional PR practice in the UK – but there is still too little record of the lives and function of the thousands of PR practitioners; publicists, propagandists, craftsmen, corporate champions and pioneering women. 

I have a record of one such man, Bob Sicot, who created the modern car launch for Renault in the 1950s; which I would like to publish with his permission.  A few years ago I began a project to document the history of motor industry PR – and discovered some fascinating people from the early 1900s.  It was a delight to see the professional skills evident in the 1000 Mile Trial and the work of Claude Johnson.  I hope to find time to continue this project as the role of automotive PR in the last century has not been recorded, despite the many books written on motoring, cars and the impact on society. 

But how marvellous it would be for those who follow in our footsteps to get a glimpse of how we spend our days – so please take a few minutes on Tuesday and record your life in PR for history’s sake.

Warning to public relations regarding “green” claims

The Advertising Standards Authority has warned companies not to make grandiose claims  about environmental credentials which cannot be scientifically substantiated.  The particular case relates to tree-planting schemes, as carbon offsetting is this year’s simplistic solution to corporate social responsibility.

When will PR practitioners realise, CSR requires strategic not tactical foundations?  Promoting carbon offsetting schemes is poor public relations – about wanting to look good rather than being good.  Presented as win-win solutions, organisations – and their customers – buy into an environmental “exchange relationship” with Mother Nature, based on a simplistic mathematical equation. 

In particular, the major carbon offset companies have been busy promoting guilt free motoring where, for less than the price of a tank of fuel, you can neutralise your carbon emissions thanks to some tree planting or other initiative, largely in the 3rd world (adding in another layer of feel good motivation).  Lex Vehicle Leasing is one of the latest automotive companies to promote “peace of mind” to “environmentally conscious drivers and businesses” with its Carbon Neutral Driving Scheme .  But they are not alone – even the Guild of Motoring Writers has a carbon offset partnership.

But at last, the simplistic argument is being challenged – not least because those behind the conscience-salving schemes are raking it in big time.  The Guardian claims the market for carbon offsetting will top £300m within 3 years – with trading amounting to £60m globally this year, up from £20m in 2005.  The campaign group Fern is also highlighting shortcomings in the carbon offset solution.

If PR practitioners seriously want to help organisations gain a reputation as credible corporate citizens, they need to understand we need a “communal relationship” with the planet; where there isn’t always an easy or painless short term payback.  In his latest book, Andy Green says values are what you believe in even when they hurt – this is never more true than when communicating social responsibility.

Public Relations should support journalistic freedom

Public Relations should support calls by Sam Brook for better recognition of the value of journalistic freedom, which he links into a piece in today’s Guardian on the need to protect freedom of expression.

Too often, PR appears to be seeking to control or restrict the media, instead of recognising its importance in creating the type of open society in which the aims of public relations can be best achieved.  If we truly believe in the importance of dialogue over rhetoric, debate over propaganda, we must get behind Brook’s calls for “a new social contract – a commitment to training and high standards, (and) best editorial practise”. 

We don’t need media which simply reproduces press releases, relies on partisan PRs rather than checking facts, or is subject to manipulation or intimidation for access.  Rather public relations can only manage a positive reputation for itself and those it represents by working with media as equal partners; interested in communicating accurately and fairly with the publics we wish to reach. 

Supersonic Public Relations

A new e-book from Spannerworks “What is Social Media?” is a helpful summary of the phenomenon – and the intention for it to be a living entity highlights the problem for many in public relations – keeping up with all the developments in PR2.0.  As soon as you’ve got your head around concepts and opportunities, there are new skills and knowledge to digest.  From a communications perspective, you cannot simply create and stand back in the new world.  Not only does the speed of change means you need to update, but thanks to the participatory nature of new media, you need to debate not simply state.  Active learning highlights the need to participate rather than simply learn at the knees of masters – and new media offers that opportunity.  The online world offers the benefit that people are generally eager to share their knowledge – with wikis, open software, blogs and through social networks.  We need to dive in and join the debate – not just by setting up our own blogs, but by leaving comments, sharing ideas and updating our own sites.  As producers of information, this is an exciting challenge – where once we’d send work off to the printers as a finished form, today we should think about creating living materials – that can be updated, amended, revitalised and reformed – both as our own knowledge changes, but also in response to dialogue from those who are able and willing to share their views on our publications.