Categories: Media issues / Political spin / PR issues

19 June 2010

9 comments

Stockholm Accords are useless for PR’s future

The last in my trilogy on the Stockholm Accords is dedicated to rebutting the authoritarian notion that public relations professionals (let’s just call them ‘PRs’) are “ideological governors of value networks”.

This view – hidden in the Accords’ small print – is much too close to Stalin’s view of authors as “engineers of human souls” for my liking. So, here’s a call to dump the Accords’ illiberal vision of our profession’s role in society.

Before I justify my words, here’s a short explanation of the flaws that lie at the heart of the Stockholm Accords, which were ratified in Stockholm last week. They want to be touchy-feely but also to talk about “governing” media processes. At the same time, and to make things worse, their talk about “governing” media (social and mainstream) is rather stymied by their admitting that they actually control no more than 10 percent of media outcomes. So the Accords have two conflicting and irreconcilable aims, one of which it is accepted by the Accords’ authors that they cannot fulfill. Yet it’s worse. When discussing their “governing” role, they discuss its “ideological” nature. All in all, they’re using words which are either feebly post modern, modish and relativist or nastily authoritarian.

Maybe a huge amount of meaning has been lost in translation. In English (hardly a minority language for our game) this stuff sounds horrible and is reminiscent of long-settled debates. In any language, these approaches make for a very shaky “new” foundation for PRs to build on as we seek to redefine what our practice and mission is in today’s world.

Here’s the key Accord on the “communicative organisation” that PRs should focus their concerns on:

“The communicative organization ensures full consistency of its storytelling by balancing global transparency, finite resources and time sensitive demands dealing with fast moving inside/outside changes and new conflicts of interests that emerge from multiple stakeholder participation.

Communication with internal, boundary and external stakeholders is coherent and coordinated with the organization’s mission, vision, values, as well as its actions and behaviors.”

The Accords’ authors are well aware that their text is gibberish to c-level management, the public and even to most PRs. Hence, Toni Muzi Falconi has provided an accompanying glossary and personal explanation of what the real intent is of each of the Accords. As Toni is a prime mover behind the whole process and his is the only explanation offered on the Accords’ website, it seems sensible to assume he expresses fairly well what’s being said. Here he explains what’s meant by the “communicative organisation”:

“A communicative organization recognizes that even the most empowered public relations director cannot realistically hope to govern more than 10% of its communicative behaviours.

“Therefore the communication leader of the organization plays two fundamentally strategic roles:

°an ‘ideological’ role by supporting and providing the organization’s leadership with the necessary, timely and relevant information which allows it to effectively govern the value networks as well as an intelligent, constant and conscious effort to understand the relevant dynamics of society at large:

°a ‘contextual’ role which implies the constant delivery of communicative skills, competencies and tools to the components of its value networks so that they improve their relationships amongst each other and with the other value networks.”

The problem is that the the notion of PRs playing an “ideological role” comes close to saying PR plays a propagandistic function inside organisations. Moreover, the idea that PR can “govern” behaviour – even if it is only communicative behaviour – has illiberal and worrying undertones. One could argue – and I do – that this explanation of the Accords’  intent reveals an attempt to redefine the role of PRs as “ideological governors of value networks”. That is hardly a description of our role that’s designed to win widespread acceptance or one which could conceivably encourage public trust or confidence in what we communicate. Most likely it is a description that – if ever widely promoted – would see open conversation stop the minute any PR entered a room or joined in a discussion.

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9 responses to “Stockholm Accords are useless for PR’s future”

  1. toni muzi falconi says:

    1.
    You begin by your rant by stating that:
    The last in my trilogy on the Stockholm Accords is dedicated to rebutting the authoritarian notion that PRs are “ideological governors of value networks”.
    2.
    You continue and say that:
    One could argue – and I do – that this explanation of the Accords’ intent reveals an attempt to redefine the role of PRs as “ideological governors of value networks”.
    …..
    You attribute to the Accords an expression which is not there, and later on you attribute that quotation to yourself!

    Not fair, honest nor helpful…. but thank you for your involvement in the discussion.
    Should anyone ever wish to make the effort to read through the various drafts of the Accords in their formation, s/he will notice that many of your suggestions were considered and integrated.

    cheers,
    toni

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Dear Toni,

    I can only reprint your own definition, which you now seem to disown:

    “A communicative organization recognizes that even the most empowered public relations director cannot realistically hope to govern more than 10% of its communicative behaviours.

    “Therefore the communication leader of the organization plays two fundamentally strategic roles:

    °an ‘ideological’ role by supporting and providing the organization’s leadership with the necessary, timely and relevant information which allows it to effectively govern the value networks as well as an intelligent, constant and conscious effort to understand the relevant dynamics of society at large:

    °a ‘contextual’ role which implies the constant delivery of communicative skills, competencies and tools to the components of its value networks so that they improve their relationships amongst each other and with the other value networks.”

    Surely, this says that that PRs are “ideological governors of value networks”?

  3. toni muzi falconi says:

    It does not, Paul, it does not!
    Read again!
    We ‘support and provide leadership with the information’ but we do not ‘govern the value networks’. That is the Ceo’s job not ours…as is very clear in the text,

  4. Paul Seaman says:

    Dear Toni,

    Yes, your text says that PRs provide leaders (CEOs etc) with the ideology that enables them to govern networks; it also says that PRs govern behaviour and that they play an ideological role within organisations. But let’s be clear – CEOs are no more in the business of promoting ideologies or playing an ideological role than are PRs (unless they are employed by the likes of ideologically-driven rulers or political parties, which should be transparently declared). And CEOs don’t govern networks anymore than PRs do.

    Let’s be even clearer, 99.99% of CEOs are not in the ideological business or concerned with ideology or directly with politics and or governing diverse interdependent multiple networks. Working in partnership is not the same thing as governing networks: contrariwise. Certainly, in my book, providing information should never be confused with promoting an ideology and or propaganda.

    For readers who wish to explore the issue of networks in more detail, I have interrogated the Accords’ inherent utopianism here:

    http://paulseaman.eu/2010/05/briefing-for-prs-on-e2-0s-brave-new-world/

  5. toni muzi falconi says:

    From your good friend wikipedia:

    An ideology is a set of ideas that discusses one’s goals, expectations, and actions. An ideology can be thought of as a comprehensive vision, as a way of looking at things (compare worldview), as in common sense (see Ideology in everyday society below) and several philosophical tendencies (see Political ideologies), or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to all members of this society (a “received consciousness” or product of socialization)…

    where is the issue, I ask?

  6. Paul Seaman says:

    Dear Toni,

    The problem is that “ideology” is a loaded word, rather as is “govern”, “context” and the rest of the jargon the Stockholm Accords has gone in for. It doesn’t matter that dictionaries neutralise the word ideology to include anything to do with the business of ideas. We all know that in reality to have an ideology is taken to be dominated by an idea to the exclusion of warmth or other ideas. Mrs Thatcher was an ideologue and promoted an ideology and governed ideologically. It means she was cold-hearted and not a pragmatist, or a listener. She didn’t go about wondering about people’s context. By goodness, she aimed to “govern”, though. I loved all these things about her. But that’s not the point. I’m amazed that the Stockholm Accords have gone in for that line at the same time as rumbling on about networks, contexts, listening and all that.

    I am all for PRs aiming to help clients develop their messages and then get them across. I am all for PRs making sure that clients understand the sheer variety of audiences who will hear and respond to their messages. I am all for PRs helping clients understand how communicative they mostly have to be, and that includes within their own organisations. I am all for PRs helping clients understand the outside world, and even their own organisations. I am all for PRs understanding that 90 percent of the time they will fail (as the Stockholm Accords acknowledge).

    What I don’t get is the weird, clumsy, pseudo-academic, proto-diplomatic, PC, clunky speak in which the Stockholm Accords dresses up the simple and vital insights they address. I say, the Stockholm Accords are in danger of making the entire PR industry a laughing stock.

  7. toni muzi falconi says:

    good for you!

  8. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by paulseaman, paulseaman. paulseaman said: On my PR blog now: Stockholm Accords are useless for PR’s future @Global_Alliance #PR @CIPR_NorthEast #CIPR http://ow.ly/20TBM […]

  9. Sean Williams says:

    Little did I know that reading a draft and submitting comment (which I now cannot locate anywhere) would be so controversial. I’ve been asked to explain these well-intentioned and rather general Accords in a LinkedIn group.

    We PRs are forever trying to convince C-Suite that we’re relevant and important to business. Many times, the C-Suite disagrees, and our budgets and staff suffer mightily, especially in internal communication.

    The C-Suite seeks control over the uncontrollable — we cast ourselves as instruments of that control so as to increase our perception of value, no doubt. Grunig would blanch at this description — one can hardly engage in symmetrical communication if the objective of it is domination. It results in a logical contradiction.

    As to the specifics of this lively discussion between Toni and Paul == perhaps the problem is with the word “ideological.” Being an honest broker of ideas from both within and without the organization would be on definition of being ideological, but the baggage of that word, as Paul wrote, is significant. I think I agree with Paul that the terms here are difficult — “govern value networks” is awkward. Contributing to networks in a fashion that helps the organization build value is far less authoritarian.

    “Context” I don’t have a problem with.

    We could conclude, however, that we’re cast as facilitators and trainers. Maybe that’s accurate…

    On the face, it all seems very general — but as I understand it, that’s intentional. The next couple of years will change how this material is used.

    Sean