Categories: CSR reality check / Media issues
24 February 2009
PRs (not journos) should apologise for the Crunch
This is when I miss London. It stages the debates we need. Last night Polis, the London School of Economics media think tank organised: Why Did Nobody See It Coming? Reporting The Crash – The Debate. The panel was distinguished and Charlie Beckett thankfully gives a good account of it today on his blog.
When discussing the level of blame that should be attributed to journalists for not forecasting the crisis, Beckett is surely right to comment:
The media can rarely be held ‘responsible’ for any particular social or economic disaster. Journalism can exaggerate trends and accentuate flaws but it doesn’t often cause things to happen.
But that, he argues, does not mean the journalists shouldn’t examine closely their performance. They should.
However, journo’s – finally – just chatter. They don’t do. They observe, they don’t act. The only time they are really responsible for outcomes is when they actually recommend something. Generally, the old quote about tarts and power without responsibility comes to mind.
But the PR industry, which does actually claim to be in the business of “advocacy“, “shaping outcomes” and “influencing behaviour in support of client goals“, has an even greater responsibility to face up to. Put bluntly, that’s our own proactive contribution to creating the current climate of low confidence and weak trust. Did we not set ourselves up as as guardians of reputations?
Should the PR industry make a calibrated apology for its contribution to this recession? I think so. The PR industry requires confidence and trust for its licence to operate. It cannot hide behind the systemic nature of the crisis anymore than can bankers, politicians and regulators. For our place at the table of recovery an apology is overdue.
In good times there’s always an element of the Emperor’s new clothes about economic growth – and we condition people into expecting continually-increasing profits, margins, returns. It is actually like money grows on trees, but when the autumn comes and all the leaves fall off, everyone’s surprised.
No apology required, just perhaps a recalibration of business values. Is a three percent growth in profits a bad thing? Not this year! It’s amazing how few people seem to forget that the economy is a rollercoaster – it goes up and down.
What PR people can stop doing is talking up the worst of the economic slump. Some positive thinking would help – although good news is rarely news.
Which PR people are you talking about? Bank PR? Government PR? Mortgage PR? Seems like a pretty broad brush stroke. And do we know whether PR teams did advocate for other approaches? They can recommend, but ultimately, PR is there to execute chief executive decisions, whether PR agrees or not.
I think the whole ‘apology’ business has been overdone. But I agree with you that any organisation that wants credibility (journalism, PR, politics, bankers) must demonstrate that it learns lessons. It must show that it understands that it has failed and why it failed. And if part of the reason for failure was ‘wrong’ motivation (eg greed) or ‘bad’ methods (eg deceit) and these had bad outcomes (economic catastrophe) then it makes sense that those organisations must show they will perform differently in the future. I think the debate has only just reached the latter stage for all concerned. We are all just waking up to the fact that we can a) try to go back to the old system and watch it all implode in a few years hence of b) try to offer a new relationship with the public. That is not naive, idealistic or utopian, it is a sound business strategy to win back public confidence.
I’m in some disagreement with you that PR should apologise for this mess we all find ourselves.
From my perspective a PRs role is to advise its client on the correct course of action related to the information that is disclosed to it internally and intelligence one gathers externally. Very few individuals saw this crisis coming let alone organisations. Overall the PRs role is to push/communicate the goals of a client, these goals are in turn affected by the business climate it operates in, in the main this is something that cannot be changed but is more of a system that has been built up by powers far greater than individual clients.
Charlie Becket is correct in the comments put forward that the media can rarely be held responsible, I would say so too with PR, for similar reasons. Yes we are guardians of reputations and yes we may be culpable to a small degree but you can only work within the greater system.
PR guys have nothing to apologise their job is to fluff up good and bury bad news, it is everyone elses job to detect your bull.
The danger is when the tail wags the dog and company boards start believing their own froth, when investors demand double digit returns, and risk management is angrily pushed aside that has put us into this mess.
This resession is not due to war, retiring baby boomers or environmental collapse, but a bubble of expectations, pushed by agressive CEOs, encouraged by government, stoked by PR departments, broadcasted by sycophantic journalists and believed by me!
The message I’m getting is “Don’t shoot the messenger”. There is a lot going for that message. But I’m making the point that either:
(a) PR’s are just tarts who have no obligation other than to spin whatever line they are told or
(b) they are contributors to how the world ought to turn out.
Moreover, if the PR has no obligation to the merits of a client’s arguments, why do PRs get so excited about CSR, CR, sustainability, integrity and accountability? Is it that PRs love a great spin-message? No. PRs want to be advocates of what’s right and professional.
In other words, we PRs want to claim virtue for the CSR/CR message as both good for the world and good for the client. But if we care about the good our clients and their messages may do (and the harm) then we have to apply intellectual, practical, moral tests to our clients’ policies and arguments.
That during the boom PR did not do so properly is part – a small part – of how the “animal spirits” and the “irrational exuberance” got going in the last boom.
As I made clear in my blog post, the leaders of our industry in the major PR agencies have positioned PR at the top of the corporate value chain. With that positioning comes power and responsibility. Hence we have to admit to and learn from our errors. We must do so along with other major players who helped create the great mess we are all in.