Categories: Media issues / PR issues

4 May 2010


Stockholm Accords interrogated – part 2

Here’s the second in my trilogy on the Stockholm Accords. This one deals with the Accords themselves, following part 1’s examination of their definition of terms.

Before we go on, it is worth building on part 1’s theme: what exactly do the Stockholm Accords expect to achieve? Here’s what the event’s website says about their objective:

“The aim of the Stockholm Accords is to articulate and establish the role of public relations in the “communicativeorganization”[sic] within a fast-evolving digital and value-network society.”

In essence, the Accords suppose that we live in a new “networked society in which communicative organizations are vital to organisational success” (forgive the clumsy words, they’re theirs, not mine).

In essence my beef is that this exercise over-complicates everything. Most PR is an effort to help clients both be and appear more attractive. You can usefully enrich that proposition by noting that there are internal and external audiences; that everything about an organisation can be part of its good or bad messages; that building up a good reputation may be useful for when things go wrong (as they will). One may want to stress how non-stop and intrusive and persistent modern observers are. Perversely, the globalised, modern world is more like a village than ever: everybody thinks everything is their business.

As I argued in part 1, the Accords ignore the obvious: society is, and always has been, networks personified. Moreover, all human interaction depends upon communication and relationships, or nothing whatever would have been or will ever be achieved. Of course, the digital bit is sort of new. I say sort of because the internet is now second or third generation. It strikes me that the Accords’ authors are really saying that their thinking boils down to considering technology’s influence on human behaviour. This narrow obsession has sent them and their new definition of PR’s role off in the wrong direction.

There’s no wisdom in a mob, but there’s often treasure buried in crowds. So, of course, I accept there is something in Reed’s Law. (See: “The Law of the Pack”). I accept its proposition that digital networks can scale exponentially by transforming technological platforms into social networks that add value. But in the business world, Reed’s Law is just a statement of potential. It remains a theoretical construct that might prove to be hopeless if taken too far. The commercial world is in recession. It is not currently up for the risky experimentation and investment that would be required to test the weaknesses and strengths of Reed’s Law. This is something I discussed in part 1 No. 2 & No. 14 (without mentioning Reed). In part 1, I also cited SM’s irrelevance in the British General Election and its only fleeting influence on American politics.

My charge is that the authors of the Stockholm Accords lack historical or sociological insight. Most of today’s social developments from the breakdown of traditional politics, to the shift in community alignments, or the fall of religious influence, to the decline in trust in, and authority of, traditional institutions, pre-dates the internet.

In other words, the internet and social media usage were shaped in the wake of already existing currents, including the already declining mass media. That was particularly the case with SM, which is more often used as a retreat from public life rather than as its lifeblood. That’s one thing China’s SM usage has in common with the West’s. There’s mass disengagement and passivity in society, which is the polar opposite of empowerment, which so many public relations professionals (let’s just call them ‘PRs’) like to crow about. That’s not to say SM is irrelevant, or that it does not have influence or empower people, sometimes, in this or that circumstance or usage.

It is the failure of the Stockholm Accords to look at these real world tensions during the boom and now during the recession, and the Accords’ myopic worship of all things digital, which I criticise. But let me make it plain. This blog celebrates technology and advocates innovation. It is obsessed with understanding them and with exploiting their potential. But it does not endorse technological determinism, which I believe the Accords’ authors do.

So, that’s the preamble. Let’s now look at the Stockholm Accords one by one.

Stockholm Accords on governance:

“The increasingly adopted stakeholder governance model empowers board members and organisational leaders as ultimate custodians of stakeholder relationship strategies and policies, as well as of monitoring their implementation.

“In today’s value networks, a communicative organization requires timely knowledge of economic, social, political, legal and environmental developments, as well as opportunities and risks affecting the organisation, its direction, its actions and its communication.

“Public relations professionals:
• co-create organizational values, principles, strategies, policies and processes;
• constantly report on the dynamics of stakeholder involvement;
• inform, shape the organisation’s overall communication abilities;
•  measure, evaluate and account for results;
• deliver timely analysis and recommendations to ensure an effective governance of stakeholder relationships, enhancing transparency, trust and sustaining the organisation’s ‘licence to operate.'”

My reply

I dealt with the above extensively in part 1. But let me now add a few more brief remarks;

  • The stakeholder governance model or doctrine is seriously flawed. An organisation can’t look to outsiders as the first source of its probity and efficiency.
  • Firms, governments and institutions primarily pursue self-interest. This will include a measure of enlightened and widened self-interest.
  • PR is indeed uniquely useful in our complicated, media-orientated times. But we should beware over-stating the newness of our skills and roles.

Stockholm Accords on management:

“Effective and timely decision-making related to operations and resource management are essential for organizations seeking to enhance their license to operate. These management choices must be sensitive to the concerns of internal and external stakeholders, seeking equilibrium between societal and organizational goals.
A communicative organization listens to its stakeholders, uses this input to improve the quality of its decisions, and communicates through its behavior.

“Public relations professionals:
° help understand and interpret broader societal, political and economic interests and aspirations;
° participate to the solution of organizational issues and lead those that are particularly focused on stakeholder relationships;
° help to legitimize the organization; by increasing the communicative value of products, processes, services; and building financial, legal, relational and operational capital.”

My reply

Yes, PRs are the professional diplomats of the modern organisation’s internal and external relationships. But we won’t do the job better by having theories and ambitions which are too fancy for the valuable but recognisable work they have to do. Way too much of the Stockholm Accords’ approach brings in more posy sociology, management-speak, media studies, post modern guff. This is the way to lose the interest of clients and audiences alike.

Stockholm Accords on sustainability:

“An organization’s sustainability is based on balancing today’s demands with the ability to meet future needs, based on economic, environmental and social dimensions.

“In this network society, sustainability leadership offers a transformational opportunity for the communicative organization to enhance it’s license to operate and demonstrate success across the triple bottom  line.- economic, social and environmental.

“Public relations professionals identify, involve and engage key stakeholders contributing to appropriate sustainability policies and programs by:
• interpreting society’s expectations for sound economical, social and environmental investments that show a return to the organization (the advocate);
• creating a listening culture – an open system that allows the organization to anticipate, adapt and respond (the listener);
• ensuring stakeholder participation to identify what information should be transparently and authentically reported (the reporter);
• going beyond today’s priorities to anticipate the needs of tomorrow, by engaging stakeholders and management in long-term thinking (the leader).”

My reply

Sustainability has to do with robustness and flexibility, which can be darn hard things to reconcile. We need to be modest: sustainability is about the future, a thing we know very little about. We should not pretend to know the recipe for survival (or to assume, for instance, that environmentalists are any cleverer at it than supposedly un-green capitalists).

Stockholm Accords on the new boundaries of internal communication:

“Internal communication enhances recruitment, retention, development of employee loyalty and commitment to organizational goals by ever more diverse and segmented publics.

“In the network society a communicative organization goes far beyond today’s traditional definition of full-time employees, understanding that internal stakeholders now include full-timers with tenure generally shortening, part-timers, seasonal employees, contractors, consultants, suppliers, agents, distributors, volunteers and more.

“Public relations professionals constantly address:
° how organizational leaders communicate;
° how knowledge is shared;
° how decisions are made;
° how processes and structures are created;
° and expand communication to include many boundary publics that are also often considered as highly trusted sources of information about the organization and essential players contributing to the organization’s success.”

My reply

Yes, many of an organisation’s relationships are now both important and fleeting or arm’s length. Actually, that will often require an unattractive wariness. The need for secrecy, privacy and caution is greater than ever and has to be communicated as well as possible.

Stockholm Accords on the new boundaries of external communication:

“The network society mandates that a communicative organization expand its scope and skills to focus on customers*, investors*, communities*, governments*, active citizenship groups*,  industry groups*, mainstream, digital and social media*, and other situational stakeholders*.

“Public relations professionals:
° promote, support and contribute to modify products, services or processes;
° bring the voice of the organization into regulatory and community decisions;
° adopt social networking and research skills and tools to listen to stakeholder demands and report to management so that they may be appropriately interpreted and, where relevant and effective, integrated into the decision making process;
° strengthen brand loyalty* and equity*, thus reinforcing the organization’s license to operate;
° work with all organizational functions, through every step of production and delivery, to craft and implement effective communication programs*.
° actively participate in dialogue*, evaluate and measure results*, and accordingly adjust their practices.”

My reply

This looks like PR’s pitch to stick its nose in everywhere. Nice try, and to some extent justified.

Stockholm Accords on co-ordination of internal and external communication:

“In value networks, each communicative issue* is multi faceted*, multi stakeholder* and inter relational within and between different networks* and positioned in diverse legal frameworks.

“The communicative organization must balance global transparency, finite resources and time sensitive demands dealing with dynamic changes in inside/outside territorial borders and new conflicts of interests emerging from multiple stakeholder participation*.
Dialogue with internal, boundary and external stakeholders must be coordinated with the organization’s mission*, vision*, values*, implementation*, promises*, as well as actions* and behaviors*.

“Public Relations professionals:
° research, develop, monitor and adjust organizational behavior and communication behaviors providing leadership for issues based on stakeholder and societal relationships;
° develop a knowledge base that includes social and psychological sciences, best practices and formative research to create, evaluate, measure and implement programs for continuous improvement.”

My reply

This looks like a pitch for PRs to be rulers of the universe: all-seeing, all-knowing, etc. I don’t mind this accord but it is not so much edifying and energising as yawn-making. How about: “Almost every aspect of your work will convey a message about your organisation, so expect a good PR to take an interest in everything you do.”

4 responses to “Stockholm Accords interrogated – part 2”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by paulseaman, paulseaman. paulseaman said: On my PR blog now: Stockholm Accords interrogated – part 2 […]

  2. […] the “adult dialogue” about PR can be found in the Stockholm Accords which have been robustly interrogated by Paul Seaman.  These seek: to articulate and establish the role of public relations in the […]

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