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Your profession needs you

This is a summary of a speech I gave at the CIPR 2017 Graduation Ceremony. It’s more important than ever to put the public at the heart of your work.

Welcome to Ketchum and thank you for the invitation to host the 2017 CIPR Graduation Ceremony. I’m delighted to be here to witness the award of your professional CIPR qualification.

I also wanted to say a few words that I hope are appropriate to your event.

I want to briefly explore the role of modern public relation in society and the developing relationship between organisations and their publics.

Purpose and public legitimacy

When an economy is strong and growing we don’t question the value we get from organisations.

But when there’s a sustained period of low growth, political turmoil and rising inflation, everything changes. Right now, a combination of Brexit, the Trump administration, and a policy of austerity is causing us to re-evaluate our relationships with the organisations that serve us.

Lego and Patagonia are among my favourite brands. Lego’s purpose is to inspire and develop children to think creatively and release their potential. Patagonia seeks to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

Both organisations absolutely live up to their purpose. Unfortunately, there are increasingly far too many organisations that don’t.

I’m not anti-capitalist. Indeed, public relations practitioners need to get a lot better at demonstrating their value in the boardroom. But in the drive for growth and efficiency, far too many organisations have forgotten the purpose that gave them legitimacy in society.

This isn’t purely the domain of private enterprise. Increasingly our public services, from swimming pools to transportation, are driven by profit rather than public service.

I’m not suggesting we return to the 1950s, but I do think organisations should stop trying to fix their reputation with a veneer of public relations lipstick. A value is only a value if an organisation is prepared to defend it.

The pursuit of a purpose beyond making money has almost become a religion in modern corporate communications. I credit Simon Sinek and his Start With Why franchise.

Social capital: evolution of public relations practice

Public relations practice is developing through four stages of media: the media itself, influencers, owned media, and community. Every aspect of an organisation is becoming social, from customer service to marketing; and from product development to sales.

Community and commonality are frequently incorrectly transposed. Organisations seek to bring people together in a community around a purpose. Ideally this is rooted in making their publics’ lives better.

Create a Twitter hashtag, a Facebook or LinkedIn group, show the value, and people will come. But frequently they don’t because organisations are reluctant to cede control of their communication to their public.

When they do the return on investment can be impressive. Typically engagement around user-generated content is seven times greater than that of corporate content. Incidentally, Lego and Patagonia both do this to great effect.

Social capital isn’t something you’ll find on a profit-and-loss statement, but it will be increasingly important during your careers for organisations seeking to build trust with their publics.

Organisations are people

This brings me to a second issue.

The narrative of organisational communications is increasingly personal. The shift occurred in the 1990s with the launch of internet broadband. It was accelerated ten years ago by Apple with the launch of the iPhone.

Along the way social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and messaging platforms such as Snapchat and WhatsApp, have given the public the opportunity to answer back.

Global internet usage continues to grow at a steady 10% per year according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), reaching 46% of the global population. It’s fuelled by developing markets, notably India.

Mark 2026 down in your diary as the year when everyone in the world is able to get online, based on current adoption rates.

The news cycle has been replaced by the Trump cycle. President Trump’s own communication team can’t keep up with the pace of his Twitter feed. It’s an issue that is radically changing internal and external communications.

Organisations and markets really are people, as The Cluetrain Manifesto stated in 1999. They have emotions and opinions that spill out onto the internet.

It’s in direct conflict to traditional management, marketing and public relations practice. It’s that control thing again.

When technology is applied to communication within an organisation it is typically to deliver improved profit rather than improved communication. It often does more harm than good.

The result is a tension in modern communication that festers around the edges of many organisations.

Automated cold-calls, email spam, web copy written in corporate jargon, and my personal favourite “your call is important to us but we’re currently experiencing very high demand”.

Organisational communication needs to become human and first-person. Social status within a community or organisation is challenging hierarchical status.

Julian Stodd’s work in this area is exemplary. I highly recommend his Social Leadership Handbook and 100-day workbook.

Communications needs to be led from the top and everyone in an organisation should be empowered to speak on its behalf.

There are exceptions, though, and when you spot them they stand out.

The communications response by the Met Police to the terrorist attacks in Westminster earlier this year was immediate and coordinated with stakeholders, including other blue-light services and the London Mayor’s Office.

A serious accident in 2015 on a ride at Merlin-owned Alton Towers put CEO Nick Varney in the spotlight. Varney led from the front accepting responsibility for the situation and engaging with the public.

The response contrasted markedly with other organisations that have adopted a legal response when facing similar unfortunate events.

Listen and never stop learning

I want to leave you with two insights from my career.

First, never underestimate the value of meeting your public face-to-face.

Our profession has access to planning and listening tools unlike ever before but the simple act of looking someone in the eyes and listening to them is incredibly powerful. You’ll gather insights to inform your work. It’s human.

Second, please continue your professional development journey.

There are estimated to be 80,000 public relations practitioners in the UK. The CIPR has 10,000 members, of which around a fifth have made a commitment to Continuous Professional Development (CPD).

Increasing this number will help the CIPR to achieve its purpose of promoting public relations within both the profession and the public interest.

I want to thank you for the commitment that you’ve made today and for inviting me to be a witness at the award of your professional CIPR qualification.

Thanks for stopping by. If you enjoyed this blog post you may like to receive future posts as they are published, via email. Please sign-up here.

Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing this speech. I am really encouraged by your comments on purpose and legitimacy – couldn’t agree more!

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