What's the purpose of public relations?

What's the purpose of public relations?

What’s the role of PR in a world in crisis? This is the question I’ve been asked to address with a panel of practitioners at BledCom this weekend.

Trust in organisations is at an all-time low. Seemingly every data points to a breakdown in the relationship between individuals and government, business, non-governmental organisations and media. The rationale is well rehearsed.

The root of the issue lies in the pursuit of financial gain over social purpose. The issue has become acute because stakeholders are able to engage with organisations in new way thanks to digital media. Organisations and their leaders are being publicly called to account.

There’s a change afoot within organisations and calls on the public relations profession to step up to the task of helping organisations to define their purpose in a way that is meaningful to society.

Organisations on notice

It’s an issue that is quickly rising up the corporate agenda. Larry Fink, CEO, BlackRock, fired a warning shot in January in his organisation’s anniversary CEO letter to business leaders when he called companies to account on their societal impact.

His words carry the weight of the largest investment fund in the world with more than $6 trillion under management.

“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also benefit all their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers and communities in which they operate,” said Fink.

In time I believe that we’ll come to see Fink’s letter as a significant intervention in the history of corporate governance. It’s a call to action that challenges capitalism itself.

Purpose washing

Purpose has long been conflated with marketing and corporate social responsibility. It isn’t a veneer that can be applied to an organisation, instead it must be rooted in its values and its engagement with stakeholders.

People don’t just buy what you do, they also buy why you do it. The flippant answer is often to make money. But as we’ve learnt from BlackRock, making money isn’t a purpose that has a benefit to society. It's a by-product of doing good work or running a good organisation.

The other extreme can be found in organisations with an over inflated sense of purpose. You’ll have come across their mission statements. If an organisation hasn't got a purpose that rings true with the public then at some point that relationship will fracture. It needs a rethink.

In the heightened political environment of 2018 we've started to see organisations and their leaders speak out on issues such as immigration, that are contrary to their values. It's the exception rather than the norm and it often occurs when stakeholders force a response.

Calling for public relations

There’s a clear opportunity for public relations to help organisations find their purpose however there’s a tension with an organisation’s commercial imperative. We must take some responsibility for the crisis of trust on behalf of the organisations that we serve.

I personally struggle with the notion of public relations having a higher ethical purpose. How are we different from other professions? It’s a laudable calling however I’ve yet to see a job description that includes organisational conscience as an objective.

The simple fact is that the PR profession needs to be more assertive and claim its position as a management discipline. We need to work with organisations to help them become good corporate citizens within the markets they operate, and engage with the publics that they seek to engage and influence.

It's an exciting opportunity.

Image via Shutterstock with thanks.

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