A world in crisis: the role of public relations

I'm in Slovenia at BledCom on behalf of the CIPR. The conference theme is 'A world in crisis: the role of public relations.' My contribution relates to the role of professional associations in this. Here's a transcript of my presentation, with thanks to CIPR CEO Alastair McCapra for his help.


I’m speaking about the role of PR associations in my capacity as President of the CIPR.

Our Royal Charter states that we are incorporated ‘for the public benefit’, and although the CIPR is not a charity, the delivery of public benefit is the defining requirement of a charity in English law. 

The term ‘public benefit’ overlaps with others used in related contexts, such as ‘public value’ and ‘social value’. 

Do these mean the same thing?  I’m going to suggest that to move our thinking forward we need to consider three contexts:

-       How public relations can serve clients and wider society

-       How the professions in general can serve their clients and wider society

-       How the expectations of wider society are changing, whether we like it or not

A low bar

I’d like us first to think about what kind of threshold we set ourselves for professional conduct, and ask whether it isn’t, frankly, quite low.

We accept that no professional can actively enable wrongdoing, and if they do, they relinquish the right to call themselves professional.

Until now however, professions have often adopted a fairly value-neutral stance, acting in their clients’ best interests - providing these do not slip into outright criminality. 

This is the kind of conduct we have seen in cases such as Enron, Carillion and, more recently Bell Pottinger and Oxfam. In this outlook, so long as the accountant has not broken the accounting rules; the solicitor has carefully constructed the contracts to ensure no law is broken; or the head of communications hasn’t told an outright lie, professional standards have been maintained.

We need to recognise that while this approach may still be acceptable to some clients, it is no longer acceptable to society in general. 

Public and client interests are increasingly divergent, and if we cannot collectively bring them back together, the crisis for the professions may be terminal.

Increasingly, a pro-social approach is being sought, with organisations actively looking for ways of delivering for clients that will also, for example, support the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals. South Africa has taken an early lead in this by requiring every company listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange to adopt Integrated Reporting.

We're working on it

At the moment the CIPR is taking part in two research projects which will help us to play a positive role in finding solutions to this issue:

-       One, led by the Universities of Vienna and Műnster, is focused on how public relations professionals make choices and decisions under pressure, which will help us strengthen our resilience in circumstances that can lead us into making bad decisions.

-       The other is a larger piece of work that is going to look at the role of professions in modern society, changing societal expectations and how we adapt to meet them.

A piece of work we recently completed was an assessment of the impact of Artificial Intelligence on public relations activity over the next five years.  That indicates very clearly that the future of our value delivery lies in understanding context; shaping complex, hybrid solutions; and social responsibility. 

In other words, it is professional judgement that stands front and centre in our future as effective practitioners.  This is the aspect of our work that will most certainly survive the drive for automation, and where we must focus our professional development efforts.

PR is a strategic management function, and the value we bring at board level is not operational efficiency or ROI.  Others can do that better than us. 

We help an organisation articulate its purpose, engage its stakeholders in that purpose and ensure that the organisation creates public value.

Establishing a common understanding

The world crisis has wider dimensions than our own professional space, or that of all the professions together.  We need a new consensus on what terms like ‘public good’ and ‘social value’ mean for our world. 

Do laws, regulations, policies and services create and sustain value for the public?  How can we assess this effectively until we have an agreed term of reference for describing it?

We need to recognise that the question of public value is easier for government to tackle than it is for the professions, because governments have democratic mandates in which people have already indicated what it is they want. 

For the public relations practitioner, it may be less clear exactly what ‘public value’ or ‘the public good’ mean in any given situation.  

Just as public sector discussions about ‘value for money’ tend to be about money rather than value, the debate in PR about measurement and evaluation has not entirely got to grips with value creation. 

The kind of social value framework proposed by the British Standards Institute would be a tremendous asset to us in our work.

Imagine a world in which governments, public bodies, voluntary organisations and private companies all worked to a common framework for social value. Public discussion could be structured around this common definition to the benefit of all.


Image taken from Lonely Planet.