Ask anyone in public relations today, and the sentiment is clear: the intense river-current of distrust that we’re swimming against daily in the business of strategic communications is unlike any we’ve witnessed.
And it shows no sign of abating – only intensifying.
Let me give you a snapshot (and bear in mind that all of this stuff is happening concurrently) . . .
Opinion Versus Fact
- Old reality: National news media – while far from perfect – based its news-gathering and reporting more so on fact-based information from vetted sources than on the overt, editorialized political positions of gatekeeper elites.
- New reality: Traditional, national news outlets are becoming closer aligned as nearly-branded and unabashed press rooms for specific political parties.
Musical Chairs Versus Trust-Building
- Ancient reality: News media and their trained teams of reporters (and editors who held them accountable) produced narratives about relevant issues and our employers / clients, which public relations professionals could seek to influence for fair, balanced and positive inclusion by providing accurate, insightful and newsworthy content . . . earning trust over time with news outlets predicated on resourcefulness, responsiveness and consistent accuracy.
- New reality: Content that qualifies as “news” in the public’s eye has been turned on its head, with content generated by trained journalists constituting a declining share of news voice, in the wake of social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and many others serving as de facto news outlets with practically no standards or protocols or even working definitions of the same.
- Other new reality: Points of contact at news outlets change on a constant basis, so public relations professionals are always starting over from square one with points of contact, with trusted news-media relationships now largely a thing of the past.
Cheap Versus Good
- Old reality: The public knew and usually could rely on sources of its information because those who operated as journalists (credentialed by their graduation from an accredited journalism school that infused basic tenants such as accuracy) generally adhered to strong source-attribution standards, vetting for source credibility, anecdotal substantiations via multiple sources, and screening for conflicts of interest, among other standard practices.
- New reality: Not only do the new de facto social media platforms operating as news outlets offer practically no standards or protocols for “news” being reported, the traditional and more trusted newsrooms of old have arguably devolved their news-gathering and reporting functions into speed-over-accuracy, quantity-over-quality, snippets-over-in-depth, and, very often, overt-pay-for-play-not-only-allowed-but-encouraged environments that have thrown public trust under the bus.
Disruption Versus Derailment
- Old reality: While all kinds of media and societal disruptions might take place at any given time, certain stalwart values and institutions of domestic, national and international spokesmanship advanced by the world leader’s highest elected office-holder held fast to specific ideals (such as spirit, tone, empathy and higher order) emblematic of “the American way.”
- New reality: Many of the current political messages emanating from Washington, D.C.
- Sad reality: For all the good they might do or have potential to do, both our nation’s president and our national news media are each their own worst enemies. And neither of them know it.
- Old reality: PR folks are seen as hacks, flacks and the biggest media problem who can’t find their way to a clear industry voice to advocate for their own value with Rand McNally and a flashlight.
- New reality: PR folks are seen as hacks, flacks and the biggest media problem who can’t find their way to a clear industry voice to advocate for their own value with GPS and a self-driving vehicle.
- Toughest reality: Despite the overwhelming value we provide to our employers, clients and to society at-large, the public relations profession maintains no active PR program for itself, and only through decisive leadership and a funded campaign for a consistent industry voice will we find some reputational boots made for walking.
Such old/new realities are, in fact, only the tip of the iceberg of what we’re dealing with out there, and it’s in that context that one of my profession’s most notable business leaders, Edelman CEO Richard Edelman addressed the National Press Club in recent days, on the topic “The Battleground is Trust.”
I strongly urge all business leaders and certainly everyone working in the public relations profession to read Mr. Edelman’s remarks. They are insightful and offer key tenets of what makes public relations such a vital part of organizational success.
However, Mr. Edelman referenced with criticism what he called a “crazy quilt” of ethics codes in the profession, which apparently, according to his view, is to blame for the state of affairs in public trust nowadays.
While I value and admire Mr. Edelman’s excellent grasp of the challenges at hand and fully embrace his proposal for some of the solutions (such as “no corporate speak”), there is one realization that seems to allude us all:
We have to stop presuming that the world’s trust problems are being stoked primarily by people who care even remotely about the concept of trust.
Presuming otherwise, it seems, Mr. Edelman proposed a “PR Compact,” of “four simple but powerful principles,” boiled down to accuracy, transparency, free/open idea exchange, and online ethics training.
While nothing is inherently wrong with Mr. Edelman’s notion of a PR Compact, my question is this: Why should we reinvent the wheel when the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) crafted many years ago what is arguably the most inclusive, insightful, relevant and evergreen code of both ethics and professional practices for the larger profession, which goes far beyond any online ethics training and calls upon all PRSA-affiliated professionals to sign on a dotted line of individual compliance?
In his remarks, Mr. Edelman referred to the PR Council’s ethics code and the Page Society’s ethics code – both of which are fine, but frankly, aren’t any more expansive as the PRSA Code of Ethics, in my view.
I note that Edelman possesses its own Code of Ethics document, which, incidentally, is absolutely outstanding, in my view. If the Edelman management team feels that its own agency ethics code is stronger than PRSA’s (and they rightfully might), then why would Edelman – in its obvious and quite admirable interest of wishing to advance ethics at a higher level profession-wide – not engage PRSA’s Board of Ethics & Professional Standards to infuse even greater rigor within PRSA’s ethics code for a better industry standard?
Other questions: Why is Mr. Edelman not a member of PRSA, particularly given that his father, the late and highly esteemed Daniel J. Edelman, APR, Fellow PRSA, was awarded PRSA’s Gold Anvil in 1999 and clearly valued what the Society represented? Where is the disconnect? Why, of Edelman’s nearly 6,000 employees in 65 offices worldwide, are less than 35 employees PRSA-affiliated?
Advancing a Higher Good in the Profession
I ask these questions because – for the same reasons many companies join a Chamber of Commerce in order to advance the larger economic development interests of a community from an “all ships rise” perspective – it’s tantamount to the profession’s resources for as many practicing public relations professionals as possible to be member-affiliated with the largest public relations organization in the world . . . and the one whose ethics code is the most widely known and utilized.
Not to make excuses for PRSA (and PRSA’s leadership should step up to speak for itself on this matter), but the widespread abandonment from membership affiliation in PRSA by the world’s largest public relations firms can be pointed to as part of the reason why PRSA struggles to achieve a critical mass of resources needed to effect deeper, lasting, positive change on behalf of the profession at-large.
What About the Larger Agency Community?
So to spread the wealth of friendly criticism here, this isn’t just an Edelman issue. Among about 10 other PR firm global leaders, collectively with tens of thousands of employees, fewer than 200 employees are PRSA-member-affiliated. Widespread support of the larger profession? It’s a question worth examining.
After all, if the largest public relations service firms can’t see their way clearly to support their profession’s largest society of colleagues (nearly all of whom are themselves passionate about ethics and professional practices), then Mr. Edelman, et al., maybe what we’re looking at here are the chickens coming home to roost.
As a company, Edelman may have a bone to pick with PRSA that’s fueling its distance. Maybe all of the agencies do. If so, PRSA should engage on the issues at hand and work toward solutions.
In the larger conversation about how our profession serves as part of the solution instead of part of the problem, I can only say to Mr. Edelman and to all agency leaders and corporate, governmental and non-profit communications team leaders:
This profession is what we make it to be, and relative to the “crazy quilt” of ethics and setting a higher bar, our focus must be on those whom we alone can control: ourselves.
PRSA affiliation and direct forms of support may not be the only part of a proposed PR Compact, but shouldn’t it be part of it?