…all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all. I was at a wedding this week, it was a glorious sunny day, the ceremony was held in an old village church that oozed character and history, whatever my views on religion I have nothing but admiration for the craftsmen and workers who created these incredible edifices with the most basic of tools. The grass round the graves had been freshly cut, the cows hovered curiously next to the churchyard wall and a farmers tractor buzzed quietly on the other side of the river. As I self consciously lip-synced to the hymns, I imagined that other than the vicars request for us to set our phones to Airplane mode, that the ceremony and the surrounding scenery were pretty much as they had been for centuries. I should stress that I avoid singing out of respect for those around me, not because I’m unwilling to sing…I was politely but firmly asked to leave junior school choir; tone deaf doesn’t get near it!
All Things Bright and Beautiful is a hymn that I think was written on a perfect day like this, the sort of day when all seems right with our world, when the distance between the pleasant current reality of our lives seems a million light years from the bad things that happen. The hymn typifies the stance of many belief systems in that it takes the credit for what we might loosely describe as “the good stuff” in the world whilst choosing not to mention the less than savoury things that happen on a day to day basis…and I’m not sure that any self respecting hymn writer would want to weave words such as Corruption, Murder, Ebola, Disease, Death, Depression, HIV, Psychosis, Genocide, Smallpox, Greed, War, Global Warming, Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Tsunamis or other natural disasters into their work. Giving God the “credit” for the bad stuff as well as the good would not sit well with St Peters PR department. In this respect the practice of always claiming the credit for the good stuff has interesting and very obvious parallels with the doctrines of the Public Sector.
I read the following tweet from a respected clinician last week, “Celebrating success without being honest about mistakes is what upsets patients and families who have been harmed by the NHS”…it struck a chord with me. I like Twitter, I think its a great place to find and practice the art of being concise; 140 characters puts any flanneling out the window. This tweet summed up for me why so many people have had enough of Public Sector spin, its not that they don’t see the need to celebrate success or to recognize the people, often passionate and hard working, that we all rely on, its simply that its not a balanced dialogue. The Public Sector seems to want to constantly take the credit for anything positive, but doesn’t want to talk to the world about why things go wrong when they go wrong…and things do go wrong; that’s just life.
I read a great book on holiday recently called PR is Dead by Robert Phillips, in it the former head of the worlds largest PR Agency talks about how the ground has shifted and implies that the old model of PR is now a net negative business activity that no longer influences but actually harms those still practicing it. And I think he’s right, I met someone at the wedding who asked me where I worked and upon being told that I worked for the local NHS they promptly proceeded to tell me that they’d stopped buying the evening paper because it was “full of PR that didn’t reflect them or their families experience”.
The definition of PR taken from the Chartered Institute of PR is that Public Relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics. In this new world of transparency and virtual social interaction it should be no surprise to see that its now the Private Sector that seems to be leading the way in the transparency and engagement stakes; money and market share are significant motivators. In the pre-social media era of relative invisibility the Private Sector could do what it wanted just how it wanted to do it, but now that the hollow values and paper thin promises of less than authentic brands and organisations are exposed, the Private Sector recognizes that it must rethink its position if it is to secure a place in a new transparent world.
Whether you are a government, a small local firm, a Public Sector service or a multinational corporation, there is nowhere to hide anymore; Wikileaks, Google and Facebook have seen to that. So perhaps PR as we know it really is dead, maybe its reputation has been tarnished beyond repair, but ironically its original intent to achieve mutual understanding between organisations and their stakeholders is now needed more than ever. In his book PR is Dead, Robert Phillips says, Today’s progressive Public Leaders are those who start with the truth – and make it openly available for all. Companies need to explain, rather than seek to control or apologise. Truth and transparency are the expected and accepted norms. Responsibility – not regulation – needs to be the watchword of the responsible society. I think we’d all agree, that would be a good starting point…