Rowing against the tide

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Pixabay (Creative Commons)
Pixabay (Creative Commons)

All societies require a shared narrative, a sense of collective identity. We’re herd animals and those who conform to the norms are usually rewarded – by not being singled out.

So there’s some conflict over how to treat mavericks or prophets. We need their originality, but don’t always welcome them. They speak from the fringes, not from the centre.

The resignation by Frank Field MP from the Labour Party is an example of this. He’d long been independently-minded, famous for ‘thinking the unthinkable.’ He could not hold back from speaking out – while others were already set on a process of ostracisation (‘deselection’).

But what has this to do with our topic, public relations?

Someone very senior in the industry recently reminded me that there’s an anti-intellectual streak amongst public relations practitioners. This seems surprising since public relations is itself a concept (try explaining it to outsiders) and practising public relations involves a battle for ideas in the public sphere.

Anti-academic I can understand, but anti-intellectual? Surely we all love ideas and arguments!

There’s a risk that by avoiding difficult ideas and by conforming to mainstream thinking (groupthink), we end up supporting some time-served propositions.

I don’t mind challenging norms (a former employer, who went on to a very senior role in an international consultancy once described me as a maverick – and I took this as a compliment even though it barred me from moving to an international position in a larger team) but I don’t like causing offence.

So, let me attempt a balancing act between being challenging and being offensive and address three propositions that I once thought made perfect sense, but now believe to betray lazy thinking. The three are interconnected.

  1. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a good idea
  2. Public relations is the conscience of the organisation
  3. Codes of conduct make us ethical

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

Who could argue against business making a positive contribution to society beyond merely obeying the law and paying taxes? Certainly not me. How could you argue that individuals (who are also employees) and organisations are not a part of society? If so, why do people find it so hard to square the circle between commercial goals and civic good?

The premise behind CSR is flawed. It assumes that business is not a positive force and if left to its own devices is will always seek private, not public, good. Yet at the very outset of the industrial revolution Adam Smith made the case that lots of small decisions made with self-interest and profit in mind can amount to a public good when this increases efficiency and therefore wealth.

CSR programmes can deliver real good, not least by harnessing the talents and energies of employees towards a collective goal beyond the workplace. But by focusing on photogenic examples of corporate responsibility, this raises awkward questions. When not devoting time to corporate social responsibility initiatives, are we to assume that employees revert to the default position (ie corporate irresponsibility)? By shining a light on CSR programmes we draw attention to the shadow side, the day job.

By giving a default position (corporate social responsibility) capital letters, and by creating a department around it, we cause two problems. One is creating a cost centre that dilutes the very profits that contribute to public good. The other is that we create a box-ticking culture geared to league table rankings rather than to doing good. The purpose turns from helping others (altruism) to another measure of self-serving corporate success.

Then there are the limitations of the emphasis. Social is better than anti-social, but it’s focused on people. What about the very topical challenge of the focus on the environment (‘planet’)?

Better to use the word sustainability. This implies commercial sustainability (‘profit’), meeting societal expectations (‘people’) and meeting or exceeding environmental standards (‘planet’). It puts the emphasis on the future, when business leaders are often condemned for pursuing short-term profit.

Best of all is to use the concept of legitimacy (or licence to operate). Half a century ago, tobacco companies made large profits. They made overt (as well as covert) attempts to shore up their societal legitimacy by sponsoring sports, arts and education. They even funded medical research into the effects of smoking on health.

When the medical evidence became overwhelming, no amount of advertising, sponsorship or CSR could save big tobacco from losing its legitimacy. The law changed to turn smoking from a mainstream to a marginal activity and society’s attitudes to smoking and to passive smoking changed.

Tobacco companies are still operating within the law, but society has changed the legitimacy of the business. Survival lies in diversification – and the new battleground over the acceptability of vaping as an alternative to smoking.

‘Public relations is the conscience of the organisation’

This proposition has some academic standing. If you view public relations as the function that mediates between the organisation and the publics affected by it, then before long you will find yourself defending the organisation in public but also advocating in private for the public interest. If you do so based on sound evidence from listening and research, you perform a useful role in helping to shape public attitudes and also influencing organisational strategy. It’s the two-way symmetric function that James Grunig has long argued for public relations to enact.

Yet it’s a big and dangerous step to claim that this makes you the ‘conscience of the organisation’. Do no other actors in the organisation have any moral agency? What does this say about the chief executive?

And you’d better not be anti-intellectual. If a football manager (Jose Mourinho) can cite a German nineteenth century philosopher in a press briefing, you’d better know your Kant from your Hegel before you put yourself forward as the conscience of the organisation.

I’m not alone, of course, in offering this perspective. Eminent scholar Jacquie L’Etang published a paper on ‘The myth of the ethical guardian” in 2004 in which she argued that ethics and CSR have long been deployed to create a respectable self-identity for public relations.

And James Grunig has also argued against groupthink about public relations, citing the embracing of ‘reputation management’ as an example.

Codes of conduct make us ethical

I used to ask students to name the profession of the biggest mass murderer in recent British history. Occasionally, someone ventured ‘doctor’, though memories of Dr Harold Shipman who was convicted in 2000 are fading.

Medicine is well regulated. Medical ethics are so well established that even a non-practitioner can probably recall one of the principles of the Hippocratic Oath (‘first, do no harm’).

I’m not arguing against the existence of codes of conduct in a profession. But I am arguing that their existence alone does not make us ethical.

Here I need to step into theology (and hope not to cause offence).

The Old Testament gave us the Ten Commandments (an ethical code of conduct, if you will). ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ The self-evident continuing existence of killing and adultery in human societies is not an argument against the need for the Ten Commandments – quite the opposite.

Yet the stoning of adulterers may have been an unintended consequence. There’s a nasty streak in human nature that means we can turn on those that society deems to be defective in some way (moral, physical, political or racial). We feel better about ourselves when we cast out or kill the demonised other.

It took the Jesus of the New Testament to challenge this conventional thinking. ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’ In other words, it’s not the code that’s important so much as the personal challenge posed by the code. It’s about us – not ‘the other’.

Ethics are important. They are a foundational pillar of a profession operating for the good of society. But a code of conduct is a start point, not an end point in this.

I’m uneasy about the covert ‘dirty tricks’ campaign in South Africa with its drum roll of racial tension that led to the collapse of Bell Pottinger. But I’m also uneasy about the way in which some have taken to stoning the adulterer in order to parade the virtue of the rest of us.

We should all examine our consciences and the less anti-intellectual among us should read this outstanding book about public relations ethics and professionalism. As author Jo Fawkes, who draws on Carl Jung, wrote:

‘A Jungian approach cannot yield a code of conduct, prescribing correct and incorrect actions… The Jungian ethical journey is inwards towards realization rather than outwards for instruction.’

It may not be easy. But here’s a simple question. Does public relations matter, yes or no?

If no, let’s move on. No need for talk of a profession, no need for codes of conduct or enforcement. Let’s keep on doing what we’re doing – though there may not be a bright future if you’re doing something that’s not important.

If public relations does matter, then why choose an easy option? As Heather Yaxley argued in a comment on her post with Kevin Ruck last week,

‘On the whole, PR/communications raises complex rather than simple ethical challenges, where we need to convince others on the basis of more than just compliance to a code, if we are to be respected as trusted advisers.’

Trusted advisers also need robust arguments. Is it time you rethought your position on CSR, on being the organisational conscience, and on outsourcing your ethical decision making to others?

The author thanks Heather Yaxley for commenting on a draft and suggesting some additional sources to support the argument.