New dawns always brim with hope - the dawn in the picture is from the start of the year when we decided to take a sunrise stroll on the beach. Hope is the magic ingredient that keeps us afloat in the stormy months we've navigated and the stormy months ahead and, although this time of year is generally awash with predictions of what's to come, I thought I'd spend a moment reflecting on how we need to equip ourselves to face the next dawn rather than ruminate on what might be.
There's no magical transition point as the year turns. No moment when all becomes well or difficulties are suddenly resolved. It is, after all, simply a date. But dates give us horizons, give us something to hope for and look towards which is why 2021 has been greeted with relish by so many. We have to remember though that many people around the world count things differently, have different dates of hope so the horizons shift and change, depending on your situation and your perspective.
In the US, for example, many had hoped that the transition to a new year would have seen a shift in focus from November's election to the pandemic that has cut a swath through the lives of so many, reaping havoc and death with little support from those ostensibly in charge. A similar picture can be seen in the UK, struggling under a new strain but also bowed down by the incompetence of its leadership. It doesn't take a fortune teller to divine that life is going to be very hard in the year ahead so what - as professionals charged with making sense of situations for the communities we serve - can we do? What do we need to do in order to smooth the path ahead? Here's five ways we can think beyond the horizon and help others move forward in 2021.
It's very easy to get comfortable, to view the world around us in the same way but we have to remember that change is constant. The pace of change increases during a crisis and a global crisis such as COVID19 sees even greater acceleration and, although humans forget that change is constant, this acceleration is often too much for them to cope with. You might enjoy being a passenger in a car but when the driver takes the speed way beyond the agreed limit, comfort is removed. We can't go into 2021 as we have gone into the years that preceded it and, in writing that, I am mindful that for millions around the world, new year horizons over many decades have been mired in violence, disruption, disease and disadvantage, so the 'entering a new year as never before' is perhaps applicable to the 'richer' nations that have enjoyed the privilege of reasonable social stability until now. As relationship builders and communicators we have to change our position, change our minds and change our behaviours. We have to understand what it is like to walk in someone else's shoes - indeed we need to know what it is like to walk with no shoes. We must develop a deep understanding as to the position of others in relation to our organisations and society. We won't be able to help others navigate what's ahead if we are always looking inside out - we must start looking outside in and determine the connection and relationships points we need to build or improve in order to fulfil whatever purpose is before us. So get out there - do some experiential research. Really get to know and understand your stakeholders and communities. Burst your own bubble (metaphorically if you are sheltering at home) and reach out to others. Be uncomfortable, share their discomfort, then devise strategies to help you coexist and provide comfort.
Changing position helps us to think differently. Ever been 'stuck' writing something or figuring out a thorny problem then gone for a walk that's triggered a eureka moment? If we stay in the same spot, we'll think the same things, stagnate and, ultimately, find ourselves bogged down, unable to move forward. Old thinking isn't going to fix today's problems. Old economic, political and societal models are not going to be appropriate or relevant in the years ahead - so think differently. Devise new ways forward.
If we've changed position and gathered our thoughts we need to share them with others to turn them from ideas into realities that will benefit those around us. In sharing our thoughts and ideas we need to move away from the long-held communication structures that equate information with power and shift into open communication that is clear, authentic and trustworthy. We must develop communication processes that value listening before speaking, discussion rather than instruction, collaboration rather than conflict. If we continue with the 'speak, instruct, conflict' model of authoritarian communication that has become so prevalent in recent years we will be on the road to nowhere, the horizon increasingly obscured. Our job - and it is an urgent job - is to help our organisations change their approach and show them how to communicate openly.
Be constantly curious
Two great ways to learn fast are making mistakes and asking great questions. It is inevitable that we will all make huge mistakes in the year ahead and my hope for you is that your mistakes are manageable ones. By thinking first - and I've always said the thinking we do takes the most time - the mistakes should be minimal, so think well and think beyond the now. Committing yourself to learning is to be constantly curious. It means asking the seemingly obvious question, asking the hard questions and asking the questions that will increase your knowledge and develop your understanding. There is always something new to learn and when we are exploring uncharted territory we will inevitably encounter things we don't know or have not experienced before - so be prepared to learn, learn fast and learn something new every day for the rest of your life.
I've been asked many times what is the most important characteristic or capability for a public relations or communications professional and my answer is always the same - courage. Having the courage to ask the hard questions, take a different position, think creatively and learn from mistakes is essential if we are to do our jobs ethically and well. In our world of constant change, the need for courage is a constant. It takes courage to challenge your boss over bad practice when you know that doing so could mean no job at all but it's got to be done, especially if the resulting change reduces inequity and restores trust. Bravery confronts danger without fear - courage confronts danger despite the fear.
There's a final thought for you before I end - take heart, stay hopeful and act with compassion. There's much difficulty and danger to be confronted in the world but there is also much goodness and generosity. We've seen it in the selfless work of medical staff and carers around the world, we've seen it in the support people have given to each other, be that physical support with food or simply a long phone call to listen to their fears. As you confront the challenges, remember to draw strength from that goodness and look boldly towards and beyond the horizon.
Are you ready for the challenges ahead? For the impact artificial intelligence will have on public relations? On society? The pandemic caused a paradigm shift for millions with a leap to digital they never thought they’d take - but the change was coming long before then.
Subtle steps have taken us towards everyday artificial intelligence and the deployment of digital entities that sooth our emotions, help our daily tasks and act as companions at home. In case you missed it, that paradigm shift has even greater implications for public relations and communication practice, reshaping our work, redefining the relationships we build, the reputations we guard and the risks and issues we manage.
I tackled the topic recently in a webinar which you can access here. It takes you through the developments, the opportunities and the concerns of artificial intelligence, digital and human relationships and the problems we might expect.
Below is a piece I first posted on LinkedIn as part of Global Ethics Month - some food for thought, especially if your thinking how #ethicsmatter in your working life...
Amidst the clamour of competing public interests, opposing views and amplified opinions, whose ethics matter more - yours or mine? Whose news is fake - yours or mine? Who possesses the greater truth - you or me? If we shout loudly at each other for a sufficient length of time, will we successfully convince others of our ‘rightness’, or will we artfully wear them into jaded apathy, agreeing - or disagreeing - with one of us simply to secure respite from the noise?
Even if you are in the business of news, information, stories and facts, I suspect you’ve turned off the streams in recent months or weeks to escape the outrage, the ugliness and the despair relentlessly pushed into our feeds. Profit-and-power motivated click-baitery has almost reached its peak and, I suspect, its zenith approaches as we hurtle towards various national elections but, for now, we are still bombarded with the angry, with the hopeless, with the indiscernible truths, leaving us searching desperately for a dancing TikTok kitten to momentarily pause the pain.
This churning, chaotic, challenging communication environment is fracturing relationships, reshaping societal landscapes and confusing everyday values - which means the conversation concerning how, when, where and why ethics matter is more complex than a hashtag share.
As public relations professionals our job is to build and sustain the relationships that maintain our licence to operate. Relationships are at the heart of what we do and those relationships are supported by effective communication, understanding and behaviour. Good relationships are founded on trust, mutual benefit and satisfaction, commitment and loyalty, reputation and understanding but if our behaviours are bad, our communications deceptive or our narrative misleading those relationships will be null and void.
Unfortunately, today's society is deeply polarised - in no small part due to the grotesque manifestations of leadership we’ve witnessed in the last few years. This polarisation has caused chasms of dissent, aerated by impenetrable bubbles of opinion hardened by the increasing atmospheric pressure of social noise.
Our role isn’t to parrot or to amplify a polarising opinion. It is concerned with elevating ethical behaviour, communication and understanding so that the relationships critical to our licence to operate are founded on values that benefit society, our fellow employees, our communities of interest, our stakeholders and stake-seekers.
Here's a challenge for you - list and prioritise the common, core values of the 21st century. What, in 2020, do we all agree is good behaviour? What constitutes transparency? What does the virtuous organisation do? Are values-based organisations actually values-driven or are they playing lip-service to concepts they think might be useful people-pleasing memes?
Around the world there are many examples of stated values being disconnected from the lived experience of an organisation — so experiential communication is discordant and the wrong notes are struck. There might be a government that says it cares about flood victims but fails to convene the necessary emergency meetings to help those affected. There could be governing bodies that crow about a child’s right to life, yet imprison them at borders or leave them to grow up in squalor in ever-expanding refugee camps. Or there might even be companies that pledge money to global causes and charities but fail to pay their employees a living wage or provide decent working conditions. Actions speak louder than words and, in the fifteen years I’ve been writing and speaking specifically about the role of the practitioner as organisational conscience, in some cases, thankfully, actions have improved and we have seen organisations of all types begin to actively demonstrate and live their values rather than simply publish some aspirational waffle on their websites. But — and there is always a but — times change and one of the greatest changes has been in the way in which we use language. Instead of using language to develop relationships, understanding, shared meaning and improvement, be that improvement to society, productivity, sustainability, well-being, economy etc., language has been used (and abused) to create disharmony, discord and despair, again in no small part due to the destructive caricatures of leadership we have endured. This means as well as looking at our organisation’s actions, we must carefully consider and guide the language and tone used in all forms of communication. Question whether it articulates and demonstrates our values or whether we are demonstrating a disconnect between who we say we are, what we actually say and where we say it, be that in person, on Twitter, or the office front desk. How well, as an organisation, do we listen when we converse — or are we simply talking and sending out stuff? Language is critical - and the choices we make around the use of language are ethical choices forming part of our guardianship of our organisation’s integrity, character and reputation.
In the many ethics, risk and reputation sessions I have facilitated, one question is always asked. "What if the organisation I work for continues to behave unethically, despite my very best attempts to advise otherwise and enact change". And that’s when ethics matter most - when they inform your own decision making and empower you to do the right thing. The stark choice for a practitioner may be accepting bad behaviour and, compromised, remain with the organisation or, walk out the door. Livelihoods jeopardised in this way throw choices into stark relief but, if we have a developed understanding of our own ethical self, the only choice is to leave and to be better for it.
Many professional associations around the world have a code of ethics. Adhering to a code of ethics is often the main point of difference between professional practitioners and those who have decided to hang a sign outside their door to say they ‘do PR’. Many of those codes are based on Western philosophy and behaviours and neglect to include some essential components — for example the wisdom, philosophies and values of indigenous peoples. A failing yes, but at least the codes exist and form a starting point for practitioners — and my sincere hope is that global organisations will revisit their protocols with a multicultural and diverse eye rather than a dominant Western one as has tended to be the case. There are many tools and processes out there designed to help practitioners build ethical behaviours into their strategy and planning - pyramids, question trees, issue boxes - there’s really quite the list. Part of our role is to help our organisations determine and enact their values, often arising as part of a change management or cultural change programme so we must equip ourselves so we can facilitate and provide good counsel.
As public relations professionals we are involved in some powerful undertakings and the choices we make, be they concerned with behaviour or language, all have consequences. Speak out or stay silent - yup, consequences. Push back, ‘speaking truth to power’, - again, consequences. Tim Marshall, PRINZ Life Member, expert practitioner and go-to ethics person here in New Zealand is often heard to say 'public relations operates where issues collide'. I agree entirely and where issues collide, as practitioners, we need a strong sense of our ethical self in order to help our organisations navigate issues effectively and build ethical relationships that endure and are of mutual benefit. We also need the one capability that I prize most among practitioners but which the one capability most often forgotten - courage. Courage doesn’t manifest itself when things are easy. Courage is found only when situations are hard.
The Global Capabilities Framework provides us with a great steer as to how we can discover our ethical self — and it is easy. Devote time to your own professional learning so you are equipped to meet the challenges ahead and develop the following professional capabilities as outlined in the framework:
Photo by Joao Tzanno on Unsplash
Parliament is suspended in the UK. A communications staffer is marched from Downing Street under police escort. Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn is harangued in Parliamentary corridors. Tory MPs who voted with the opposition are sacked. The unravelling - the loss of a system's licence to operate - has begun. And begun quite deliberately.
Power has been put ahead of people and functional relationships are a thing of the past as autocracy replaces public accountability in the UK. Observing all the strands of disfunction being pulled together it seems evident that the next move will be to encourage further dissension on the streets so that 'emergency powers' can be implemented and, at that point, we can probably declare UK democracy dead as Cummings pushes the UK's countries towards uncivil war and the system breakdown he seems to desire.
It has nothing to do with Brexit - that is simply a convenient scapegoat for years of austerity and poor government. It is instead a screen for Cummings and Co to manipulate an election so they can secure power for the few and misery for the many.
Aside from the difficulties the country faces, the current situation, stoked and fuelled a select group of mainstream media moguls already proven to wield too much power and influence, will put communications practitioners within UK's government in a very difficult position. The electioneering has already begun judging from the tweets, updates and photo ops coming out of No. 10 so the communications teams will be faced with some tough choices in the shutdown period - is the material campaign material or government communications, the latter being a valid use of their time. It's going to get a whole lot messier in the next few weeks.
A month in to Dominic Cummings reign as chief aid to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and chaos is beginning to boil over.
In his blog, Cummings regularly records his desire to break systems, quoting military philosophy as justification for his arguments. His aim, it seems, is to break a system he dislikes and despises and, it would seem, he happily uses any means to achieve his aims.
This is not a political blog. It is one concerned with public relations and communication - the building of relationships that give organisations their licence to operate supported by effective communication, knowledge, understanding and ethical behaviour. In the video below, Cummings explains at the 2017 Ogilvy Nudgestock conference the methods employed to achieve a win in the UK referendum concerning participation in the EU - known now as the Brexit Referendum. If, as I am, you are involved in public relations and communication, then I'd urge you to watch the whole thing so you can understand the deliberate, planned and blatant behavioural manipulation that is in progress right now, working towards a complete system breakdown of benefit only to its perpetrators.
In the video, Cummings takes you through the tricks and tactics he deployed in order to - in his own words at various points in the presentation - 'provoke rage...neutralise...put the boot in'. The seven million people exposed to the 1.5bn targeted ads over the short period of time pre-referendum is peanuts compared to what's ahead in the UK - and other countries around the world - as elections, media, citizens, public psychology and governing systems are blatantly manipulated for private gain. Cummings' work appears to be a (pseudo) intellectual exercise centred on ways to break the system he reviles.
What's going on today behind the doors of 10 Downing Street has nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of being in or out of Europe. It has nothing to do with the health and wellbeing of the UK population. It has everything to do with the selfish and power-hungry wanting their own way, shamelessly stoking division and hatred and using unethical and underhand practices to do so
Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.