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
Mental load is 'a thing'. A real thing that drags us into inertia when we really want to be up and running at speed. One of the many 'things' that suffer when we are under great mental load is our own professional development - the time and energy we should spend developing our own skills and capabilities.
This week I delivered a webinar for the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) designed to unwrap and explain the Global Capabilities Framework, a guiding document that helps practitioners around the world determine what they need to learn or develop in order to become capable professional practitioners.
Launched in 2018 following an extensive two year research project covering public relations and communications practice in every content, the Global Capabilities Framework was led by the UK's University of Huddersfield in conjunction with the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management (GA). It was the culmination of perhaps a decade of work by the world's public relations community that looked to provide clear guidance for practitioners on professionals development pathways that could be adapted depending on country or cultural setting. Research was designed to answer some specific questions and issues that emerged at the 2016 meeting of GA leaders which in turn followed a series of workshops and investigations that began in 2013. Questions and issues included reputational issues for the profession as a whole, finding agreement on terminology, core duties and descriptors, variable access to training and education, complex social issues and relationships - there was an extensive remit.
The end result provides a comprehensive guide to the capabilities practitioners need to develop in order to provide the best professional advice and value to their organisations. It also informs professional associations and the continuing professional development they provide so, for example, in late 2018 I aligned all of the CPD offerings from PRINZ to the new framework so that practitioners would have a clear understanding as to how any particular course, webinar or workshop contributed towards strengthening or developing their individual capabilities. I've also aligned all the courses offered here at PR Knowledge Hub so that content can reflect and build the capabilities we would expect from a professional practitioner.
In the past - and this has been true the world over - professional development for public relations and communication management has focused pretty much entirely on skills - the things we do. We do many things and I'm sure you can rattle off a very long list of the things you do, which might include written, visual, digital, and oral communication, all sorts of content provision, research, measurement and evaluation, risk and issues management - your list will be as long as your arm, if not longer. The difference with the Global Capabilities Framework is that it covers our capabilities rather than specific skills and this was a very deliberate choice on the part of the research team. Their future focus makes the framework a very powerful tool and one that can help us structure our future learning.
The framework is a great step forward but the biggest step has to be taken by individuals themselves. Making time to learn, to increase your knowledge, develop your understanding - none of these things are luxuries. They are essential if you are to stay relevant, stay up-to-date and meet the challenges of working in an environment where in order to properly serve our organisations and societies we must be prepared to learn something new every day.
So my Christmas wish for you is that you are able to find the time to stop, look, plan and learn next year. I've just finished my twentieth year of continuously recorded professional development and I can honestly say I don't regret a single second of the time I've spent. We are extraordinarily privileged to work in a profession that presents us with daily challenges and change that keeps us sharp and on our toes. But. If we really want to make a difference and help people keep their critical organisational relationships alive, we have to grow. To be open to learning and not leave things to chance. So, Merry Christmas - and best wishes for a mind-expanding 2020.
This time next year, I hope to see you in Auckland when the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand will be the country host for World Public Relations Forum 2020.
The World Public Relations Forum was started by the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management at the turn of the century. It runs every two years and brings together public relations and communications professionals from around the world.
It's a great event and one not to be missed as it is a rare opportunity to meet with colleagues, share best practice, new insights, the latest research, case studies - successes and failures - and take part in discussions that will shape the future of the profession.
The theme for WPRF2020 is Connecting with Courage - something in these uncertain times we must be willing to do, and to do well.
You can find details about the conference here and visit the PRINZ website here. Heck - you could even buy yourself a ticket!
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.