In a world turned upside down, how do you develop strategies to navigate uncertain times? How do you develop strategic relationships that will help you survive and thrive in times of global recession? Available early July, our new course, Navigators, gives you the opportunity to find out how.
I've been looking ahead these last few months and, as we have slowly worked our way through lockdowns, dramatic societal change and new ways of operating, I've had the privilege and opportunity to guide fellow practitioners through the twists and turns of strategy development, examining some of the changes we face and how best to meet them.
We must constantly challenge ourselves to explore new approaches and new thinking so we can help our organisations make sense of what's ahead and maintain the relationships they need to maintain their licence to operate. Understanding the process, looking beyond the tactical - the 'sending out stuff' - is critical if our discipline is to remain relevant.
I hope you'll find this guided professional development session both useful and informative. Old rules don't apply - take some time to navigate the new ones.
Unprecedented is a word that's been whipped to death over the last twelve weeks, generally by governments flogging the dead horse of failure as their lame excuse for ineptitude before and during the current pandemic. Unprecedented however, does not excuse unprepared, as it is the duty of all governments to provide and plan for emergencies, protect public health and well-being.
It's a known part of the job. It's the duty of government. It's what they sign up for when they're voted in. When emergencies occur governments must be ready and able to deal with whatever form it takes and it is inexcusable when they don't. There is no excuse good enough to cover the levels of incompetence we've witnessed, particularly when global pandemic has been on the risk index for years.
I found myself questioning whether certain governments around the world should be held accountable on the grounds of criminal negligence, given they've butchered COVID-19 crisis management so badly their people have paid with their lives and livelihoods. I also found myself asking whether charges of criminal negligence could conceivably be extended to include some mainstream media outlets like Fox News in the US or the tabloids in the UK as well as those responsible for communicating government intent.
The definition of criminal negligence varies from country to country but in negligence alone, common factors include a breach of duty which causes the plaintiff to suffer harm. Criminal negligence refers to conduct when a person ignores a known or obvious risk or disregards the safety of others. It involves knowledge of a danger and is more than a mistake or accident.
In the UK, Public Health England declares in its 2020 - 2025 strategic plan that 'our first duty is to keep people safe. Threats from environmental hazards and infectious disease remain great at home and from overseas. We work to prevent risks from materialising and reduce harm when they do. PHE has the capability to respond to emergencies and incidents round the clock, 365 days a year'. Yet in the weeks that have led to 40,000 deaths in the UK (at the time of writing) the politicians were insouciant, dismissive and disdainful of COVID-19 as it began its lethal journey through the kingdom. They were unprepared when they should have been prepared, ignored advice that would have prevented thousands of deaths and continue to offer few solutions or workable strategies to protect their citizens and fulfil their duty as a government. A similar picture has been presented in the USA as the federal government there, led by an obfuscating president, fails in its duty to protect its citizens - the timeline of neglect has been well documented by national and global media outlets and, as with the UK, the daily death toll stands as an indictment of dangerous disregard. Johnson and Trump are not alone - elsewhere in the world, Bolsonaro coughs on his citizens and Belarusian President Lukashenko holds parades to upstage Putin, currently overseeing a Russia where again, citizens are dying in their thousands. Yet, despite the despots, those who actually care - the medical teams, the essential workers, the volunteers, the many brave and wonderful individuals - demonstrate the real meaning of duty as they bring courage and humanity to their work, saving the lives of all around them regardless of the hardship and difficulty they might personally face.
While dictators can lie in their beds and ignore the death and havoc around them, unaccountable to any, there is a chance that the autocrats and the bumblers might be called to account but, supported as they are by pliable mainstream media that push myths and mayhem into the mix, press spokespeople with little understanding of truth or fact, and government communicators who seem to work in apparent contradiction to their published code of conduct, their communications strategies and their duty of care, it is hard to see when anyone might be called to account for the tragedy wrought by their negligence.
Here in New Zealand we've been fortunate to have a government that eschewed strategies that would lead to thousands of deaths and instead, opted to 'go hard and go early' to protect people, work with them to stop transmission of the virus, communicating every step of the way and sticking to the plans. The plans have not been well met by everyone but the success of compassion over chaos sees us moving tentatively towards an easing of restrictions - although acutely aware of entering the 'second wave' danger zone. The government's duty of care and responsibility for the well-being of all New Zealanders was central to its strategy. I, for one, am grateful for their diligence and I weep, helpless, for those who continue to suffer and die because of the negligent.
There's a lot of talk about what's next. Like many others, I have some thoughts. Here they are.
New era (AC19) trust will be the new oil. Success and ability to restart operations will be based on your behaviour throughout pandemic, your redefined operating practices and your (genuine) concern for society and people. Economic structures and ‘success’ will look very different – by necessity. Models from the last century (and the century before) will be redundant with a need to re-focus the way society operates, a rethink of what constitutes ‘value’ and reform of political, societal, economic, environmental and technological activity.
Existing profit-driven economic models have been felled by COVID19 and, as we sink into global depression, recovery to the place often described as ‘business as usual’ is unlikely. There will not be any kind of normal for a long time – any ‘new normal’ is a decade away. There is – and will be – an unwillingness to go back to ‘how it was before’ with its inequities and imbalances. Since March 12, I’ve been urging people to spend the time we stay at home working on shaping what’s next, collectively taking the opportunity to understand and discuss the difference between value and profit (otherwise all that clapping and ‘thank you for your service’ chanting for those who have historically been omitted from any kind of value recognition will be nothing more than empty noise). Walk at least 100 laps around your mind and raise a million ideas for improvement.
Post-pandemic: PR’s first job must be to help turn the confidence curve – as viral transmission rises, so confidence and trust fall. Our job - build confidence and trust so people feel sense of safety just being out and at work. Ultimate test of success – I trust you enough to shake your hand or share a coffee with you or sit beside you and believe that what you say about your breath is true. PR will only have this job to do if it works to its central purpose – build and sustain relationships to maintain licence to operate, and central to relationships are trust, communication, behaviour and understanding.
Expect and plan for micro-localised/nano-economies till feasibility and freedom of personal, national and international travel is ascertained. We will see large scale demise of many sectors between now and 2022 and many will go the way of the dinosaur (including PR and marketing if they don’t renew purpose).
Plan for famine (see locusts swarms, supply chain breakdowns, post first-wave gate price drops, disrupted food production thanks to current droughts and altered weather patterns – e.g. Western USA megadrought in progress – all sitting neatly on top of widespread loss of income). Probably worth planning for war too as there’s an increased likelihood autocrats will start fights over scarce supplies or imagined slights in a bid to distract their national populations from the oncoming crushing depression. On the upside, the potential is there for global and regional interdependency to emerge as countries attempt to rebalance, recover and prepare for resurgence of COVID19 or other pathogenic threat.
In October 2019 all our talk was of sustainability and environment health. Taste for profit over people has waned and formation of a new approach is now a necessity. Emmanuel Macron expressed it well during his recent FT interview when he said (and I paraphrase) ‘we are fighting a disease that suffocates us and, when we recover, people will want to breathe clean air, all the time. They will not want to suffocate and attention must turn to ways we can protect our environment, listen to the earth and avoid finding ourselves in climate catastrophe’.
Smart thinking – one would hope - should make AC19 world fair, just and sustainable but progress will be slow as those ‘with power’ will not want to relinquish it to those currently 'without'. This year’s elections across the globe will reveal whether democracies still live or if they’ve been gerrymandered to death.
All businesses and organisations – small or large – must figure out why they’re relevant, their critical relationships and their degree of trustworthiness. Millions of people have had a fast-track re-education on ‘essentials’ – be they goods, services or people. Same millions are now in a precarious economic situation so even with restoration of their former level of subsistence, there will be a drastic reduction of the constructed consumption levels stimulated from 1980 onwards.
It’s going to be very messy with awful consequences for many people for quite some time. Our job is to ease things, help navigate through the storms, help others build the relationships they need to operate, collaborate and build what’s next. Many people won’t want to change, or indeed, admit a need for change. There will be a reluctance to accept change or adapt to different models (mainly from those for whom existing models are of most benefit by way of power and wealth). There will be friction and fracas but, with some hope, some smart thinking, some kind doing, a recognition and appreciation of true value and a willingness to make life better for every member of our human family, we’ll get there.
Update: This post came together following some comments I made in an online discussion with colleagues. It took on another form a couple of days later when I developed it into an essay for Stephen Waddington's blog which, if you're interested, you can read here.
Image: Danielle Macinnes at Unsplash
We're all in this together. That's what we're told. We stay home and listen to the regurgitation of phrases that have slipped uneasily into use - social distancing, bubbles, reducing transmission - there's a lengthy list. As I write, here in New Zealand, we are thirty minutes away from discovering whether we will stay at Level Four Lockdown or transition to Level Three - described as Level Four but with takeaways. Life has changed. We're all in this together - except, we're not. The inequality that exists in systems worldwide means the lockdown experience varies wildly from mild inconvenience to a matter of life or death.
Global leadership too has varied wildly from country to country. Here, we have the relative sanity of Jacinda Ardern and her public health officials, including the Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. They communicate well, frequently and clearly. They empathise with the people here, understand the disparity of experience and hardships that ensue. They have done their job - as leaders, they have led, but done so by taking us with them, been part of the collective action rather than imposing instructions. Not everyone is happy, there are still many who balk at the lockdown and I fear all the good work will be undone in thirty minutes if Cabinet caves under pressure from the shouty white male journalists and politicians who seemingly have self-interest at the heart of their existence. They rage mostly in their middle-age spitting fury at boomers and millennials alike but flip-flop daily in their opinions as to the best thing to do. So not all is rosy in this garden but the grass is most definitely greener on our side of the leadership fence.
Overseas, we witness the rambling incoherence of an out-of-control president who apparently has no regard for anyone other than himself - he has that in common with the shouty men here. We see the recovery of bumbling Boris, who saw fit to thank the immigrants (Kiwi included) he said saved his life while he was suffering from COVID-19, brought on by a clinical dose of stupid following his glad-handing of patients and others to prove what a devil-may-care-jolly-good-sort he was. Johnson's convalescence appears to be taking some time and is perhaps an indication of the severity of the disease and the as- yet unresearched and unknown consequences of the illness.
The UK and USA are not alone in their poor leadership and crass management of the pandemic. Brazil, Turkmenistan, Mexico - each have leaders who have positively boiled over with bravado in the face of the virus and now find themselves staring at uncountable deaths and uncomfortable truths. One of the many important questions we have to answer from here onwards is what do we do with leaders who are only interested in power and not people? Extreme political ideology is most frequently used to wield power and control - not provide benefit or fulfil the basic human rights of others.
Jacinda Ardern stands out because she cares. Because she has stated her commitment and responsibility to the well-being of New Zealanders and lives that commitment every day. Emmanuel Macron stands out because he is passionate in his search for equality and the improvement of France and Europe. Angela Merkel - again, a person of integrity who cares deeply and has the intellectual capacity to see a way forward.
Question one for this next era is this - how will we make sure we have leaders who lead, leaders who listen and leaders who will make sure none are left behind as we head towards the new world?
Part of solving that puzzle is making sure leadership communication is at the forefront of any future nominations, appointments or elections. Making sure that even seemingly 'born' leaders are trained in their craft and that those who advise them are of equal skill and ability. Only then will we be able to develop an interdependent society that addresses threats collectively for the betterment of all.
There is no more business as usual. Our time periods are now BC-19 (Before Covid-19) and AC-19 (After Covid-19). Our world will slot into those periods as it continues to change at pace and there's a very long way to go before we arrive in AC-19. Saving lives is the right priority and, for those who have one, that means staying home. But while we’re at home, we have a responsibility to think — and think hard about what's next.
The economic and social consequences of the pandemic are far reaching and will be long lasting. We are all finding ways to help our organisations and communities deal with the immediate situation and work out what will constitute the new normal. What will your business, organisation, government — and country — look like in the next three to five years?
It certainly won't operate in the same way organisations have operated for the last 100 years. Where sector capacity has been reduced, for example air travel, it will take time to reinstate that capacity when confidence returns and demand grows — or it may be that both appetite and trust for large volume global travel is reduced so the industry must completely reinvent itself or disappear, a relic of a former age. So too with your own business or activity. None of us are immune. What is it you do now that could be done differently? If you mark today as the first day of the new normal what must you do? What has to be different? What creative approaches do you need to take in order to meet changing demands and needs? What is our new normal going to look like? And in getting there, how will we navigate the change and stay off the rocks?
Our evolution depends on two central relationship elements - trust and confidence. Societal trust and confidence is already shaken and, as we attempt to 'flatten the curve' of transmission, what are we doing to smooth the 'curve of confidence' (illustrated above) so, when people recover and start to gather again, they trust in the society and institutions that emerge from this unprecedented event? As COVID-19 progresses and the case curve flattens, another downward curve occurs as people lose confidence and trust in society, its institutions and organisations. Smoothing the curve upwards will be a work in progress that must continue long after the pandemic has moved through its stages and diminished. The world that emerges will not be the same world that was operating on December 31 2019 or even the world that began when the pandemic was announced. It will be a new world, with a new normal, operating in new and uncertain times. Collectively we will need to reimagine and create that normality for the benefit of all.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a redefining moment for the world. Spread of the disease has been fast and furious and given the rapidity of transmission in the three months since it emerged, we now face lengthy disruptions, with societal, economic and political consequences lasting much longer. Advice from WHO on March 7 2020 in the 'Critical preparedness, readiness and response actions for COVID-19 interim guidance' was as follows:
"Several countries have demonstrated that COVID-19 transmission from one person to another can be slowed or stopped. These actions have saved lives and have provided the rest of the world with more time to prepare for the arrival of COVID-19: to ready emergency response systems; to increase capacity to detect and care for patients; to ensure hospitals have the space, supplies and necessary personnel; and to develop life-saving medical interventions. Every country should urgently take all necessary measures to slow further spread and to avoid that their health systems become overwhelmed due to seriously ill patients with COVID-19. All countries should increase their level of preparedness,alert and response to identify, manage and care for new cases of COVID-19. Countries should prepare to respond to different public health scenarios, recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing cases and outbreaks of COVID-19. Each country should assess its risk and rapidly implement the necessary measures at the appropriate scale to reduce both COVID-19 transmission and economic, public and social impacts.”
That was the beginning of March and here we are at the end with some countries failing spectacularly to take the necessary actions to reduce transmission and save lives even though it was in their power to do so. In many places, there has been a failure to recognise risk, acknowledge the problem and act, in others a desperate attempt to cling to old systems that just won't work anymore.
As a trusted public relations and communications advisor to your organisation, you must deal not only with the immediate circumstances but with what's ahead, helping others acknowledge how different life will be. You need to consider the scenarios likely to result from the pandemic and advise on preparedness and potential effects. Never before have borders been closed so promptly, trade and commerce interrupted, countries shut down, freedom of movement restricted or curtailed, citizens surveilled, recorded and monitored. Trillions will be spent helping people to weather the crisis but the reality is that many of the systems we have become accustomed to will disappear and new societal norms will emerge. There will be a process of grief and loss for individuals and their communities.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, was recently quoted as saying: “Some countries have not been communicating well with their populations and creating some confusions in the minds of the populations and risk communication,” adding that “trust between governments and their citizens really does need to come to the centre.”
As public relations and communication professionals, trust is our business, a central factor of the relationships we build. This is our concern and our occupation. How we rebuild societal trust after the first wave of the disease has passed will be a central issue not just for governments but for all types of organisations. Faith in established systems will need to be restored if indeed those systems remain standing. Equally telling will be the speed of reinstatement of freedoms withdrawn as part of preventative measures.
Capacity will have to be rebuilt and demand stimulated in a time of economic instability, financial and emotional hardship along with distrust. We must start planning for the consequences while simultaneously dealing with the outbreak. Bringing contextual intelligence to your organisation is absolutely part of the public relations and communications function and, by addressing and preparing for probable scenarios, restoring stability and encouraging progress will be easier to manage.
Organisations, big and small, private and public sector are rightly concerned about the current situation. For many businesses, the simple question of 'will we make it through' is foremost in their minds as they see doors close for lockdowns, customers vanish, staff made redundant or having to stay at home. Small businesses are particularly at risk and the struggle to stay afloat will be too much for some. For millions of people, work has stopped, businesses have closed and life as they knew it is frozen. For public sector organisations, staffing and continued delivery of service is the challenge with healthcare and essential services being stretched to the limit.
Last year - 2019 - the Edelmen Trust Barometer, an annual research project that monitors and reports on levels of trust in society - announced that 'people have shifted their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers. Globally, 75 percent of people trust “my employer” to do what is right, significantly more than NGOs (57 percent), business (56 percent) and media (47 percent).'
So in this time of need, will that trust in employers be justified? Will employers step up and become the trusted organisation that people are looking for as other societal norms disintegrate? The answer is that some will - and some will not. My hope is that more will step up and act as responsible corporate citizens. Those that do will rely heavily on their social capital, good relationships and effective communication inside and outside their organisation.
Communicating clearly, often and to the right people at the right time will help nudge things forward. George Bernard Shaw's observation that "the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion it has taken place" is worth keeping in mind. It is easy to believe that because you've said something or sent something, everyone knows and understands perfectly. The reality is that even in ‘ordinary’ times people are often in an emotional state, not listening or only half listening, so they misinterpret the information. At present, that state is heightened and layered with many emotions - fear being the most intense. Classic example of this was the commentary on the day the World Health Organisation’s declared a pandemic. Social media posts (many of them) shared the information that 'WHO' had declared a pandemic. Comments were filled with confusion, the most frequent ones proclaiming "I don't know who has declared this - why are you asking me”. The simple abbreviation of the World Health Organisation's name had left people baffled.
I know that, like me, you won’t be surprised by this, yet still, communicators the world over are making assumptions that people know who's who, who's in charge, who's at risk, who to contact or what to do. We must constantly check the information we are sharing can be understood, is relevant, has meaning for our communities and is presented in language they understand. Whatever personal opinions are held, we must make sure that our information is based on available facts rather than opinions, perspectives and personal or political agendas.
Health professionals the world over are working tirelessly to help the sick, develop a vaccine, manage the pandemic and more besides. Others are keeping essential services running, filling the gaps caused by the monumental societal shift that’s occurring right now.
Our challenge — when we are staying at home as we should and not going out — is to work out the ways we will be operating next. What will society look like? How can we make it better? What can we do to contribute? What will our business or organisation do that will be of service to people? Real service, real need - not the fripperies driven by old school newly redundant marketing practices.
Those who have put the relationships critical to their licence to operate at the centre of their activities during BC-19 will be able to smooth the confidence and trust curves faster than most. We will come out of this knowing the things we can (and should) do without as well as a very clear idea as to the organisations and people we want to be with, work with and relate to — because their values are our values. Those who hold profit and power above people will be the dinosaurs of AC-19 as a new, innovative world emerges into air, sea and sky.
The big job in 2021/2 will be to rebuild trust - smooth the confidence curve - so people are willing to begin agin and more into AC19 physically and mentally. It will be a different world and will need human creativity, collaboration and compassion to rebuild.
Let's use this time wisely and figure out how we can make if fair, just and new.
Wherever you are in the world, I wish you well. Stay safe, stay kind, stay informed — and stay home.
Last outing for a while occurred in Auckland on Tuesday, presenting communications help and guidance as part of a panel for The Alternative Board. The event was designed to help small to medium sized businesses work out how they are going to stay viable and get through the current COVID-19 pandemic.
I was speaking about communication - the need to plan, plan again, act, rethink and then plan again for what will be a very different normal if, as businesses and organisations, we manage to get through to the other side.
Health professionals the world over are working tirelessly to help the sick, develop a vaccine, manage the pandemic and more besides. Our challenge is to sustain our economic activities - working within official advice, instruction and guidance - so that people have jobs, demand is stimulated when shutdowns and capacity reductions have ceased. The big job as the after-effects move into 2021 will be to rebuild trust - smoothing the confidence curve pictured below - so people are willing to 'begin again', physically and mentally. It will be a different world and will need human creativity, collaboration and compassion to rebuild.
Video extract above for your information - if you need help, contact me and we can work out a remote consultation or training session - whatever would help you most. And remember - whenever possible, separate the facts from the fear.
Wherever you are in the world, stay safe, stay informed and stay kind.
Today's World Health Organisation declaration of pandemic changes the game. Life is going to be very different during this pandemic stage and down the track, we'll be viewing life in two separate chunks - pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19. Our post-COVID-19 society and economy will look very different.
I've put together the COVID-19 resource for small businesses and solo communicators and you can get that here. It will be updated regularly as situations develop and there's useful information for anyone involved with communications right now.
Another urgency for us isn't just dealing with the situation we are faced with now - we need to look beyond the now and into what will be the 'new normal' in the years ahead.
The 'flatten the curve' graph has been widely shared and illustrates what happens without intevention - flattening the curve helps reduce impact on health services - but there is another curve that needs the attention of those of us outside the health system - the confidence curve. As the pandemic heightens and spreads, confidence and trust in organisations, social and economic systems rapidly diminishes.
We all need to tend to this curve throughout the crisis phase as, without care, it will extend far longer than the pandemic and, together with trust, must be smoothed and sent upwards so when all are well, societies can recover and regroup - albeit in a very different way to the way we've been operating for the best part of a century.
The post-COVID19 world will be very different, challenging and require a lot of work from all of us to create what will essentially be new systems and - hopefully - an improved society.
Wherever you are in the world, I hope you stay well, stay informed and stay kind.
Covid-19 is now viral - in every sense of the word. New Zealand announced its first confirmed case today, with officials stressing that it was always a case 'of not if, but when'.
Most country outbreaks are, for the time being at least, as contained as they can be but we all know how easy it is to catch a cold and, as Covid-19 is the same family as the 'common cold' I have no doubt that in the coming weeks we will all be aware of someone with the illness (if not ourselves).
Miscommunication has been rife for weeks now and has resulted in some very nasty racist attacks and displays of xenophobia. Social media is pumped up with rumour and counter-rumour and economic fall-out is beginning to occur.
So what role for practitioners in all of this? Quite a significant one of course but perhaps one of the most valuable and potentially overlooked roles in this type of situation is that of the internal communication professional.
Organisations of all types will face many challenges in the coming weeks and months. Inevitably supply chains will be disrupted and customers numbers will diminish but the greatest challenge will be staying in business or continuing to provide service as staff either fall ill, self-isolate or have to remain home as carers. Internal communicators should have already prepared their crisis plan in conjunction with their HR and leadership teams and have a programme underway - if not, now is the hour.
Clear, factual and consistent communication will help organisations maintain some form of business continuity. Internal communications professionals need to help their colleagues understand how everyone will work together to manage staff shortages, remote working, public-facing service delivery, wellness and hygiene as well as situation updates as case numbers rise and more people become unwell.
However, where the real value will be evident is in those workplaces where internal communicators have been active already, successfully building strong internal relationships in workplaces that give priority to the employee experience. In those instances, the crisis communication plan will be particularly effective because the fundamentals of trust, commitment and loyalty between the organisation and its employees will already be in place.
Hopefully, the organisations out there who prioritise and value their employee relationships outnumber those that don't - and those are the workplaces and organisations where the value of internal communications will be visible to all.
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
Be careful out there - there's a smog of misinformation that's fuelling some ghastly symptoms. China is caught up in an outbreak of a new virus and the symptoms being displayed elsewhere in the world are abhorrent. There's a rise in racist attacks, social media is alight with spurious claim and counter claim and 'official channels' are leaving an information vacuum that shortens the incubation period for conspiracy theorists and online trolls.
The main source of information should be the World Health Organisation but their briefings fluctuate from suggesting the situation is dire to suggesting all is contained. Their video on the virus wasn't terribly helpful and, to be fair, I found it to be a poor explanation of the situation that raised more questions than answers - plus it was a very patronising use of a very un-diverse Doodly-esq type video platform. Given the resources available at WHO, I really think they could have done better and should do better.
A global pandemic has been in the top five risks on the Global Risk Index for a number of years now and we've seen SARS, MERS and Ebola outbreaks since 2000 - so why has the communication around this viral outbreak stalled in such an amateurish way? Leaving questions unanswered creates worry and fear - emotions that are happily pounced on by those who want to further their own xenophobic agenda. WHO states this is a 'novel coronavirus', so it is new, it is relatively early days in the cycle - although the toll for Chinese people has been both considerable and deadly - and they are still piecing together information. All understandable challenges but in communicating the situation, tone should have been addressed as well as content. Tone that demonstrates some compassion for those suffering from the virus. Tone that allays the fears of those who think they might contract the virus and tone that affords some authority to those speaking about the virus.
During our risk and reputation training sessions this month we've tracked the 'spread of information' connected to Novel Coronavirus 2019 and one thing all the workshop participants agreed on was the need to urgently look at their own crisis and risk communication plans.
The other active discussions concerned the societal responsibility of all communicators to allay fears and minimise the chance (risk) of racist attacks. Staying informed, keeping up-to-date with the changing situation so we can advise and communicate risks and issues - all absolutely part of our jobs which, if the last month is anything to go by, are going to get more challenging than ever.
And if you need some help with your risk, reputation and issues management - contact us today and be prepared.
Photo by Macau Photo Agency 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.