Permanent Engagement – Creating a common realm for the common good

I spent 25 years in the Public Relations industry and have just published Trust Me, PR Is Dead. PR doesn’t work any more. It has been strangled by many forces, but not least by the rising tide of citizen empowerment -just as trust has been used and abused by too many tired elites.

Film Director Spike Lee famously championed the phrase “do the right thing”. Otherwise, as Compass Chair Neal Lawson points out, “they will get you”. Kerry Stares, who leads private sector advocacy at Action Aid recently put it thus: “resistance is (now) futile”. It doesn’t matter whether you are Miliband or M&S, HSBC or UKIP.

Leaders should take note. These are not just hollow threats from angry activists. They are more a reflection of the way the world has changed – accelerated by a post-GFS, Occupy-infused discontentment with politics and the corporate world and the painless, costless connectivity of technology and social networks. Information and whistleblowers abound.  Nothing is secret. We are all activists now.

That’s why the age of spin and of “message management” is over and why even the worthiest of Press Releases belongs in the bin. “You may say that but we’re not listening”. We want to hold you accountable.

Trusted sources of information and opinion are peer-to-peer and involve real people, with real lives and everyday, real concerns. Collectively, there is an inherent understanding of the common good – what is fair and right for all – matched with, let’s face it, a seemingly unshakeable mistrust of the political and corporate worlds (Starbucks, anyone?) and their advisors. At times, of course, healthy scepticism tips into sad cynicism and dis-enfranchisement, which is why the result occasionally nets out with a Russell Brand.

Problematically, our world is getting more complex, not less – however much we want to consume our 24/7 global news and views in ever-smaller chunks on ever-smaller devices. Issues are global and inter-dependent. There are very rarely easy answers anymore, no moral definites, and the reality is that no answers can be manicured. The truth will out: just ask Edward Snowden or Julian Assange – or HSBC.

This is why we need to replace clever press releases with better process.

Engagement needs to be permanent not intermittent, precisely because there is no longer an end-point, no simple conclusion – however much traditional leadership structures still strive for one. No solution can be imposed. The conversation is fluid, permanent and always-on. All the corporate and indeed political world can do is participate as one of many players – to enjoy a truthful, authentic and equal voice and to embrace a plurality of views, even the uncomfortably dissenting. Corporates, with plentiful resources, can help enable the space for discussion but they can’t and shouldn’t own the discussion outright. It is not theirs to own.

The smart leaders and organisations of the future are willing to participate on these terms – to create spaces in which honest and transparent conversations can be fully aired. No-one, as the saying goes, can learn if they do not listen – and nowhere is this more important than on issues of “common good”. By its very definition, common good cannot reside at the command of a politician or a corporate body; it belongs to citizens and society at large.

It is in within this new, common realm that the corporates, their advisors and regulators need to work and create together  – collectively identifying and becoming accountable to a wider citizenship and the public value of common good. Right now, that space is certainly squeezed, if it is there at all. 

All parties, to paraphrase one politician, will have to “give a bit and run with it.” Trust in the ambition is important as is the recognition that no-one has all the answers. Campaigners (politicians, too) will need to stop being simplistic, just as the corporate world and those who regulate it will have to stop being opaque or hiding behind non-human language. This, to return to Neal Lawson “is a future that will be negotiated not imposed”: a human negotiation of empathy and respect for others.

Success demands adult-to-adult engagement between all parties and transparency that is much more about behaviour than it is about data release. Companies should openly publish their strategies, not just their expense receipts.

For all businesses, there is an ultimate responsibility to clients and customers, to government, and to we, the citizens.  This means everyone must strive for the highest ethical standards, delivered through actions, not words.

Those at the vanguard of creating these new conversational spaces will not get everything right from the start. Instead, openness and a long-term commitment to the process is critical – a permanent engagement that allows all stakeholders to share ideas, take criticism and negotiate together to find public value. Process can help deliver purpose.

Robert Phillips is the co-founder of Jericho Chambers, a Visiting Professor at Cass Business School, the author of Trust Me, PR Is Dead (Unbound, 2015) and co-author of Citizen Renaissance (2008). He was previously President and CEO, EMEA, for Edelman, the world’s largest Public Relations firm.

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