Monday, April 02, 2012

PR - catalyst for CSR or defender of the indefensible?

As public relations advisers we can be a powerful catalyst for change inside business - whether from within or outside - as influencers of leadership. 

Or we can accept the status quo - and end up defending it after it's use by date.

Some PR leaders achieve great change by sensitising their colleagues on the leadership team to the need for change. By actively seeking and sharing signals from the external environment about trends, community standards, and potential issues or opportunities. And then setting out a path that will see their business or client deliver both commercial and social dividends - real shared value as defined by Michael Porter and others. 

Socially responsible business is now about creating shared value. The PR profession can, and should, be leaders of that agenda as they proactively seek information and insights to feed into strategy, decision and management action.

After more than 20 years in profession I'm a great believer that (it's not original) the best PR people transcend our profession. They're smart, commercial and highly aware of what's going on inside and outside their organisations. And they almost always have a broader education, career or expertise than "public relations". It's that last bit, I believe, that makes them truly great.

Other PR people simply defend the indefensible. They don't question, they don't challenge, they simply "do". It's a path that leads to (at best) missed opportunity or (at worst) mis-selling.

In financial services the quality of the leadership in PR matters immensely. Why?

In the words of an industry stalwart we're selling "promises and pieces of paper". These days we're selling promises and online communication. The role of the communicators is to make sure what we sell is in fact responsibly represented. Not mis-represented or mis-sold. 

Surely the single most important socially responsible action we can take as communicators in financial services is this:

"Help people make better decisions about their financial futures."

And, in line with that:

"Help business make better decisions in light of the internal and external environment"

My colleague Kaitlin Walsh blogged and tweeted from the first Asia Pacific regional GRI conference this week and posted this blog. In it she said 

"At its heart, the sustainability story is about making sure your business or organisation is here for the long haul. That it’s prepared not only to survive but to flourish in the face of the constant and unrelenting change that characterises our living and working environments. That it follows practices that are likely to cement its position as a stayer, and not put it – and more importantly the many who rely on it both directly and indirectly – at risk. (Consider here the mammoth impact of the conduct of financial services organisations concerned with stewarding our retirement incomes …)"

So my recommendation to you as a PR person is this: make your choice

Choose either to lead - to be part of the catalytic mechanism that sees our organisations increasingly deliver shared value - or resign yourself to defending the indefensible. 

Maybe not now, but at some stage in the future if you didn't stand for the change that's needed it's guaranteed you'll find yourself defending something not worth saving.

Harsh words? Maybe. Or perhaps just what my colleagues and management writer Patrick Lencioni would call "the kind truth"

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