Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The changing face of the PR expert



Danny Rogers, editor of PR Week, ran editorial in The Independent earlier this month talking about the still small voice of the comms expert. As he states 'a majority of FTSE 100 firms still do not have a communications expert on their executive board', shocking, as he puts it, when reputational errors regularly wipe millions of pounds off the price of shares, listing examples including BP's handling of the Gulf of Mexico crisis and Bob Diamond and Barclay's role in the libor scandal.

His insight is that thanks to the 'inherent transparency and traceability of digital communication' any big decisions business leaders take will eventually become public knowledge, making the senior comms adviser the "conscience" of the firm.

He quotes one director of comms: "Sometimes you simply have to tell other leaders: 'Ethically, we cannot do this'. But you may be seen as standing in the way of revenue-driving decisions and take a lot of flack."

One thing our industry isn't short of is labels and stereotypes, from Ab Fab's airy hedonistic excess, to the amorality evidenced in Absolute Power, or the recent (close to the bone?) absurdity of Press Officer Siobhan Sharpe in BBC mockumentary Twenty Twelve.

Outside of TV drama, Tony Blair's office openly elevated the 'Press Officer' to the upmost echelons of power, moving through the dizzying heights of the 1997 landslide victory to the vilified lows of 'sexing up' and 'spin'.

'Spin' left the context of the political floor where it was conceived as a word used openly as part of the workings of the political tradition, and became shorthand in the public lexicon for emptiness at best, and the dark arts of politicians distorting for their own ends at worst.

Set against this backdrop, the label of the "conscience" of business is one I'd like us to hold on to and embrace. The noughties (plus) look set to be remembered as the decades wrong doings of big institutions finally came to light, with politicians, media, police, banks and public persona receiving their share of the limelight via the expenses scandal, phone hacking, Hillsborough/Stephen Lawrence cases, banking collapse and the unfolding unsavouriness of Jimmy Saville's career, respectively. Communications, as a two-way mouthpiece between business/industry and the public, should be adapting accordingly, whether its strategically; advising and acting ethically, or tactically; creating content with substance.

In his article, Danny Rogers went on to list the well-known FTSE firms who do employ comms directors on their executive board: Ian Wright at Diageo, Dominic Fry at Marks & Spencers, Charlotte Lambkin at BAE Systems and Sir John Grant at British Gas, showing that while in the minority, there's a positive future for the new "conscience" of business.

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