Monday, 29 October 2012

The Melbourne Mandate – another missed opportunity?

The major outcome of the World Public Relations Forum in Melbourne (November 18-20) is to be the ‘Melbourne Mandate’, a four-page document that is presented as “A call for action for new areas of value in public relations and communication management”.
I have been sent a late consultation draft for review. Overall, there's nothing offensive in it but it has a limited perspective. There is much Excellence Theory crossed with relationship management and CSR but also some ethical relativism that could be eliminated by stronger statements.
My research over 20 years has found that (a) 75-80% of PR practitioners are essentially one-way communicators, either performing an informational or a publicity/marketing "PR" roles and (b) there are many ethical dilemmas that face younger practitioners, which PR codes of conduct and practice overlook.
The model on which the Mandate is based is essentially that of the senior corporate communicator who has the ear of senior management or, in a limited number of cases, is a member of the management team (the Grunigian "dominant coalition"). It doesn’t address the bulk of junior and mid-level practitioners who make up GA's 160,000 members.
 There has been much discussion over the past 20 years ranging from Harold Burson to Jim Grunig to Derina Holtzhausen about the PR practitioner at the centre of the business, its "conscience" or in Holtzhausen's model, a post-modern activist who is the advocate of voices and stakeholders (internal and external) to senior management.
The Mandate "sort-of" positions the PR practitioner as a credible intermediary but it is primarily to achieve the organisation's aims. For example, it says PR practitioners have a mandate to "help leaders best communicate these beliefs to inspire stakeholders to follow, support, or change behaviour".  But, where is the fundamental imperative to ‘bring organisations and stakeholders together to create mutual benefit'? I'd prefer to see the PR practitioner more clearly positioned as the activist intermediary.
I consider the Mandate needs absolute values to be expressed, such as 'PR practitioners will tell the truth in all personal and written communication (Ivy Lee stated this in 1906 but never really delivered on it) and 'they have the imperative to do good and create mutual benefit throughout their working lives.'
There are weasel words expressed, such as "be guardians of the organization's character and values" (but what if it is a rapacious corporate raider?) and "build trust through enduring and respectful relationships with internal and external relationships".
I have hinted at relativism, e.g. the promotion of organisational values that are dubious. Many CEOs, for example, still adhere to the Milton Friedman and Martin Wolf views of CSR that the company's prime responsibility is to its shareholders, whilst operating within laws and regulations. That may be unfashionable in PR/Corpcomms but it is widely held. The Mandate could be reads as if it endorses that view, which could also be the "authentic organisation", beloved of the Arthur W. Page Society.
There should be another imperative that managers will not use their power to distort the ethical compass of junior staff by asking them to undertake activities or prepare communication which they know are not truthful. When students come back from placements or as young graduates speak with me and colleagues, we are often disappointed that employers put pressure on them to "gild the lily" or to engage in unethical practices (e.g. write fake consumer feedback on websites), with the implied pressure that "it's my way or the highway". Either do what you're told or get another job. This is rife.
 As for the bulk of practitioners who engage in publicity activities, the Mandate should be saying that "communication on behalf of employers, clients and brands should not over-state the value of products and services that distorts the expectations of consumers and other stakeholders."
 My final thought is that the Mandate should be openly discussing the impact of social media upon organisations, PR practitioners and communications practices. There are elements such as the emphasis on relationships, the "culture of listening and engagement" but social media has changed the rules. As we all know, the notion of control (if it ever existed) over communication has gone forever. That means that transparency and ethical behaviour are not optional but central to the organisational 'licence to operate' and credibility.
 In summary, the Mandate needs to be shortened, made ethically tighter and more explicitly expressed. It also needs to have a commitment from GA members that it will be enforced. I have reviewed the IPRA archive and found that from 1965 when its Code of Athens ethical statement was adopted to 2002, there were no actions against members. 37 years and no unethical behaviour? It appears to have been talk and nothing more. The Mandate should aim to avoid a similar fate.