This is part of a series of blog posts celebrating our 50th anniversary, all of which address the question: What does the future of the PR and communications industry look like?
Recent decades have found the global public relations profession ratcheting up our management-function mantra as “the voice of conscience” within any organization.
While inspirational-sounding, the idea nonetheless strikes at the heart of our profession’s universal – and rather uncomfortable – question of self-awareness: Will public relations be relegated in perpetuity to playing nurse maid and PR janitorial service to those executives who make misguided decisions-without-a-conscience?
Or, will our profession correct the paradigm – once and for all – to one of public relations as the fully comprehended, respected and indispensable map-makers of significant pathways for corporate viability, success and longevity?
As the authors and owners of our story, we in public relations must answer these questions, not in rhetoric, but in definitive action.
In short, public relations must be represented not just in the C-Suite on equal footing with other management disciplines, but also with representation at the ultimate table: the board of directors.
We must face our global failure, as yet, to leverage the highest-and-best-use of our profession’s strategic expertise, given the glaring absence of such voices on the preponderance of corporate boards worldwide.
No one is going to undertake this task for us – hence the necessity of this call-to-action for the future of PR. It is we who must take ownership to effect necessary change.
In the latest edition of Harvard Business Review, “How to Scandal-Proof Your Company,” authors Paul Healy and George Serafeim cite the smoldering Wells Fargo case example of how “a warped corporate culture, a decentralized organizational structure, and poor leadership were to blame” for one of the largest independent, ongoing bank crises in U.S. history, which has rendered quantitative, negative reputational impact on the entire U.S. banking industry – not just on Wells Fargo.
For purposes of winsome ideation: What if Wells Fargo’s corporate board had included one – just one – singular voice of credibility and consequence from the executive-level public relations profession . . . one with both the ethical wherewithal and leadership gravitas necessary to have pumped the brakes on the bank’s apparent profits-at-all-cost mentality in the years leading up to 2016, when the company’s ill-gotten gains were laid bare?
Such leadership is, after all, what qualified, experienced public relations executives render on any given day, to help executive teams avert disastrous, colossal errors in judgment, in the “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” category.
By contrast, Wells Fargo’s proxy statement of 2016 listed “director qualifications and experience represented on our board,” with nary a mention of the terms “business ethics,” “public relations,” “strategic communication,” or any reasonable facsimile, beyond references to lobbying and the rather en vogue term, “social responsibility,” which, in context, seems akin to politically correct posturing aptitude rather than fiduciary “responsibility” to any “social” cohort.
As egregious as the Wells Fargo example is, the profound lack of public relations’ voice at the board level stands as the overwhelming rule rather than the exception.
We need to change it.
It’s beyond overdue for the public relations profession to secure representation on corporate boards. It will take organizations of PRCA’s substance, ethical authority, and critical grasp of the stakes, to make the case effectively.
With 25 years’ experience, Mary Beth West, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a U.S.-based member of PRCA and a senior strategist at Fletcher PR. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @marybethwest.