The PRCA (the UK-based industry body for communications professionals) recently announced that its core focus for 2018 will be on establishing “the social value and purpose of PR”. After a year that saw the swelling voices of #MeToo, ongoing investigations into Russian manipulation of democratic process through new media platforms and those same platforms being called upon to address the toxic content and communities they’ve enabled, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate focus.
It’s easy for governments and commentators to bash Big Tech for the “move fast and break things” attitude to innovation that has catapulted us forward in so many ways, yet generated a whole new type of threat in the process. However, we as an industry and the brands we serve must accept our own share of the blame. In a bid to nab the latest influencer and talk to key audiences through new platforms, big brands have fanned the flames and created new monsters like Logan Paul, whose gross “errors in judgement” elicit global backlashes, yet seemingly do nothing to diminish their power and social currency.
Contrast YouTube’s diluted “slap on the wrist” reaction to Paul’s “Suicide Forest” video and subsequent half-hearted (and monetized!) penance with the decisive steps taken by the likes of United Airlines, Avis, Hertz and many others to distance themselves from the NRA following the most recent school shooting in Florida. There’s clear confusion between the way that brands are reacting to “traditional” and new platforms. The concept of people doing stupid, offensive or irresponsible things for fame and fortune is nothing new but the shift to online has brought a “no holds barred” level of access to content and competition for eyeballs – most notably those of a younger, but increasingly influential audience. Big, blue-chip brands would never previously have thought to place their advertising in the likes of the National Inquirer, yet today, they sponsor, partner and court the modern versions.
YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have a job on their hands to balance the notions of free speech with demonstrating zero-tolerance for hate, violence and bullying but brands must also look at themselves, dig deeper into their values and reimagine their communications strategies. I can’t recall ever witnessing such a clear shift in zeitgeist, with consumers demanding that the once untouchable characters and companies take responsibility for their shady behaviour.
Moving forward, successful organisations won’t only succeed based on their innovations, or even by being seen to do the right thing; reputation management is no longer enough. Everything from their internal culture through to the way they conduct their business around the world, will have equal impact on a brand’s bottom line.
As communicators, it will be our job to help the C-suite and Board level identify the business imperative of the ethical imperative. We need to be better in order to do better.
I’m looking forward to seeing what we, as the PRCA’s PR and Communications Council will learn as we work through this critical challenge.