I’ve just watched Australia’s ABC News, and the ABC’s European reporter Phillip Williams closed his latest update on the News International story with the words that, with tens of thousands of hacked names yet to be reviewed to add to the 4,000 people already known about, this story will run for years.
So far, the focus has been on one media organization, one country, one group of politicians and one nation’s police force. I think we can reasonably expect the debate to extend to our world of public relations, and we should hope that it does.
Here’s why. First, as I said in an earlier blog, and elsewhere, the way we all consume news may well change in ways that we thought we could predict but which now might take us by surprise. This may well include a move to rely on original sources, such as companies’ own web sites and other company sources, rather than the supposed impartiality of a newspaper. I say this because, while the public might not trust a company, that’s sort of to be expected and, as we’re now seeing, companies will react to public opinion. After all, if Rupert Murdoch can get it so badly wrong, many companies will be rethinking their own positions because they simply have neither his power nor chutzpah.
But, in truth, none of us can predict the exact nature of the future of news distribution.
Second, if the Internet is the immediate future’s distribution channel, the focus can now return to the content we all want communicated on that channel, and via the various mechanisms that can sit on the Internet. Do we want opinion, gossip, rumour, hard facts, raw data? Of course, the answer will be all of these. None, I think, requires a newspaper to provide it, by the way.
But for organizations seeking to act ethically, to build and maintain reputations, to do the right thing by customers because that makes the best commercial sense and keeps regulators at bay, and to be able to sleep at night knowing that shareholders, the public at large, other (more powerful) commentators (of whatever sort) support them, carefully-managed and resourced public relations functions, teams and programmes will be required.
I also think the debate about what public relations is can now stop. The words ‘public’ and ‘relations’ still say it all: our relations and relationships with the public.
The phrase has, over the decades, been hijacked by cynics and by examples of unethical and questionable behaviour in some PR quarters.
By definition, organizations want to have good relationships because trigger everything else (and, of course, we’re seeing how the absence of good relationships with the public works against you).
To create good relationships with the public (as you define it for your organization), organizations need to create value, and communicate its claims for that value and its understanding of what that value might be to an audience, with authenticity, clarity and certainty.
Authenticity means more than factual accuracy, which is proved or disproved very quickly. Authenticity means honour, truthfulness, being genuine.
Clarity means more than words than can be understood. It means context, balance, the omission of ambiguity.
Certainty means confidence in what’s been said, certain knowledge not that skeletons are hidden but that they simply don’t exist, honesty if unforseen problems arise. The audience needs to know that it can trust the organization making the claims.
Public relations teams and the public relations function can be a corporate-level facilitator in making all these real and true, and rise above being (in many cases) the mere publicity arm. And it’s clearer now than it’s ever been that should we fail in this, we will, in turn, get called on it.
The media as we know them will continue to play a part in all this, but that part will now change. I’m making no predictions here about what that will be ultimately, except that we should not be surprised if things end up at unexpected destinations. I think it’s all about to get both much harder, more interesting, and much more fulfilling. I can’t wait!