All Corporate communication is unethical

Ok, now that I have your attention, let me explain. If you are a PR student, it is likely that somewhere along the line you have been told about Grunig & Grunig’s Excellence Theory of PR, which suggests that PR practitioners should aspire to achieve “two-way symmetrical communication with stakeholders”.  And, in its later iterations, the Excellence Theory suggests that if corporate communication is not symmetric, then it is by definition unethical.  Symmetry, by the way, means “equally balanced”.

That idea has been bugging me for years -and now I’ve decided to call time on this idea.  Practitioners have to make decisions, set priorities, work with limited budgets, and even more limited attention spans of senior management. Everyone KNOWS that you focus your efforts on those stakeholders that matter. And, that even within a single stakeholder group, you are not “evenly balanced” in your communication. Not all media within the media stakeholder group are treated the same. Not every employee is communicated with on an equal basis often for legal reasons, as well as practical ones.

The other thing wrong with the theory is that it implies that stakeholders are equally interested in communicating with the company as the company is interested in communicating with them. And that is just plain lunacy. Few stakeholders care equally about the companies with whom they interact. Even Greenpeace targets its efforts on chocolate production to those manufacturers with the biggest production and customer base. If you are small and niche, you are off their radar. So, not all stakeholders care as much about you as you do about them, if you are a corporate communicator. In fact, far from being symmetric, it’s sometimes hard to get them to pay attention at all.

In my view the symmetric communication idea is a complete fallacy. No two people, let along stakeholder groups, have an identical or equally balanced investment in the conversation, even when it is two-way. So, let’s put this lame duck theory to bed. What matters is not “symmetry”, but rather” effectiveness”. So, repeat after me- “ethical communication is NOT about symmetry”….

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Trust, Transparency and …power!

 There are a number of very interesting discussions going on at the moment in my favourite blog, about trust , about transparency and about CSR. 

I have already nailed my colours to the mast and said that I think all communication is inherently asymmetric, because information is never shared equally between two parties, nor is interest in the discussion. A company has a lot of reasons to want to communicate some (but not all!) of the information it has, but stakeholders have a lot of voices competing for their attention, and are less likely to want to listen.  In that environment, how do you cut through the noise and give stakeholders want they want and need?

Craig Pearce makes a case for organisations being up front with the negatives, because honesty can win trust, and create a dialogue, especially if it is clear that the news will get out anyway (accelerated or not by social media).  I think a lot depends on which stakeholders you are talking about. Coming from a financial services background, I have a predilection for investor relations- and they are the ones who can kill a company. So, I am not surprised that companies have statutory obligations to release price sensitive information in a controlled manner.  Disclosure here is strictly legally controlled and required.

I am continually surprised, however, by my students’ surprise that CSR issues are not that important to customers or consumers. Every year I watch their research efforts come up with the same results- that while “nice to have”, ethical sourcing and other CSR attributes will not often win against price considerations for the majority of “the public”.

Where CSR actually bites hardest is …amongst the investors. There is an entire discipline devoted to measuring, hedging and managing corporate risk. I know, I used to work for an investment bank. And CSR risk increasingly features in that calculation of corporate risk. Don’t believe me? Check out FTSE4Good. This is above and beyond the “ethical investment” niche market.  Corporate management is taking more care these days to factor in CSR KPIs into their risk calculations- less because of fear of damaging their reputation amongst customers and more in fear of regulatory backlash.

If communication is about change (either promoting it or protecting against it, as Craig argues), then the most powerful change agents out there are the regulators, who, with one change of the law or statute, can change the rules of engagement. Because I have been a lobbyist, I never estimate the power of the politician to create havoc- intended or not- through well meaning but daft legislation.

So, I will add to my political incorrectness by arguing that not only is all communication asymmetric, but I also believe that all stakeholders are not equal, nor should they be treated as such. When resources are stretched, budgets under threat and the pressure is on, PR and communications functions need to prioritise their stakeholder communication. And it all comes down to focusing on those with the most power.

Measurement- 2.0

The Social Media group at the CIPR have produced new Social Media Measurement Guidance, six months after the main exercise to give the Barcelona Principles shape. Was the extra time warranted? Was extra caution warranted before applying the “valid metrics matrix” to social media when other PR measurement was covered in October?

 Reading the document makes me wonder whether the wait was worth it, given that so much that they urge seems equally applicable to traditional PR, as well as that conducted in the social media environment.  The Guidance assumes that there is a difference, given that “social web participants produce, share, curate and publish as well as consume.”  Well, I would argue that good “old fashioned” PR creates engagement. Face-to-face and intermediated mechanisms have existed for decades; social media just makes it easier, quicker, cheaper. It’s a matter of degree, rather than uniqueness.

The sixth of the Barcelona Principles is that “Social media can and should be measured.” Well, duh, as my American friends would say.

I have been sceptical for at least a decade of PR that counts clicks, just as much as I deride AVEs and “opportunities to see”. It’s what people DO that counts, not what they read- on or off line. It is a case of the blindingly obvious that the most important purpose of PR is not awareness or perception, but rather action So, I concur with the new Guidance’s emphasis on the “metrics of engagement not just consumption, awareness or reach”- but that applies equally to PR using traditional media as well as social media.

I do think that the task group was a little simplistic in their criticism of the matrix when they worried that “too many of the example metrics in one cell were repeated in other cells”. That seems to my eye to be their poor understanding of what they should be measuring- and I quarrel with most of what they have populated the cells with. Why, for example, should they simply repeat across all of the matrix for PR Activity the number of outputs, as if implying that quantity was the important issue? I’ve always argued that it isn’t the number, it’s who and what is being said. More than a name check, this needs careful analysis of content and context, and that applies to social media as much as traditional PR.

I do applaud their desire to debunk the myth that “the more followers/friends the better.”  I have always argued that unless you are CocaCola or Macdonalds, PR is almost never a mass market numbers game. What matters is influencing the right stakeholder at the right time. That needs pinpoint targeting- and social media rarely delivers more than a very few stakeholder groups. “Fans and friends”, even if they are customers, are only one type of stakeholder group. As my students are wont to hear from me, customers are usually the least important stakeholder group. So, if you fill your PR reports to clients with the sort of charts like those above, whilst explaining that you are deploying a communication strategy that delivers “two way symmetric communication” just because it uses social media and gets some comments and feedback that way- well, this is just plain wrong. This conclusion may make me unpopular with the Facebook generation, but I argue that for most organisations the most important stakeholders are not online or engaging with social media.

So, I endorse the Working Party’s conclusion that “one metric never suffices. You will need a balanced portfolio of metrics.” Once again, duh…

PR Trendsetting?

“In 2011 we will see the role of the community manager become intrinsic to the success of the brand’s ability to engage that community… ‘Who’s your community manager?’ will be the phrase doing the rounds in marketing and PR departments in 2011.”

Flavour of the month, or trend of the future? This is the challenge for final year PR students. Can you grasp the professional need to do something different on social media when you have been used to using it for social reasons? Can you raise your game, so that you leverage your grasp of Facebook, Twitter and instant messaging into something more meaningful than the fact that you’ve just snogged your boyfriend?

I am still surprised that the “internet generation” still has so much to learn about community management. Facebook status updates from most users are banal, boring and repetitive- very “me focused” and assuming that the rest of the world cares when you are dancing on top of a table or waiting in a bus queue.

The tools of community management seem better used on Linked In (or Facebook for adults, as I tend to call it). At least there you join groups that are generally full of like-minded professional people, who want to discuss an issue that is more pressing than the latest music from an obscure band, or a Farmville move. Linked In is all about stakeholder management online, or what we now call community management.

Twelve of my students are taking on a final year media communication project, and most of them are working on some aspect of community management. They are the ones that will get jobs!

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

Unilever’s new Sustainable Living Initiative (see http://www.sustainable-living.unilever.com/ ) is an interesting attempt to take a global approach to sustainability, and by a global company that can exercise serious market clout. But…I have been surprised by the critical responses by a number of ethical business bloggers, who use it as an opportunity to pick holes in it and demand yet more. For an example, see http://ethicalcorp.blogspot.com/2010/11/unilever-raises-sustainability-bar-but.html

As a corporate communications professional, if I managed to get such an initiative supported by my board, I’d be dancing down the streets in delight. So, when the stakeholder activist groups don’t greet it as a major success story, it is disappointing. Do companies that take a bold stance, often at the expense of profits, risk sticking their necks out? Do they get criticised for their misdemeanors more than those (Like Associated British Foods’ Primark, for example) who make little pretence of ethical sourcing? I wonder whether the activists could do more by praising those who are trying hard to do better.

Marketing vs PR- Cat and dog fight, chicken or egg?

As someone who has had the opportunity to be both a marketing director and a PR director- and once, both at the same time!- I have the battle scars to prove that this is not an easy one to resolve. Is PR a subset of marketing or an entirely different kettle of fish? I like Craig Pearce’s take on this- monologic vs dialogic- with PR about two way customer engagement, and marketing about one way promotion. But…sometimes the dividing lines blur, especially when companies get more sophisticated about their client relationship management.

The one difference I would stress is that marketing is about customers, and PR is about stakeholders, of which only one subset is customers. Does that mean PR is “superior” to marketing? That all depends on whether customers are the most important stakeholder group. And that depends on the culture (and financing) of the organisation. As a corporate strategist myself, I’ve always said shareholders come first. Without them there is no company to sell anything to a customer. Mind you…to win investor support, you need to convince them that you are a viable business able to sell to customers. The relationship may better be described as chicken AND egg!

Strategy vs tactics

I am glad that few of my PR students are generals on a battlefield- because the one thing that seems to be all too common is how young PR practitioners confuse tactics with strategy. The battels are won by good generals because they know their enemies, know their own army’s strenghts and weaknesses, and can pick the ground and the right time to start the campaign. Unfortunately, young PR practitioners are not good generals- yet.

Going through a variety of creative briefs at them oment, I am struck by how many confuse tactics for strategy. I describe it as kids rushing off to play with all the toys, rather than thinking about what they actually SHOULD be doing. So often people just look for “what’s missing” and then try to supply it, without thinking about whether it actually suits the business needs of the client. So, for example, there is a rush to “do the social media thing”- roll out a twitter campaign, embrace a facebook group, get the CEO to do a blog- without asking the inevitable “why”?

If your stakeholders are old and wrinkly, if the majority of your charity income is from big ticket corporate donations, if your cause is not soft and fluffy, photogenic and newsworthy, then a lot of the standard tools in the PR toolbox are not necessarily going to be helpful to your campaign. So, before grabbing the social media spanner, ask yourself whether the client actually NEEDs an all-singing, all dancing website, a social media facebook group or a twitter exercise. They are cheap and easy to do sure, but you wouldn’t use a hammer to unscrew a lightbulb, would you? Choose the right tactic to suit the strategy, not the other way around.