How public relations can help bridge the divide in society

I recently spent a thought provoking evening with Will Self. During the discussion potently titled “Is The Left Dead”, the journalist and political commentator mourned the slow death of debate and society itself.

In a 90-minute talk and question and answer session, Self reflected on the widening divide within communities, at both ends of the political spectrum. He lamented the demise of healthy, constructive debate in which people are receptive to having their opinion changed.

The diminishing art of people to listen and to be persuaded of different stand points and perspectives is hard to argue.

A quick look on Twitter at anything Brexit related throws up a host of examples of people shouting at each other in threads which often descend into personal abuse. Ironically it comes at a point in history where we’ve never needed to understand each other more.

As Britain prepares to leave the EU, austerity continues to bite, and the behaviour of the US President continues to cause world-wide concern, there is a clear lack of mutual understanding and too few protagonists working to unify our country.

 

Role of public relations

Times of turbulence and challenge present opportunity and life today presents an unrivalled one for the modern communicator.

As one of the CIPR’s founders Sir Tim Traverse-Healy wrote reflecting on the inauguration of the Institute 70 years ago: “To be correctly termed, public relations had to contain three elements in almost equal measure: truth, concern for the public interest and dialogue.

“These men had witnessed the miseries of war and, in this brave new world, believed that improved communication was a means of improving cooperation and reducing conflict between groups in society.”

The CIPR’s own definition of public relations as ‘the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics’ pinpoints our role.

We’re uniquely placed to offer insight and leadership, and to build relationships and to seek two-way dialogue. Our services have never been more critical to a healthy democracy.

With politicians eschewing the traditional media interview, opting instead to use owned and shared media (via influencers) to get their messages out, we are also needed to help our employers understand context, fact check, provide scrutiny and play our own part in holding leaders to account.

 

Be the change that you want to see in PR and the world

It’s one of the reasons a commitment to lifelong learning is so important. Having the appropriate skillset to advise in this way does not just come with years of experience but also training and qualifications, which must evolve as the industry does.

As yet, there are still only 255 CIPR Chartered Practitioners who have been assessed as having the strategic, ethical and leadership capabilities to formally place them in that elevated advisory position, although no doubt hundreds more must be eligible to get Chartered.

Recognising the need to help the skills of PR professionals operating at that level remain current, the CIPR has partnered with Impellus to introduce a new senior management training offer focused on leadership and strategic thinking. It’s a welcome move.

Divides in society can be quickly made and slow to fix but as practitioners with the power to build relationships and truly listen to our publics, we have a duty to use these skills for the greater good, with professional ethics at the front and centre of all we do.

This post first appeared in Communicate magazine in August 2018.