On 24th August 2006, a landmark debate was initiated in the UK.
Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary launched the government’s new Commission on Integration and Cohesion ‘to look at how to counter tensions between people of different ethnic groups and religions’.
While acknowledging the economic, cultural and social contribution that migrants have brought to the UK, Kelly went on to state that ‘it is now time to engage in a new and honest debate about integration and cohesion…we must be honest about the challenges we face and be prepared to meet these head on..’…
She talked about global tensions being reflected in local communities, about some white Britons feeling uncomfortable with the changes immigration brings and developing a sense of grievance.
She posed questions about multiculturalism and whether it had encouraged the development of separate communities with no sense of common identity. Kelly also gave examples of good social cohesion initiatives and of areas of the country that have come through difficult times to a point where conflict is being resolved.
It was interesting that she felt obliged to comment on the nature of the debate she wanted. ‘We must not be censored by political correctness, and we must not tiptoe around important issues.’
What was even more interesting were some of the follow-up interviews.
For example the Chair of the new Commission was asked by a BBC interviewer if he thought there was such a thing as Islamophobia and he prevaricated. Other contributors commenting on this said that that he clearly did not want to say anything that might alienate or inhibit contributors to the debate.
O dear, the English expression is ‘dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t’. This debate is critical for the good of society in the UK. How is it to be conducted and who should conduct it? Can it really be conducted with honesty and openness? One person’s honest is another’s profound offence.
Is there a role for public relations here? Yes there is.
Public relations can and has been used in reconciliation and conflict resolution around the world – in Northern Ireland and Croatia to name but two examples.
Contrary to the common misperception that public relations is primarily about promoting one side of the debate at the expense of the other, the highest calling for public relations can be quite the reverse.
Yes, there must be rigorous, debate of the arguments in a spirit of trying to flush out the real issues: this must recognise the reality that this issue is something that relates to people’s intrinsic sense of identity, so it will be an emotional and passionate argument, not just a rational one.
Wherever possible there must be a willingness to change as well as to demand change and this is hard where issues of belief are concerned.
If change is not possible, then at least there should be a sincere desire to understand the position of the other person and to respect it.
However, the over-riding end-point must be a desire to work together to build a community that works and that means accepting that there is an individual duty and responsibility to make it happen.
As Kelly said in her speech ‘fundamental rights must be equal for everyone, with rights come responsibilities. Even within a framework of mutual tolerance… there are non-negotiable rules’.
Public relations can help to frame the debate, help with the process of the debate – ensuring that the variety of points of view are properly represented and balanced and help to bring communities together to think through the key issues and ways forward.
As Kruckeberg and Stacks say ‘A community is achieved when people are aware of and interested in common ends and regulate their activity in view of those ends. Communication plays a vital role as people try to regulate their own activities and to participate in efforts to reach common ends’.
Public relations can play a part, but of course only a part and, unfortunately it cannot do anything about those people who have no intention whatever of building a community based on common ends – although it would strive to open up a dialogue even here.
To see Ruth Kelly’s speech in full see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/5281572.stm
I am flattered that Anne Gregory has sent this higly forceful post. Anne is one of the most articulate leading figures of british public relations today. For years an excellent professional at Shandwick, then became full professor of public relations at Leeds Metropolitan University, the first in England and was also president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. A true star and a great human being..(tmf)