Communicating for Sustainaibility in Cape Town May 12-15 at the 4th World PR Festival

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How do we keep business on this comeback trail? Public relations will play a critical role in the process. How do PR professionals help business remain trusted?
We listen and understand the impact of policies on all stakeholders. We need to keep our clients focused on the stakeholder, not the shareholder model (…). A new level of transparency is expected from companies, asking for input from enthusiastic consumers and informing communities about the rationale for a new power plant before going to government for approval. Respect for employees is the “new green” (…) with continued communication on performance and purpose a necessity. We should not allow ideologues to stigmatize these new corporate initiatives as “just PR” because we are, in fact, changing the face of business so that it can succeed in the 21st century. We are helping to provide the license to operate by letting business again be trusted to do what is right. I disagree with the UK’s Daily Telegraph article this morning by Jeff Randall who says “You cannot PR your way to a sustainable reputation. Those who think they can are confusing form and substance; they are doomed to fail.” The best PR is about substance, communicated well to all shareholders. (oops…a little slip here: I believe he means stakeholders…)
This quote is from Richard Edelman’s blog most recent entry and is worth importing in this post which has to do with what will happen in Cape Town (South Africa) in a few days when hundreds of professionals and scholars from all over the world will convene and participate to the 4th World Public Relations Festival which, this year, is dedicated to the theme: Communicating for Sustainability
The event, from May 12 to 15, is organized by the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management and by Prisa, the south african professional association….
You can browse through the program and see many interesting moments ahead and, as I plan to be there (and also co-blogger Joao Duarte will join us), at least the two of us will post our reciprocal takeaways.
I would like however, also picking up on Richards quote above, to establish a correlation between the two, in my view, quite different concepts of communicating for sustainability (the theme of the Festival), and sustainable communication (a recurring theme of this blog) and see if there is merit for further conversation.

In the best of all worlds I would say that communication for sustainability happens when an organization (private, public, social) decides that sustainability is a value which needs to be communicated with its influential publics.
By sustainability I intend a voluntary feature (i.e. going beyond hard and soft legal requirements) which the leadership of an organization decides to integrate in its performances (i.e. products and services, activities, functions, behaviours) in order to ensure (…or, at least, to perceivably attempt to ensure) the short, medium and long term satisfaction of its stakeholders while reducing to the minimum undesired (by the stakeholders) collateral effects.
With sustainable communication , instead, I mean that the communication function of any organization needs to ensure that all communicative behaviours of the organization be, in themselves, sustainable i.e. respond to the above definition of sustainability, and this of course applies not only to the activities of the communication function but to all other communication based activities which other functions of the organization perform with their respective stakeholders.

Now Richard writs that ‘pr helps business remain trusted by listening and understanding the impact of policies on stakeholders’. I very much appreciate that he does not limit our role to listening, but also to understanding (which is very relevant)….the impact of policies on stakeholders.
I would also add, after having understood what one has listened, the role of interpreting stakeholder expectations to organizational leadership, so that it may improve the quality of its decisions and accelerate their time of implementation (as I have maybe too often expressed in this blog).
The implication is that by limiting oneself to just listening to and understanding the impact of policies on stakeholders we are very close to the marketing model (scientific persuasion style) which listens mostly to improve the organization’s chances of success by improving its communication, and not by changing its own decisions before deciding to communicate them ( the fundamental difference between marketing and change or, as many prefer, transformation management).

If I interpret correctly, even before approaching the conceptualization of the stakeholder relationship management model which has become so embedded with social media, as Richard has neatly and clearly repeated to (and convinced) us over these recent years, in this case we still need to transit by the two way symmetrical model, which assumes that listening to publics (or stakeholders) benefits the organization’s processes so that both parties may benefit from the developing relationship.

Am I misrepresenting?
The question is of course relevant: if we are to assume as correct my interpretation of Richard’s position expressed in this post, then communicating for sustainability gives for granted that communication is by itself sustainable, while if this ain’t-necessarily-so (i.e. an organization communicates the value of sustainability but often adopting many unsustainable forms of communicative behaviour) then we are simply back to the scientific persuasion model.
Any sense in this argument?

10 COMMENTS

  1. Just received from our colleague in Teheran: what do you think?

    Open letter to:
    The Honorable Head of IPRA
    The Honorable Head of PRSA
    The Honorable Head of International PR Union

    I hereby present my sincere congratulations on your appointment as the head of IPRA. I first heard about you from Jeyda Ayde and have invited you for Iran First International PR Conference but you could not participate due to the overlapping of programs.
    Iran First International PR Conference was actually the first link between Iran’s public relations and the world of public relations and due to the efforts of PR Kargozar Institute, this relationship improves every day. This movement could help to create a culture of peace, equality, friendship and a world free from violence and dictatorship in which people with different cultures and ideologies enjoy a peaceful life.
    Your speech in opening ceremony in Brussels contained new and important points which had not been heard before and were promising. As you have mentioned in your speech, I wish you success in making for positive changes in IPRA during your one year management.
    Herewith, I, as a public relations practitioner who pursues the course of public relations and is very partial to its advancement, would like to mention some points:
    I suggested to the then head of IPRA in 2004, that this institute as mother association take the necessary actions and consult with UNESCO to register a day as the world’s day of public relations. The answer was that since I was not a member of the association, my suggestion could not be proposed in directorate assembly.
    I have not understood the relation between non-membership and considering a simple suggestion which could have many positive effects for the members of global society of public relations. Could the philosophy of IPRA be other than this? It seems that sooner or later “the global village of public relations” materializes. A phenomenon beyond Maclohan’s global village, which may seem too exaggerated. The cornerstone of global village is communication and establishing communication becomes true only in the global village of public relations.
    This raises the question that why the main members of this global village are so passive and inert toward different international changes – positive or negative. Why there is no name of international pr associations particularly IPRA in creating and promoting peace and equality? What are our responsibilities towards the citizens of public relations global village? Do we fulfill our duties?
    I believe that lack and weakness of communications is the root of all wars, violence, and misunderstandings. And this issue redoubles the vocation of international public relations practitioners.
    What it would be if we name the year 2008, the year of public relations, developing communications between different nations and cultures, the year of restoring peace and avoiding violence and inviting all the politicians to peace. Yes, public relations could be in such a status: safety, peace and global stability, humanities, relative welfare, admiration of friendship and fraternity, promoting the spirit of equation and thousands of other beautiful and holy words.
    Therefore, paving the ground for achieving peace is an inherent vocation and duty of public relations. Public relations is not just a business. If we consider it a commercial tool, this field will continue suffering from increasing abuse.
    Unfortunately, today’s public relations is far from its philosophy. The spotlight of Arthur Page is not on public relations anymore to clarify things. It is at the service of heads of organizations, lobbies, opportunists, political systems, and sybaritic people and this has become a pretext under which public relations is abused. Especially in commercial and even in communicational activities, social and ethical responsibilities that are the base of Venice and Athens Code are not observed and the citizens’ rights of public relations global village are disregarded. What is the responsibility of public relations practitioners in this fair and welter of information? What are the international plans for securing public relations against corruption and abuse? It seems that there are a lot of problems in the professional system and globalization of public relations.

    What should we do?
    1Developing the “global unique system of public relations”: part of this system is created by public relations associations and institutions but they seem not to be very successful in it till now.
    2Creating teams: public relations units particularly the associations related to them need professional teams to materialize their international, national and regional – and even organizational and local – goals and vocations.
    3Goal setting: what are the goals that international public relations pursue? And what are the tools that help us achieving these goals?
    Certainly there are different tools such as registering a day as public relations’ day which could be effective in professional consensus in universal level.
    The International Public Relations Association, especially you as its head, considering your brilliant professional background could certainly act successfully and effectively in materializing this aspiration of public relations global society.

    Hoping for that day
    Mehdi Bagherian
    Secretary General of Iran International PR Conference
    Member of Iran PR Practitioners’ board of directors

  2. REgarding your definition: >ensure (…or, at least, to perceivably attempt to ensure) the short, medium and long term satisfaction of its stakeholders while reducing to the minimum undesired (by the stakeholders) collateral effects.

  3. Further to the above….

    I asked a fellow PR person what she thogut suyustainability meant, and her definition was along the lines of mine (…keeping on…) and her example was tree farming.

    Cut down a tree, plant a tree, let the second one grow, cut it down, plant another one…

    BAK

  4. BAK,
    well, from a very limited point of view, this definition is not different from the one I proposed(which is obviously more catered to an organizational perpective).
    An organization cuts, grows, plants and cuts trees: ie. in other words, it collects various material and immaterial resources, combines them, transforms them and puts on the market derived products and services, making damn sure that it doesn’t compromise in the short, medium and long term the possibility of cutting other trees and of being better valued than competition for those products and services. I do not frankly see the difference.

  5. FYI, Richard Edelman is the keynote “interview subject” at the second day of the upcoming mesh07 conference: http://www.meshconference.com/schedule.php

    Keynote Conversation:
    The Future of Public Relations
    Stuart MacDonald talks to Global CEO of Edelman Richard Edelman.

    (I like the fact that the organizers dubbed it Keynote “Conversation.”) If his Conversation proves to have lots of interesting and useful information, I’ll be sure to post about it.

    The theme of the Global Alliance conference sounds fascinating; looking forward to lots of great posts from João and you!

  6. Toni, your system certainly does not like me.

    My 4:45 posting above is only a very small part of what I wrote — I thought somewhat deeply about the theme, commented on other speeches that are going to be made…

    Frustrating…

    Anyway, enjoy the conference.

    Quasi-related… story in the best Canadian paper today about the potential of a staffer in a Canadian government communications / PR department being a spy for China.

    If you run into any Canadians in Cape Town, this can be something to talk about.

    The Public Relations Society of America elected Queen is slated to speak in Cape Town. I look forward to any commentary you might post on her performance.

    BAK

  7. Toni,

    You quoted Richard saying «I disagree with the UK’s Daily Telegraph article this morning by Jeff Randall who says “You cannot PR your way to a sustainable reputation. Those who think they can are confusing form and substance; they are doomed to fail.” The best PR is about substance, communicated well to all shareholders. (oops…a little slip here: I believe he means stakeholders…)»

    Although I agree with everything Richard says about the purported transformation that PR is trying to accomplish with business models (Richard is surely one of the most trustful sources for this kind of comment), I seem to note in this quote a different message.

    To me, and obviously assuming that the quote is outside its whole context, the sentence underlines (in a pretty confused way, I also agree) that the ancient dichotomy between communication and acts (still taught in many PR schools all around the world) is no longer valid. The best part of this paradigm would be to agree that it is bad PR to accept that you can rely only on a communication that doesn’t reinforce your acts.

    Still based on this paradigm one can identify some different modes of relationship between your communication and your acts:

    1. With regard to the reinforcement criteria:
    Communication that reinforces your acts
    Communication that contradicts your acts
    2. With regard to the purpose of communication
    Communication that merely describes your acts
    Communication that is constitutive of your acts (this is the kind of situation we have, for example, in public information campaigns).

    However, I think we should all accept that actions are communicative in themselves and therefore there is not such thing as sustainable communication without sustainable action. Relationships are not built by isolated acts, but by actions (this incorporating also our explanation of our acts and its perception)

    Do you agree? In this context, what does “Communicating for sustainability” mean? Could it mean that we spend too much time thinking according to the paradigm of the dichotomy between acts and communication (while trying to stay particularly focused on the communication side)?

    João Duarte

  8. BAK,
    I truly apologise for the mishap and I would be very interested in reading your thoughts which did not make it here sofar, should you wish to make the undue effort…..

    Joao,
    Yes, I definitely agree with your arguments with a couple of caveats which I believe are relevant:
    a- organizations often communicate to develop and raise expectations rather than report actions. this is, for example, a feature highly present in financial and political public relations as well, as you say, in public information activities. these approaches are in themselves essential to social, political and economic development of these respective markets. Agree?

    b- as much as I agree that there is no sustainable communication without sustainable action, one must also consider that sustainable action may happen with unsustainable communication and unsustainable communication may accompany sustainable action.
    Right? Or wrong?
    This is what I very much hope will be, at least by some, discussed in Cape Town.

  9. Toni,

    ad (b) – I’m not sure if I understand the difference between
    “sustainable action may happen with unsustainable communication”
    and
    “unsustainable communication may accompany sustainable action”
    They seem to express very similar (identical?) ideas. Anyone care to kick-start my brain? 🙂
    Anyhow, do we have sufficient data to drill down into the interdependencies of (un)sustainable communication and (un)sustainable action? As far as I can tell, this hasn’t been a priority topic in pr debates in Austria, lately. At least not amongst practitioners.

  10. An organization may act sustainably (i.e. for example implement a corporate responsibility program addressed to its employees while its communication department deliberatly misinforms its shareholders or while its marketing department misinforms its customers.
    Conversely an organization may implement a sustainable program for its employees while implementing one way asymmetric internal communication…..
    As for your last paragraph, I had tried, with very minor success, to involve in the quest you mention the Ferpi csr working group exactly along those lines.
    We arrived at identifying a list of indicators capable of tracking those correlations but did not, as of today, proceed in this elaboration to elaborate operational guidelines which would allow us to verify in which part of the diagram any specific program or tool or channel would fit in order to detect gaps and areas of improvement. Maybe someone would be interested in proceeding along these lines.

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