The ethical state, social communication and public relations…

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How effective are social communication campaigns, specifically when they are enacted by public institutions and their aim is to con-vince publics to modify their day-to-day behaviours?

The amount of literature is overwhelming and highly contradictory.

Of course governments and other public agencies or institutions, normally advised by many of our colleagues who thrive on the trade and tickle the ego of these organization’s leaderships, tend to overlook and set aside the contradictory evidence.
Yet recent events have been more than explicit, even for a non expert eye.

Is it not time for our professional community and its various representative organizations to take a good look at this increasing segment of our market and aim to protect -rather than merely their own members, friends and families- also the stakeholders of these members such as organizational leaderships, other stakeholder and non stakeholder publics?

Back in 2003 I wrote and published (in Italian) an essay in the first edition of the Annuary of Social Communication of the University of Torino, bringing evidence that not only a high percentage of Italy’s social communication efforts were useless and a waste of money, but that at least some was actually counterproductive (i.e produced results which turned out to be the opposite of claimed intentions).
That essay was received with outraged comments by more than one of my colleagues who flourish in that market.

Recently Fareed Zacharia, a commentator I highly respect, wrote an interesting piece blasting against the global thematization of the socalled ‘swine flu’ and, on this particular one, I disagree.
I am instead convinced that the pandemia scare was the only way to effectively raise the attention of usually distracted governments and succeeded in strongly reducing its effects.

A similar case happened in 1999 with the Y2K bug thematization which convinced governments and complex organizations of all sorts to fix and update their systems: yes, a boom for the IT sector, but also and effective removal of what could have been a major global catastrophy.
Organizations participated actively mostly because afraid they would have been blamed by the whole world had they not actively cooperated.

On the other hand and more recently (at least in Italy), after at least 12 years of official statistics touting the effectiveness of relentless and insisted antismoking campaigns, which apparently sparked a significant reduction of the number of smokers, the Government was caught off guard by a credible statistic claiming that not only had the percentage of smokers risen form 22 to 24 % in the last year, but that the largest increase came about in the early teens segment of the population.

Not only does the equiparation of the cigarette as a drug stimulate younger ones to pass on from cigarettes to heroin or coke, but the pervasive insistence of these ‘messages’ attracts attention as well as the ‘youth spite’ to experiment, as institutions are much less credible than they have ever been…. and we well know that communication is effective if the content is familiar (and the social campaign makes the content familiar) and the source is credible (and this is certainly not the case).

Yet, more and more, public policy makers tend to fall for our fastidious, spinned and sweeping professional offer with which we argue that not only we are capable of changing opinions of a public, but that having changed their opinions… those publics will also change their behaviours….. which in my view in only another (and possibly the most important) of the many shattering paradigms of our profession.
Your opinions?

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