It is interesting that the word ‘consultant’ derives from the Latin, consultare, meaning to debate or discuss. That implies its function is to assist in two-way communications – yet, the role of management consultancy is positioned as assisting organizations to improve performance, through logical analysis and development of plans. The focus is more on management rather than consultancy.
The history of management consultancy is tied closely to analytical processes and a rational, scientific approach to organizational operations. Consultants provide expertise, often in a prescriptive manner, determining ‘best practice’ that will result from adhering to recommended strategies.
This philosophy underpins modern management with a belief that outcomes can be predicted, risk managed and success achieved by a process of research, reflection, monitoring and evaluation.
Public relations has followed this route in seeking increased status and recognition as a serious business management consultancy service – whether operating within an organization or as external experts.
Personally, I don’t believe the world is so readily predictable – for me, the idea of rational management is largely a placebo, making organizations feel in control by virtue of implementing processes and seeking the ‘right way’ to operate. (That’s not to say processes aren’t important – but they should not take precedence over a need to adapt and respond to a dynamic environment.)
Consequently, I am interested in the idea of ‘integrated reporting’ and the involvement of public relations in advocating its adoption alongside governments, global businesses, the investment community – and management consultants.
Toni Muzi Falconi argues, in relation to the Stockholm Accords, that the development of integrated reporting is a real opportunity for public relations to be part of the strategic management of organizations. He sees this move away from the traditional ‘annual report’ approach as putting stakeholders at the heart of business concerns.
From this viewpoint, PR is not simply going to be involved in producing the narrative within the integrated report – rather it will be pivotal in ensuring interactive, ongoing communications (dialogue) between senior management and key stakeholders.
Arguably, that emphasises consultancy over management. But the language of integrated reporting is that of assessing and evaluating quality, performance, value and impact. That is, a systems approach where stakeholders are engaged in transactional relationships with organizations and sustainability is about keeping the system going.
Sadly, I remain skeptical that the momentum behind integrated reporting is anything more than an opportunity for perpetuating the myth of the rational manager. The black and white of a written report inevitably loses the richness of real world relationships, the complexity of an organization’s day to day operations and the increasing chaos of the external environment in which it operates.
In its Integrated Reporting advisory, KPMG states:
The most compelling argument to integrate reporting from the communication perspective would be if it would meet the needs of those who use reporting for decision-taking. This is the most important and most challenging part of the communications perspective: (the process for) assessing stakeholders’ needs. As part of its evaluation, it is of relevance to review whether this process covers all relevant issues, whether stakeholder interaction mechanisms (such as panels, forums, polls, et cetera) are in place to communicate on a continuous basis and whether the stakeholder process is sufficiently robust to manage and meet their expectations.
Again, a nice tidy approach – where logical decision-making is the result of analysis and ensuring processes are in place. Stakeholders participate neatly in panels, forums and polls – not the messy, multi-directional, disorderly jumble that is the reality of most communications.
Opinions and assessments of organizations by publics are ever-changing, dependent on the immediate and memorable. They are affected by personal experience, others’ opinions, rumour, prejudice, irrationality and apathy. They may be idiosyncratic, sporadic, contradictory, ill-informed and illogical. Indeed, they may be sub-conscious, hidden and unspoken (even when asked for).
Where I do agree with those who advocate integrated reporting is a need to reflect on what public relations practitioners can bring as consultants – that is experts in discussion and debate. We need practitioners to understand the drivers for integrated reporting – but also to recognise the dangers of simplifying stakeholder relationships into one dimensional key performance indicators.
Yes, we need to understand the competencies and skills that public relations practitioners can bring to integrated reporting – but not simply in terms of ability to craft narratives or reduce relationships to numerical measures.
Relationships and reputation need understanding on a qualitative basis. In adopting the largely quantitative mantras of accountants, auditors, management consultants and risk assessors, PR can undoubtedly be taken more seriously. We certainly need to understand the business of business – but also to ensure that our business expertise gained in the arena of human interaction provides a rounded context to inform decision making.
An integrated report that does anything less belies the really serious business of public relations.