BLEDing-edge public relations research in 2012

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Margalit Toledano, University of Waikato, New Zealand, presents on "Public relations ethics: Two directions for moving beyond the current state of inertia" at the Bled Symposium 2012.

Bled Symposium 2012 summary by Toni Muzi Falconi

Ten years ago, in July 2002, some 100 scholars and professionals from many European countries met in Bled, Slovenia, to discuss and launch the Bled Manifesto, possibly the single most important document concerning our profession to date; this document has had a huge impact on developments in Europe and around the world.

Bled is a cozy little lakeside village in Slovenia where, since 1993, Dejan Verčič and his team have been recruiting many of the best world thinkers and doers in, for or about public relations, to attend the conference every first weekend of July. 

A decade after the Manifesto was written, some of the same and many new academics and practitioners from more regions of the world met in July 2012 for two days of discussion on the status of the profession.

Bled Symposium 2012 comprised 26 papers, as well as several panels and discussions (including a formal plenary session where Slovenia’s president recognized—in their presence—the major impact Larissa and James Grunig have had on our global discipline). The line up was too rich and diversified for one person to summarize; interested individuals are invited to check out the full program.

Instead, what I’d like to do—following the just-released results of the European Communication Monitor 2012 (ECM) presented by Ansgar Zerfass—is comment on some of its more interesting findings on the state of the profession, also relating them to the contents of some of the other Bled 2012 presentations. One may read and download the full ECM study and its more-recent annual dynamics.

European Communication Monitor 2012 (ECM)

This report immediately and transparently indicates that, by not being able to indicate the universe (composed of high-level professionals in Europe), the 2.185 participants from 42 countries should not be considered a representative sample, but rather a universe in itself. This is relevant, as most of the self-selection online surveys (30 questions to this one) neglect to indicate this caveat. We are so used to interpreting opinion surveys to back our own opinions or “confirmation bias,” that we seldom realize by doing so that we’re fooling ourselves.

The respondents defined themselves as:

  • chief communication officers (CCOs) of organizations or CEOs of consultancies (43 per cent)
  • managers of a specific discipline in a public relations department (29 per cent)
  • with the remaining (21 per cent) as team members or consultants

Of these: 30.5 per cent operate in western Europe, 29.2 per cent in southern Europe, 29 per cent in northern Europe and 10.6 per cent in eastern Europe.

Ethical issues

The survey indicates that ethical issues are more relevant today than they were five years ago (57.6 per cent), mostly due to the:

  • increase of compliance and transparency norms (77.3 per cent)
  • use and abuse of social media (72.3 per cent)
  • growing complexity of international communication practices (57.4 per cent)

Specifically, consultants, as well as public affairs and government relations practitioners in organizations, say they encounter the most ethical challenges.

Codes of ethics are hardly ever referred to or used—only 29 per cent of respondents have referred to a code at least once—while 32 per cent believe codes are all outdated. However, 93 per cent believe that a code is needed, while 30 per cent attribute this compliance role to the national association of professionals and 28 per cent attribute it to international associations. (Interestingly, only 10 per cent indicated governments should be responsible for compliance.) Even non-members believe that professional associations are the most suitable providers.

Complementary ethical challenges in New Zealand; CIPR (UK) booklet

This is a first point to comment: scholar Margalit Toledano presented an interesting summary of focus groups she conducted with New Zealand practitioners to understand if the digital environment has substantially changed the nature of ethical challenges. The answer, of course, yes it has, but the specific practices mentioned by participants were not as many as one may have anticipated; fewer than 10, in fact.

Incidentally, very recently, the CIPR in the UK  published a Share This booklet that covers this area; it is worthwhile reading at a reasonable price. Amongst emerging ethical issues, some relate to:

SEO practices—specifically, when we interact with algorithms rather than persons, to change the public visibility of specific content in search engines.

astro-turfing campaigns—when we create fictitious organizations to run public opinion initiatives, not citing the real subject who is actually performing and paying for the exercise.

transparency—when we use false identities to intervene in discussions and express opinions or one-sided facts to prove a point for our clients or employee organizations.

Regarding another aspect of the ethics issue, there appears from the survey a blatant contradiction between the claim that ethical challenges have increased, that codes of practice are irrelevant, yet needed, and that the challenges and tasks lie with professional organizations.

Contradictions

A possible interpretation is that codes are nice-to-have Linus-like blankets, in order to give us the ability to cite them with others (i.e., our stakeholders) but we do little, if anything, to apply them.

An ancient issue, I agree, but here the concept is more bluntly stated. And again, repeated, when the study reveals that 70 per cent of respondents believe that national or international accreditation programs can only help improve the reputation and the recognition of the field, but only 58 per cent agree that a global accreditation system will help, and 54 per cent that accreditation as such ensures practitioners receive proper knowledge of recent communication tools and trends.

In short, we do not believe that what we do with our public relations codes or accreditation programs are really useful, but we do them in order to improve our reputation.

If that is the case, aren’t we victims of our own hype? And where is the behaviour/communication link?

Regulation

As for regulation of the profession only 10 per cent believe this task should be entrusted to government in the interest of the public, rather than to associations in the interest of its members. A very interesting paper presented by Estelle de Beer from the University of Pretoria explained in details the process that PRISA (the Southern Africa public relations institute) has initiated to eventually regulate the profession.

Eighty-four per cent of respondents cite as the major barrier to success the lack of understanding of communication practice within top management. As the second major challenge, 75 per cent also indicate, difficulties of the profession itself to prove its impact on organizational goals.

Once again, it appears that we ourselves complain that others do not understand us more than we complain about our own ineffectiveness to prove that what we do is valuable.

Evaluation and measurement in the USA

This latter point correlates with the data supplied by University of Southern California’s Jerry Swerling, presenting on the USC Annenberg Strategic Communication and Public Relations Center’s seventh biennial Communication and Public Relations Generally Accepted Practices (GAP VII) study of the PR market in the United States, where it indicates that, compared to 2010, American organizations have increased their investments in evaluation and measurement from 6 per cent to 9 per cent of the total investment in public relations activities. See the highlights and/or download the full study.

While I am at it, another interesting data from the GAP study is that, compared to two years ago, PR practitioners dealing with customer relations has jumped from 5 to 15 per cent; this is clearly a consequence of social media.

Where time is spent

Ninety-two per cent of the European responders say that, compared to five years ago, corporate organizational narrative is created by all its members interacting with stakeholders, and 82 per cent say that there are more touch points with their publics.

Although the majority of productive time still goes to operational communication, this is not more than 37 per cent of a typical week, while 29 per cent accounts for planning, organizing, leading staff, evaluating strategies, preparing for crises.

By comparison, reflective activities(i.e., aligning communication with the organisation’s stakeholders) take 19 per cent  of the time, while educative activities (i.e., coaching, training and educating members of the organization) take up almost 15 per cent of the time.

Coping with the digital revolution is still the most important strategic issue for 46 per cent of respondents, while 44 per cent say it is the effective linking of business strategy and communication. Thirty-four per cent instead indicate the need to address more audiences and channels with limited resources, at par with helping management take strategic decisions.

Advisory influence (the perception of how seriously senior managers take recommendations of communication professionals) has decreased from 78 per cent in 2011 to 70 per cent in 20012, while executive influence (the perception of how likely communication representatives will be invited to senior-level meetings dealing with organizational strategic planning) had also decreased from 77 to 72 per cent.

The digital environment

As for the digital environment, not surprisingly respondents of previous years had overestimated the growth of social media (online communities were forecasted to increase 82.2 per cent in 2011 versus the actual increase being recognized as 75.8 per cent this year, etc.), but of course this still remains a major challenge for organizations.

If one compares the American data with the European, the former appears to make much more use of online communities (67.7 per cent versus 50.4 per cent), microblogs and Twitter (59.2 per cent versus 39.5 per cent), etc.

Training, professional development and management qualifications

As for training and professional development, the most important providers are national professional Associations, but companies use universities significantly more often (42 per cent) than governmental (32 per cent) or NGOs (31 per cent).

As for management qualifications, while the gap between communication skills development offering is 1.4 per cent higher than the actual need, the gap inverts significantly in management skills (-22.1 per cent), management knowledge (-30.6 per cent), business knowledge (-22.3 per cent) and so on.

In summary

I am well aware of the limitations of this guest post summary. I strongly suggest that interested readers look up all the Bled Symposium papers that are due to appear soon on the bledcom.com website.

On the other hand, the integration of the results of the two quantitative reports by Zerfass and Swerling, with the very interesting qualitative effort conducted by Jon White for the CIPR (and also presented in Bled) on “PR in 2020” (read it here), might lead one to believe that indeed there has been in these last 10 years a significant change in the profession and that, at least in part, this change has also been determined by us!

I hope you take advantage of some of this fascinating reading, so that you can better appreciate the wonderful and inspiring Bled Symposium offered in 2012. (Videos of lectures from #bledcom12 are now available on YouTube.)

6 COMMENTS

  1. Toni,

    Thanks for the post. I am not surprised that the topic of ethics continues to be one that is much debated, but it seems to me that the discussion hasn’t progressed much in the last century, let alone the last decade. I really don’t see that social media changes the fundamentals of understanding ethical principles which have actually been debated at least since the time of Ancient Greece. However, rather than engaging with this idea of such fundamentals, the focus in public relations remains at a superficial level regarding codes, responsibilities and so on.

    I did write on my own blog last year about an ethical future for PR where I argued for a field of ethical enquiry for public relations. My belief is that we need to involve experts in areas such as moral/ethical philosophy working with leaders in PR (practice and academia) to study issues relating to our area of responsibility. Such an approach is evident in medicine, law, accountancy and business ethics.

    I would like to see such a body – which could be convened within the Global Alliance perhaps look at the following areas:

    – draw together existing knowledge,
    – undertake research, training and education,
    – engage with various experts and indeed, critics of PR
    – investigate and guide on issues of debate and practice
    – co-ordinate the interest, commitment and plans of those who wish to reflect intelligence, integrity and intrepidus in their work
    – develop a credible leadership position globally for PR ethics.

    What are your views on such an idea?

  2. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for summarising some of the presentations at Bledcom 2012. It’s always interesting to see what people took away from the conference.

    I’m not so sure that the Bled Manifesto from 2002 has had the impact that you suggest and it would useful to see the evidence for this claim. What is interesting is the ECM finding that practitioners are reporting an increasing relevance of ethical issues and their belief that institutes should set the standards. What are institutes doing in response? Some changes are being made in the right direction, but are they radical enough? In the UK we still don’t publish all complaints against members of institutes and therefore lag behind other professions such as architects.

    The other issue that you identify is that practitioners feel that senior managers don’t understand communication. This was borne out by the research that I did with Sean Trainor in the UK last year with the internal communication community. You are right to point out that it is ironic, that as communicators, we have clearly failed to do a good enough communication job about communication. This situation is not helped when MBA’s and Business Studies programmes marginalise corporate communication, but you also have to question why institutes have not done more to influence the management agenda about the importance of communication.

    On the subject of internal communication, it is disappointing that this is not mentioned in your review and, as internal communication is my own specialism, I hope you’ll forgive me for raising this. One of the trends identified by the ECM is the rise in the importance of internal communication. This is not surprising, given that stakeholders are putting far more trust in employees rather than an organisation’s top management. Yet it seems that a general discussion about ethics is more important than the discussion about developing theory and practice in internal communication. Is this a case of ethical navel gazing? As you say, “ninety-two per cent of the European responders say that, compared to five years ago, corporate organizational narrative is created by all its members interacting with stakeholders”. If, therefore, we put employees first as the most important stakeholder group of all, this is where authenticity will come through and ultimately outgun any pressures put on corporate communicators to tell a different, perhaps less authentic, story.

  3. How interesting and challenging both comments are… Thank you.

    Let’s deal with the intermal communication issue first.
    1.
    Kevin you did very well in raising the issue and, as you well know, I have been over many years an intense advocate for employees and other boundary publics to become, according to the objective the organization is attempting to reach, a major stakeholder group.
    Both the GAP and the ECM studies have consistently over the years been reporting this, and I didn’t think it was absolutely essential to indicate this.
    Also… but this raises other issues… I don’t believe that an organization can decide that employees, or investors, or customers, or suppliers are in every case the most important stakeholder group.
    The organization pursues different objectives and each have diverse priority stakeholder groups.

    Having said this, and bringing the issue down to the level of professional oganizations, Kevin I do not think you can ignore that the Stockholm Accords two years ago eagerly focussed on internal communication and its alignement with external as one of the major areas where public relations brings value to the communicative organization.
    I agree that this is yet insufficient, but so are many other aspects of our body of knowledge.
    However it is a fact that professional organizations have been recently very much focussing on internal communication…
    As for the evidence of the impact of the Bled Manifesto let me just say Kevin that in other areas of the world (asia, africa, latin america) the bled manifesto’s example of breaking loose and declaring the european indipendence from the 20th centuryus based ethnocentric public relations communicating-to practice was a blessing that induced the development of a similar search for a less ethnocentric and diversity based approach to the profession all over the world.

    2.
    And now to the ethics issue.
    Heather I tried to read your earlier post linking to your blog but was not able to find it. Sorry.
    However, what you say here is sufficient to raise a real can of worms and it will not be me to ignore your gentle, as always, provokation.
    Let me first say that Margalit Toledano’s presentation interested me because she came up from her focus groups with very few new ethical challenges deriving from the digital environment. I spoke with her to indicate that some quick and dirty interviews I had done in Italy some months ago presented many more. True, many were replicas of older ethical issues (for example, the front organization/astroturfing one) but with a new twist.

    I also tried to query if Margalit was not of my idea that public relations ethics for us … educators, professionals as well as professional association managements… exactly because most of our critics believe it is an oxymoron, has not consolidated in our thinking as a linus blanket or lip service that we must always serve, tout and consider a ‘major challenge’ …. in order to increase our reputation which, as I have often said, is even better than we actually truly deserve….

    This is why, for example, I have argued at length with the Global Alliance and my own national Association leaderships that the excessive focus on ethics needed to be taken down to earth in the realm of the concept of responsibility of the professional: to oneself, the profession, the organization and society.
    I believe that we are making progress.
    I take this opportunity to say that we have just started a new public discussion to which I would hope that every single reader, viewer and commentator of Prconversations will want to participate in

    We are preparing the Melbourne Mandate (a follow up of the Stockholm Accords) that we will discuss on line as well as through webinars until the opening of the World Public Relations Forum that will take place on Nov. 21/23 in Melbourne, where the final text will be discussed, amended and approved by participants from all over the world (by the way I am told by our australian organizes from PRIA that there are already 400 registrations….).
    Jean Valin, a close friend of this blog and mine too (although we disagree on this very ethics issue…), is coordinating the effort.
    There are three initial groups that have begun the discussion and you can find it here http://www.globalalliancepr.org/website/page/melbourne-mandate .

    I believe that the mere fact that one of the three groups is named responsibility and not ethics is, in itself, a significant step forward.
    Back to the naming game again?
    Well, let’s be honest, if we didin’t think that words were not important we would be doing other things…. although we often tend to forget!!!

  4. Toni – had Kevin not raised the internal communication issue, I surely would have. I believe that this and the issue of management misunderstanding of communication are intrinsic to one another. It is very rare to see an organization which gives more than lip service to the importance of employee communication to the strategy and execution of business. Internal communicators are paid less than external. Internal frequently is shunted off in a silo from not only other communication functions, but other support functions. Strategic information is even redacted for internal use, as though employees were too stupid or too uninterested to warrant access to the same information as investors or customers. This reflects a paucity of understanding of the processes of communication in building organizational identification, a distinct lack of interest in how people derive meaning, and even how people move from mere awareness to understanding, commitment and action. The beginning of organizational wisdom about the value of communication relies on our ability to represent as the experts in the discipline and theory of communication, not merely our ability to market our wares in the c-suite.

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