Tim Marshall: Time for radical thinking and real PR leadership

Tim Marshall - calling for PR leadership in measuring world progress

Here’s an idea for the public relations and communications management profession to hang its hat on – and to show leadership.

Let us be the driving force to set up a Genuine Progress Index (GPI) for the world. A GPI is a set of indicators that show whether the world is making progress socially, environmentally and, let’s say also, scientifically and technologically.

Instead of being the god we bow to, let’s make economics the servant of pursuing progress goals in these areas.

For too long our measure of success has been economic growth – usually as measured by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of nations. But growth in GDP requires even higher production and consumption and, at a time when the world is rapidly running out of resources, this simply does not compute.

The GPI concept is not crazy. Simon Kuznets, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and principal architect of the GDP warned 40 years ago: “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income”. Robert Kennedy said: “GDP measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Last year, French president Nicholas Sarkozy, recognising the shortcomings of GDP for measuring France’s progress as a nation, commissioned Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz to create the Commission for the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress to suggest alternatives.

A number of prototype GPI models exist including the Full Cost Accounting model of GPI of Dr Ron Colman of Nova Scotia, Canada. The OECD has a work stream on Measuring and Fostering the Progress of Societies. Statistics New Zealand in a 2008 report ‘Measuring New Zealand’s Progress using a Sustainable Approach’ included a set of indicators. New Scientist magazine, which for years has warned that economic growth is incompatible with the Earth’s limited resources, last year ran a four issue special which included a double page spread of global, social and environmental indicators.

Why should a GPI be the concern of public relations and communications management? In fact, it is properly the domain of leaders – organisational and national – but they need a mandate from stakeholders or help to promulate the concept. We need radically new thinking about how we not only live within the Earth’s resources but continue to advance. Having a GPI that we talk about and care about is central to this – “you treasure what you measure”.

Achieving a shift from an “economic growth mentality” to a “genuine progress mentality” will possibly be the biggest and most critical stakeholder engagement exercise of all time and obviously, that is where we, as public relations and communications professionals come in. This is something we could endorse centrally, yet each of us can promote it within our organisations and our wider spheres of influence. To me, this is an idea whose time has come and, if it doesn’t happen, then we, our children and other life on Earth are all in serious trouble.

The catalyst for this thought has been the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management’s work on the Stockholm Accords, which aims to describe 21st century public relations practice for both practitioners and the people who use our services. For some time, I have also been quietly working away with a group called Anew New Zealand, whose interest is forming a widely agreed national vision, creating plans for that vision to be realised and measuring progress towards it using a GPI of some form – so to me it seemed as if two of my spheres of interest had converged.

Let me finish by reiterating my opening line: This is an idea, an opportunity for the public relations and communications management profession to hang its hat on – and to show leadership.

Tim Marshall describes himself (modestly, as is his way) as a New Zealand PR consultant with 25 years’ experience who believes public relations can and should be an agent for positive change in the world we live in.

PS: I can add, for your information, that in addition to his own description, Tim is one of New Zealand’s leading public relations professionals and thinkers, a Life Member and Fellow of PRINZ, the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand, who has worked tirelessly on behalf of the public relations profession and its practitioners throughout his career.

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13 Replies to “Tim Marshall: Time for radical thinking and real PR leadership

  1. @Heather the problem with the fluffy stuff such as our emotions is that they are difficult to measure meaningfully. That’s why I raised the Edelman trust stuff – as an example of how an obsession with the subjective touchy feely side of life leads PRs and firms to lose sight of reality because it leads them to draw the wrong conclusions.

    Nobody disputes – or ever did so to my knowledge – that morale influences outcomes. Productivity – worker output per hour – is linked to motivation. That was one of the driving forces that led to the demise of slavery almost as much as the moral imperative to ban it did. Free people work harder and are more likely to be innovative etc.

    Nobody disputes that goodwill and good reputations matter very much in business and in all aspects of life. I certainly value the role PR plays in society; on that point there is no dispute.

  2. Tim – great summary and further insight, thanks. One other area that I feel is missing from the focus on economics and productivity is the nature of human motivation. If the premise is one of entirely exchange – whether that’s purchasing a product that lasts for the minimum amount of time, or working strictly to the hours for which someone is paid – all the goodwill behind true productivity is lost. Going the extra mile, whether for customers or your employer, is often a matter of the unpaid or exchange that is not based directly on monetary return. Yes, there is likely to be a longer-term financial reward however you wish to determine that, as well as the human reward that is often only measured in a thank you, a smile or further goodwill.

    It all sounds fluffy – but the world cannot afford for human aspects to be downgraded by an ongoing focus purely on monetary measures.

    And Paul – slightly disingeneous of you to cite the Edelman trust barometer that you (quite rightly) have previously criticised for its methodology.

  3. Thanks everyone for your comments. There seem to be two camps among the commenters with Toni, Heather and Cathy supporting the concepts I raised and Paul not. What do we have in common? Presumably we all:
    a) personally seek satisfied, fulfilled lives;
    b) support scientific, technological and medical advances (that continue exponentially); and
    c) want to leave a world for our grandchildren that is not badly polluted (perhaps so badly it is uninhabitable), stripped of resources and other species.

    I think the private enterprise economic growth model Paul favours has largely delivered (a) (it has certainly freed us from labour drudgery although many well-provided-for Westerners are realising that material wealth and consumption is not the key to life fulfilment) and it seems to facilitate (b). However on (c) I think the current capitalist model fails as it has almost no regard for the long term future in terms of fouling the nest we live in, stripping non-renewable resources and driving species to extinction.

    The profit motive is very worrying if it is not balanced with other goals like my a)b)c) of helping people lead satisfied lives; supporting advances; and leaving a reasonable legacy for the kids. Here’s a wee story to illustrate a perverse outcome of profit-driven business. A few weeks ago my partner Halcyon dropped a very aged and broken Sony “portable” 14 inch television off to one of those increasingly hard to find tv repair shops to see if it could be fixed. When she called in to the shop today to see how they were getting on the repair man said he could not easily obtain the part we needed; in short he recommended we throw the telly away – we had no choice, although I dread to think where it will go – unfortunately it’s not Sony’s business. Halcyon noticed a lot of new looking “big screen” tvs in the repair shop and the repair man said they were all failed machines just out of their two year warranties. He claimed they were deliberately designed to last just past their warranties – and he thought that was dishonest. Companies which are driven by a profit motive will do what I consider to be perverse things, like designing products that fail in due course so consumers must always upgrade. These companies do not take responsibility for the disposal of all these products they are pumping out – or the environmental cost of burgeoning landfills. See http://www.storyofstuff.com

    I am fully in favour of human enterprise. I also agree that people who support that enterprise should be rewarded when it succeeds. I totally disagree with elevating these virtues above socially responsible behaviour of giving good value to your customers and making sure you clean up your messes (including any old products that don’t work any more). Unfortunately I think many companies are guilty of privatising profits and socialising costs.

    I am very heartened by Toni’s first comment which suggests that movers and shakers are also thinking along more socially responsible lines. And I thought Mervyn King’s presentation to the Stockholm conference was outstanding – especially because this message was delivered by someone of his experience and mana (Maori word = standing).

    To return to my original post, I think PR can play a crucial role here because we’re talking about organisations’ and nations’ reputations, their ethics, their licence to operate and their relationships with a broad range of stakeholders present and future. And I guess we don’t need the universal support of PR practitioners to do this.

    Finally, to respond to Sean Williams’ comment. The Global Peace Index relates to social justice and is published by an Australian-based organisation called Vision of Humanity (see http://www.visionofhumanity.org). There is quite a high correlation between the top 10 countries on the Economic Freedom Index you refer to with eight of them being on the top 30 of the Global Peace Index. Of the other two, Hong Kong is not listed as an independent country and the USA is the outlier rating 85/149 for peacefulness.

  4. Does trust matter? Russian business is more trusted than German and French business, according to Edelman’s trust survey. China’s government is the most trusted on planet earth, same source. Brazil and Indonesia are close behind, way ahead of the US, UK, Germany, France and italy, again same source. Discuss.

  5. A possible chicken-and-egg proposition here is relevant.

    The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom ranks 183 countries on 10 freedoms, ( Business Freedom | Trade Freedom | Fiscal Freedom | Government Spending | Monetary Freedom | Investment Freedom | Financial Freedom | Property rights | Freedom from Corruption | Labor Freedom ) — the list of the top ten is really interesting if we extrapolate quality of life. Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Switzerland, Canada, the US, Denmark and Chile. The site is here http://www.heritage.org/index/.

    Is there a correlation between economic freedom and social justice? I looked for a list of the most socially just countries to no avail, but this is a serious question.

  6. @ Heather I should have made clear that all relationships are indeed exchange based, otherwise they are not relationships. What we are both discussing is whether all relationships are commercially determined – by money or other such exchanges – and the answer is:

    Can’t buy me love, love
    Can’t buy me love

    I’ll buy you a diamond ring my friend if it makes you feel alright
    I’ll get you anything my friend if it makes you feel alright
    ‘Cause I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love

    I’ll give you all I got to give if you say you love me too
    I may not have a lot to give but what I got I’ll give to you
    I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love

    Can’t buy me love, everybody tells me so
    Can’t buy me love, no no no, no

    Say you don’t need no diamond ring and I’ll be satisfied
    Tell me that you want the kind of thing that money just can’t buy
    I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love

  7. @Heather improving productivity is not about money as such, it is about production and worker output per hour.

    We should not forget, however, that the UK is, rightly, about to cut public sector budgets by 25 percent at minimum, 40 percent at maximum, precisely because there is not enough money in the system. So money really really matters and it is linked to our well being, big time.

    Meanwhile, millions are unemployed in the West, taking pay cuts, working harder for less, because firms are not profitable, not growing fast enough, but often contracting or expecting to do so soonish.

    But nobody I know of – least of all me – ever said relationships and happiness were exchange based. Nobody ever said GDP did not have weaknesses as a measure of progress – least of all Simon Kuznets.

    @Toni – You might not get the contradiction between Sarkozy’s call to the masses to be content – happy even – with austerity-living while the elite plunders the public purse and exchanges brown envelopes. But the French people are not so generous with their opinions.

    @ Catherine The BRIC countries are focused on improving productivity, profit and GDP precisely because of its associated link to well being as key measures of their progress. The right response from the West is not to exit the competition because somebody else is winning or threatens to win the race (innovation in China is astounding, inspiring even).

    Yes, I’m a fan of Wall St, the City of London and Zurich banks. I’m a fan of entrepreneurs (small business) and even of big business – IBM to Google to GM and even poor old BP. I’ve lived in Africa… the problem there is precisely one of poor productivity and not enough capitalism, development and industrialization etc.

    If PR is to be credible, it had better start speaking plain truths and speaking about the realities of life as people experience them. The likes of Sarkozy and his backers are in retreat from reality, the harsh reality of the real world. At least that’s so in public, because they understand the role of competition in practice and speak about it relentlessly in private (it’s the contradiction that undermines their reputations).

    So, yes, I still think the likes of Paul Krugman are right about economics being all about productivity, and that while it is not everything, it is almost everything, because economic sustainability depends upon its continuous growth.

  8. @Paul
    I sometimes feel a sense of nostalgia as I read your comments. This whiff of reminiscence takes me back to the rather quirky and bombastic editorial leaders that would appear in the UK’s Daily Mail during the 1980s. Those leaders were often wrapped up in thoughts of profit, power and societal exclusion, echoing the old ‘Greed is Good’ line from the film ‘Wall Street’ – and, of course, we all know how hopelessly out-dated, old-fashioned and rather dim that sentiment was given all we have learned about the world, its resources and challenges in the decades since then. (Although to be fair there were many of us at the time who doubted and debunked the ‘Wall Street’ approach, along with the fashion for huge shoulder pads, big hair and enormous pairs of glasses)

    The reality of our world today is that change to a different system, a different approach is inevitable. The established system is broken and, thankfully, there seems to be an inclination, if not a will, to change things for the better, so that citizens of humanity can enjoy and sustain a fairer and more just existence. This is not going to happen overnight, it will take time and, during that period, I am sure there will be many who continue to squeeze every cent of profit they can from the existing system. However, a real starting point for change is to look at the way success is measured and a GPI is an excellent way of doing so. By setting the outcomes that matter we can then set the course we need to achieve them.

    We will still need to produce things and yes, make profits too, as profit forms an important strand of sustainability, but not, as Heather so rightly points out, the only strand. What we won’t do – I hope – is see a continuation of a global society that makes profits (monetary and political) at the expense of the lives of others, which is where we have been until now. How we do that requires creative thinking, adaptation and an alteration in our approach. Looking at what we want to achieve via a GPI is a first step.

    @Toni
    I hope that the meeting you mention makes some progress towards change. If nothing else, perhaps the organisations involved might look first at how they measure success individually and as collective institutions. I hope too that the deliberations are made public as this would be a very good example and signal of change to others as well as an indication of leadership of the type I believe Tim was advocating.

    @Heather
    I think the feasibility of public relations in the process is going to be a key discussion in the months ahead and it will be interesting to see how many practitioners actively step up to the plate and participate.

  9. Heather,
    may I add that the correlation between Sarkozy, his contingent political success and the excellent persons who were involved in the preparation of that report is unfair, unjustified, unwarranted and, to say the least, plainly silly?
    Wish presumably infomed people would read reports before commenting on them.
    Ahh…life would be better, wouldn’t it?

  10. Paul – I think you are wrong in focusing on productivity, profit and GDP as the key measures for society. They are certainly factors that cannot be ignored, but putting them as the top and central drivers to be achieved by the world, countries and organisations is a dangerous focus for individuals and the world.

    Of course you can solve the world’s problems without relying on monetary measures of “wealth”. Indeed, I believe that the focus on money (which let’s not forget is an artificial construct) has not entirely been of positive benefit to individuals or wider communities.

    Viewing everything in life from the perspective of its monetary worth is not going to solve the world’s problems. Much as it alone cannot solve personal ones.

    Look at it from a micro level – are all your relationships with others entirely exchange based? If we reduce everything to money, do you want to quantify love, respect, trust, compassion, empathy, volunteering, neighbourliness, honesty, friendship, and other such intangibles that make life worth living (in the non-monetary sense)?

    There is another debate about the focus of PR and whether it is feasible for it to play a role in refocusing society on such intangibles, but its role in creating and sustaining an unsustainable, money-driven world means that at least a pause from that relentless selfish direction has to be welcome.

    Can we really be proud about PR’s role in continuing to focus world efforts on spend, spend, spend in the face of real human and world problems?

    Sure, I can buy popularity through money – but to quote the Beatles, it won’t buy me love, or not the kind that is really worth having.

  11. In the foreword to Sarkozy report , President Sarkozy wrote:

    “We must change the way we live, consume and produce.’ and he says we need “a revolution in our minds, in the way we think, in our mindsets and values”.

    Yes, that fits view certainly fits well with the Stockholm Accords’ notion that PRs are “ideological governors of value networks”.

    Nobel prize-winner Paul Krugman, in contrast, says of productivity growth that it is the single most important thing affecting our well-being.

    I wonder whether Sarkozy’s appallingly low approval ratings have anything to do with his retreat from dealing with real-world issues? That should warn us that this stuff has little mass public appeal.

  12. Tim,
    a couple of side thoughts which might be useful in finding a way ahead:

    a) as you probably know in a few days in London a private meeting will take place between the leaders of many private, public and social organizations to discuss steps ahead in the 1 report initiative.
    Mervyn King mentioned this during his Stockholm address.
    You might wish to read here about the 1 report discussion at the recent Amsterdam GRI conference http://www.integratedreporting.org/blog/tag/gri/
    and also peruse this very intriguing book which has just been published http://www.amazon.com/One-Report-Integrated-Reporting-Sustainable/dp/0470587512 .

    Also, a number of consultancies around the world (including Methodos) have been working, along the lines of the Sarkozy report you mention in your post, to develop organizational narrative approaches to the idea of value creation vis a vis stakeholders and which are also fully coherent with the content of the Stockhom Accords.

    Somehow all these and other ideas seem to fit together.

    Let’s continue the discussion.

  13. Once again, I’m going in the opposite direction to a post on PRC. Productivity, profit and GDP still matter. There’s no way the world can solve any of its major problems without boosting all three. A GPI Index, I fear, will be nothing more than a subjective BS Index. Moreover, the Stockholm Accords utopians put their faith in the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Vision 2050. But here’s a thought. What if it is nothing more than a PR survival plan for today’s big companies seeking a long-term and popular licence to operate? That’s something I explore here:

    http://paulseaman.eu/2010/07/wbcsds-vision-2050-is-myopic/

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