Communicating with conscience; influencing organisational leaders to do the right thing

#FuturePRoof Chapter 2 has been contributed by Anne Gregory, Chair of Corporate Communication at the University of Huddersfield and a former President of the CIPR. Anne discusses why the public relations industry must prioritise people over process, profits and power. Find us on Twitter at @WeArePRoofed to read new chapters as they’re released.


You’ll learn:

·         What you need to be a strong leader

·         Why business needs to look at big societal issues and help find ways to solve these

·         The role of today’s public relations practitioner in keeping the focus on people and not process, profits and power

A leadership crisis

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), lack of leadership is third in the top 10 issues facing the world today [1]. People don’t trust leaders in government, business or even in NGOs to address, never mind solve, the big issues that pose global challenges to society.

WEF’s survey on leadership identified several virtues needed for good leadership: “a global interdisciplinary perspective; long-term, empirical planning; strong communication skills; a prioritisation of social justice and well-being over financial growth; empathy; courage; morality; and a collaborative nature”.

This sounds like a job description for a top-flight public relations practitioner to me. There might be an argument that financial growth might take priority over social justice and well-being from some, but I disagree. That’s why we are in a mess with leadership.  Leaders pursuing selfish, largely financial and power preservation ends and short-term gains are major reasons why trust in them is at rock-bottom.

But there is hope! Advances in communication technologies are forcing organisations to engage with their stakeholders in new ways. Never before have they and their leaders been held to account so publicly and to so many.

This is good news because they are being forced to re-think their purpose and how they gain and maintain their legitimacy not only with their immediate stakeholders, but to society more widely.

Step up the public relations profession

This challenge presents a once in a decade prospect for the public relations profession. As organisations are defined increasingly by what is being said about them, we have the opportunity to lead and to become that essential adviser to the CEO that we have long yearned for. The question is, what will we be saying to her or him?

Most of the Codes of Ethics that exist for the professional associations in public relations around the world say that our ultimate responsibility is to serve society. If we are to serve our organisations well we need to keep this constantly in view. We will gain society’s support and enhance the legitimacy of our business if our organisational purpose is seen to be sound and we are seen to make a positive contribution.

So how can we help leaders where they feel held to account personally and where the demands for transparency are ever more pressing?

CSR is not enough…in fact I would like to see the phrase banned from the corporate and public relations lexicon, it is massively devalued. What we are talking about here is Governance and a new perspective on organisations with communication as the lens.

Communicating with conscience

Organisations have never been independent of society and the implicit management orthodoxy that assumes that in some way they can impose their will or their ‘strategy’ on others seems rather quaint these days. But such a way of thinking is still present in most Business Schools and underpins the MBA curriculum. That’s why many CEOs still think like this…..the ‘make it so’ mentality, as if stakeholders can be ‘managed’ to think and act in ways that favour the organisation.

This brings us to the point. To help leaders, to build better organisations and contribute to society, we need to make them ‘good’. As Aristotle said, practice the virtues and you will become virtuous. For public relations professionals this means more than caring about the day to day interactions with stakeholders and the latest communication toys, but transforming our organisations from within.

Of course we have to resist the temptation to become too inwardly focussed. To transform the inside we need to look to the outside. Taking a cue from the WEF, I believe the starting point is to care about the big issues and show how we are doing something to resolve them. By doing this leaders can begin to restore trust in themselves and the organisations they lead.

Helping leaders help themselves

I think we can help leaders in three ways:

1. Purpose

If our ultimate role is to serve and build society in our everyday work, we can help our organisations make good decisions. This means we need to listen to people, understand the context in which they live and know what is important to them. In that way we can begin to find a place and purpose for our organisations in their lives that makes sense to them.

By bringing that intelligence about stakeholders into our organisations we can ensure that decisions are made that are properly informed and are likely to gain acceptance. They will be decisions that are oriented around providing solutions to people’s problems and enhancing their lives, not about organisational self-interest. By doing good, it is also likely our organisations will do well: they will certainly find themselves supported.

2. Principles

 It is often how organisations behave as much as what they do that causes them problems, possibly even more so. This is where values come in. These are the rules that govern behaviour and against which decisions are benchmarked.  Values can be made top-down, but that is usually self-defeating because they are not ‘owned’ by the vast majority. They have real traction when they are negotiated internally and externally.

Again public relations professionals can help with this negotiation process and test whether the resultant values are likely to have resonance and support.

But values are a double-edged sword. They are also the bullshit yardstick. It’s the difference between declared and lived values that measures the legitimacy gap and it is here where organisations find themselves exposed to challenge, ridicule and potential lethal threat.

The combination of purpose and principles form organisational character and if leaders are to be respected and supported, they more than anyone have to model the way. In their own interests they need brave public relations professionals to hold the mirror up to them if they are falling short.

3. People

Organisations meet their objectives through people and society is constituted of people. Again communication is crucial. Fact: organisations and society cannot exist without communication. Buildings and money can be taken away and organisations can exist, but they cannot exist without communication. It is communication that is the basis of organisations and organising, it is people that we share success and failure with, it is people who bring meaning and purpose alive.

Our role as public relations professionals is to keep our leaders focused on people. Once process, profits and power take over as priorities, the organisation is lost.

Communicating with conscience is at the heart of what we will do in #FuturePR. The challenge for us as a profession is whether we are up for this and the opportunity it provides for us to lead and help our fellow leaders?


Professor Anne Gregory PhD, Hon Fellow CIPR, is Chair of Corporate Communication at the University of Huddersfield. She is a former President of the CIPR, leading it to Chartered status and Immediate past Chair of the Global Alliance of Public Relations and Communication Management.

Twitter: @gregsanne