If PR is to Steward Corporate Values, It Must First Define Its Own
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

If PR is to Steward Corporate Values, It Must First Define Its Own

“I would submit that a straight line connects these two critical success factors: values and trust,” Nielsen told a trans-Atlantic audience. “If values and trust are tightly interconnected and viewed as seamless within and organization, they have the net effect of validating both the importance of what we do."

Paul Holmes

The great lesson of the Tylenol crisis—still probably the most frequently cited success story in our field—is that successful public relations is rooted in strong corporate values. Johnson & Johnson management, led by chief executive James Burke, was guided in its response to the tampering scare not by the cautious counsel of its attorneys but by a commitment to time-tested corporate values. It did not, like so many crisis-stricken companies, need to figure out in the harsh light of intense scrutiny what it stood for and how it should act, because it already knew.

Bill Nielsen, who retired from J&J in December of 2004, was not part of the leadership team when the Tylenol crisis struck, but he was corporate vice president of public affairs at the pharmaceutical company for 14 years, and he witnessed at first hand the benefits of a values-driven approach to management. So when Nielsen was called upon to present the international distinguish lecture at the Institute for Public Relations luncheon at London’s Reform Club last week, it is not entirely surprising that he should take the relationship of values and trust as his theme.

“I would submit that a straight line connects these two critical success factors: values and trust,” Nielsen told a trans-Atlantic audience. “If values and trust are tightly interconnected and viewed as seamless within and organization, they have the net effect of validating both the importance of what we do, and help to assure the sustainability of our profession well into the future.”

Nielsen’s point about the role of strong values in facilitating good public relations—and the role of public relations is communicating and enforcing an organization’s values—is in line with the prevailing wisdom: an institution’s reputation, and its relationship with its publics, is dependent upon its behavior, and its behavior will be rooted in its values, so public relations has a natural interest in defining an institution’s values and ensuring they are reflected in its actions as well as it words.

Nielsen makes the case that as powerful societal forces—increased globalization, new technology, the demand for increased transparency—create new challenges for corporations, strong values are becoming even more important. “It seems to me, today, more than ever that where we need to take our organizations in this increasingly global environment involves something more than codes, laudable programs and rigorous publicity efforts.

“In my observations of well-managed companies, success rests on an organization’s values: what it believes is important and what responsibilities management is going to assume in connection with running the business. Articulated values shape and define any organization’s ethical or moral imperatives. Management and employees all over the world can then be guided.  And then, stakeholders, including employees can then watch a company’s behavior and decide whether its actions are consistent with stated beliefs and values.”

The opportunity for public relations people, he believes, is to take ownership of organizational values, “”in the sense of carrying the responsibility for the articulation of values, as well as for being the strong and persistent ‘voice’ in the organization for behavior that is consistent with its values.

“No other corporate staff function is better suited to this role. Finance, law, human resources and administrative functions all have focused agendas. Only the public relations function has, or should have, the position of independence and breadth of connections, as well as the span of influence through balancing the needs and wants of many and varied constituents, to carry this responsibility.”

But if the first part of Nielsen’s speech focused on what is surely an opportunity for the public relations profession, the second part identified a critical challenge: how to position public relations as the steward of corporate values when so many people—clients, media, members of the public, even some practitioners—have questions about our own values.

Says Nielsen, “The standing and reputation of our own profession could benefit from a coming together around a shared set of values that speak about what we believe our responsibilities are and what we hold as important about what we do. In so doing, I think we have the opportunity to set ourselves apart, clarify our roles and responsibilities and achieve a singular character for public relations that is both palpable and enduring.”

Nielsen worries that public relations people have not, as a profession, defined the key values that underpin their craft, and that until they do they will lack the credibility to take on a key role in managing the values of their companies and their clients.  Such a statement of values, Nielsen believes, could be more useful than the numerous codes of ethics proposed by public relations trade and professional associations around the world.

It is hard to believe it could be less useful. There are at least two major problems with the majority of today’s codes of ethics. First, they are almost entirely unenforceable: the fact that the Public Relations Society of America censures or expels hardly anyone is indicative of the difficulty of enforcing its code rather than the supernaturally high standards of probity among its members. And second, codes of ethics by their nature create a compliance mentality: practitioners look for ways to accomplish their objectives without breaking the rules, rather than asking whether their actions reflect the positive values for which the profession supposedly stands.

Nielsen suggests four values—or, in a rather clumsy formulation, “responsibility platforms”—around which public relations people might rally.

The first—and Nielsen lists them in order of priority—concerns practitioners’ responsibility to the publics or audiences with which they communicate, internal as well as external.  “Maybe we need to say that we value publics or audiences that are well informed about our organizations or clients,” he says, “and not just partly informed. Transparency is a good value to own.”

Public relations professionals should indeed be advocates of greater transparency, for both ethical and pragmatic reasons. From an ethical perspective, people (consumers, employees, shareholders) have a right to any and all information they need to give their informed consent to their interactions with an organization, its products and services. It is no longer tenable for organizations to withhold information because they fear that people might not use it appropriately. That “you have to trust us, even though we don’t trust you” formulation is indefensible, and ultimately likely to destroy an organization’s credibility.

But Don Tapscott has argued convincingly in his book The Naked Corporation that transparency can be a source of competitive advantage for organizations, and public relations people should be fierce campaigners for sharing as much information as possible—as well as for avoiding anything that smacks of disinformation.

The second core value concerns the responsibility of practitioners to the clients they serve.

“We’re accused of using ‘spin,’ of always putting our clients first and the best face on events,” says Nielsen. “In reality, what we strive to be are honest advocates for the positions taken by our companies or clients and the objectives they seek to pursue. Honest advocacy, I believe, requires that we maintain the highest personal integrity and a position of independence and objectivity within our own organizations: the level of independence that allows us to freely counsel on the formation of organizational policy and then insist on behavior that is consistent with the public positions we have taken.”

Public relations involves aligning the behaviors of an institution with the expectations of the society within which it operates, an objective that can be achieved in either of two ways: by altering the behavior or by persuading society to change its expectations. Both require public relations people to be counselors in the true sense of the word, to provide objective advice—even (or perhaps especially) when it is not what management wants to hear—based on empirical data and professional wisdom. That, above all else, is the obligation counselors owe to their clients.

The third core value Nielsen advocates would address the responsibility of public relations people to the media upon which they depend for the transmission of their messages and their credibility.

“Certainly we value and respect high journalistic standards such as fairness and balance,” says Nielsen. “But maybe we also need to say that we believe in freedom of expression and especially freedom of the press as the foundation of society.”

Nielsen acknowledges that some public relations professionals question whether they have any responsibility at all to the media at a time when a growing number of journalists have abandoned even the pretense of objectivity and when the facts are increasingly less likely to get in the way of a good story. But he understands that reliable and trustworthy media are critical to the value of a profession whose unique currency is credibility.

Public relations people have an obligation to defend the integrity of the media from interference, either political or commercial. Any attempt to stifle other viewpoints, or to exchange favorable coverage for advertising or in some developing countries direct payment to journalists, is ultimately self-defeating, not only to the profession, which is relevant precisely because the media lends it the credibility that sets it apart from paid advertising, but also for its clients, for whom credibility adds value. 

Finally, Nielsen suggests that any statement of values should also include responsibility to the profession itself.

“Clearly, we have a responsibility to advance understanding of the legitimacy of our function, what we value, the principles that guide our practice and the ethical standards we embrace. As well—and here is where this gets very personal—we need to exhibit a commitment to the highest standards of individual character and integrity, standards that we expect from each other and anyone who seeks to take up this practice.”

Everyone who works in public relations is an ambassador for the profession. Their words and actions will have an influence on how the profession is perceived, by clients and by the general public. And the greater their status within the profession, the more significantly their behavior will impact on the profession’s reputation.

Nielsen has clearly thought long and hard about this question of values, and ultimately has his own suggestion, a Credo for the public relations profession not unlike the Credo that guided his former employer through the Tylenol crisis and many other difficult decisions, that is handed to every new employee and is engraved in limestone in the lobby of the company’s New Jersey headquarters.

“As public relations practitioners we place the highest value on the relationships we build and maintain and the communications we initiate with our publics, constituents and audiences, and the general public. Everything we do and say, speak and write, promote and publicize, in whatever form, must be truthful, substantiated and unimpeachable, always reflecting what we know and believe to be true based upon our own investigation of the facts. We must assure that whatever form of expression we use is honest, clear and candid in order to be transparent and fully and completely understood. This is our first responsibility.

“We are also responsible to the organizations and individuals we represent. We must provide informed counsel on policy formation and decision-making. We must vigorously and honestly advocate the positions, points of view and the objectives our clients pursue while maintaining our objectivity and the highest personal integrity at all times. We are also responsible for advocating behavior that is consistent with the highest standards and values of those we represent.

“We believe freedom of expression and especially freedom of the press is the foundation of all societies. We have a responsibility to those individuals and organizations that exercise the right to inquire and to report about matters deemed to be of interest to the public. We must be responsive and timely to legitimate inquiries about the individuals and organizations we represent. We believe our responsibility to the media includes being respectful of the highest journalistic standards.

“We are responsible to our profession. We must honor and be held accountable for the principles and the ethical standards that underlie what we do and the manner in which we practice. We have a responsibility to maintain the highest standards of personal character and integrity. These are the standards we expect from each other.

“Finally, we believe that as we meet our responsibilities to our publics, clients and the media, understanding and respect for our role will be enhanced and our profession will continue to thrive. We believe that owning and upholding these values and responsibilities will enable us to secure and sustain the trust of those we seek to serve.”

Not everyone will agree with Nielsen’s wording, but as a profession we do need a clear idea of the values for which we stand, and Nielsen has provided a good starting point for a discussion.

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