The Whole World Is A Communication Expert

June 18, 2013

Reflections of the 2013 Canadian Public Relations Society Conference … Last week I attended my third Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) National Conference, held this year in Ottawa-Gatineau. As a member of the CPRS since 2009 and recently accredited with an APR, I wanted to attend to celebrate my accomplishment. I also wanted the opportunity to re-connect with communications and public relations (PR) practitioners of all levels and all walks of life. The conference was, as usual, excellent, but it got me thinking about bigger issues including a deficit of public trust, corporate accountability, and new mandates for communications professionals.

The conference, dubbed “summer camp for PR pros,” had its usual non-surprises: exceptional keynote speeches (including CBC’s Evan Solomon and renowned Canadian author Terry Fallis), breakout workshops on various topics of interest, extensive discussion on social media, the latest communication evaluation tools, and of course plenty of after-hours networking.

But as I sat in the hotel lounge on Monday night reflecting upon the future of PR, I began to think that we were missing the bigger picture. Sure it’s nice to be exposed to new communications tools and tactics – who doesn’t appreciate learning new tricks of the trade?  However, I wasn’t hearing anyone discussing what I have felt to be in recent years a larger societal issue in which PR practitioners play a large role – an ever increasing public trust deficit.

Public Trust Deficit

Have you heard of the Edelman Annual Trust Barometer? Every year, more than 31,000 people in 26 markets around the world are surveyed to measure their trust in institutions, industries and leaders. And guess what? It’s not pretty. Year after year, categories such as Government, CEO’s and Corporations are ranked as the lowest trusted entities in society.

  • Well isn’t that who you and I in the communications world work for, in some avenue or another?
  • Don’t we spend each and every waking moment trying to develop strategies, plans and programs to increase public trust and transparency in society?
  • Does this mean we’re starting in the “red” before we even start?

I began to wonder why all the PR pros in the room were talking about social media platforms and not addressing this alarming issue!

Not being one to sit in a corner with my thoughts for very long, I approached a few people in the hotel lounge who were having their night-caps and asked if I could join their table for a discussion.  I raised a few of these ideas about broadening the dialogue scope at the conference and perhaps broadening the audience to address in more detail this concept of public distrust. Well lo and behold, I had found myself at the table with seasoned practitioners  who were either founding members or directors of the Global Alliance for public relations and communication management – a confederation organization of more than 70 major PR associations (including our CPRS) around the world representing over 170,000 members. As the night wound down, my new friend asked if I would join his dinner table at the National Awards Gala the following night to continue this pressing conversation.

At the gala (where my colleague was presented with the Award of Attainment), we carried on the conversation of our professional society tackling the trust deficit, while discussing the appropriateness of “calling out” or challenging those in the profession who don’t abide by our code of conduct or ethical standards.

“I’ve encountered so-called communications experts who blatantly provide inaccurate and untruthful information to the public”, I said to my colleagues, “I need more tools and support to be able to demonstrate the difference between the ‘real-deals’ and the phonies”.

Melbourne Mandate

My friend brought to my attention the project he had led through the Global Alliance called the Melbourne Mandate.  At the World Public Relations Forum 2012 in Melbourne almost 800 delegates from 29 countries endorsed the Melbourne Mandate, a call to action of new areas of value for public relations and communication management. Today, unprecedented public access to communication presents new challenges and opportunities for organizations – and for global society. This presents a new mandate for public relations and communication management: a set of roles, responsibilities and principles.  So while the whole world becomes “communications experts” via Twitter, blog, Facebook, or online opinion editorial commentary, there is a global understanding being established to properly define (and give recognition to) communications professionals who have a global mandate to uphold integrity in the profession.

If you are a “PR pro” and haven’t read the Melbourne Mandate yet, print it off and bring it home this weekend to reflect upon.  If you are not affiliated with a communications or public relations society that is involved in this type of international work, I invite you to consider it. We all have a role to play in addressing public distrust in our society and shifting the negative connotations often associated with our profession.  I have spent the better part of the last six years working on ensuring the public has access to factual information, and to ensure stakeholders’ voices are heard and incorporated into major project infrastructure proposals.  This is important work. By forming a unified front that respects and upholds ethical codes and standards, we can elevate the public relations profession and eliminate the phonies.

Turns out I learned a few things at this year’s CPRS conference after all – everyone in the world is NOT a communications expert. I personally take pride in the work that my colleagues at Communica and I undertake in continuing to strive to advocate, demonstrate and enhance the value of public relations and communication to organizations, communities and global society.

– Emma Shea, APR, Senior Consultant & BC Operations Manager, Communica Public Affairs