Havas PR’s Steve Marinker explains why PROs need to understand the social accord
Date: 12 October 2012 16:52
In the post-war years, and for decades after, Britain was run largely by the state. We might not have had government-run supermarkets, coffee shops and bingo halls, but for years these institutions, and many others in the private sector, had more than a whiff of Soviet-style command and control about them.
With zero competition across large tracts of public life, and limited choice elsewhere, the idea that businesses and organisations should care about their reputations was far from self-evident. So when in the late 1980s, PR savants started talking about reputation as an intangible asset and setting out principles and processes for its guardianship, they hit on something important.
Britain had changed. The state was retreating. Competition and choice ruled and across the private and public sectors it became accepted that a poor reputation was not good for business.
PR became redefined as “the management of reputation“, capturing two important thoughts – firstly, that in contested markets reputation was rather important, and secondly, that it could be controlled and improved.
More recently, the idea that reputation per se is the principal product of PR has faded and in its place has come the notion of trust. Faith in the integrity of institutions could scarcely be lower than it is today and most business leaders will agree that earning, or regaining, trust is high on their to-do list.
So the management of reputation is morphing into something else; let’s call it “the stewardship of trust“. But I’d like to suggest that this is already an out-dated notion and that in any case there’s scarcely any difference between the two concepts; one merely being a consequence of the other.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer up a new idea: social accord.
Social accord is not a promise to treat communities with respect, or to maintain high standards of governance, or to reward suppliers fairly, or to deal with complaints efficiently, or to treat staff with dignity, or even to develop, manufacture, distribute and market innovative products at keen prices.
Rather it describes the common ground between organisations and their stakeholders. It can be found in some strange places.
Take Ryanair. Here is an airline which promises to skimp on everything (apart from safety) and which seems to relish charging for an increasingly outlandish series of “extras” so that you can pay the lowest possible base fare.
Ryanair would most likely come towards the bottom of any corporate reputation league table and it certainly won’t challenge Marks & Spencer as Britain’s most trusted company. Yet it’s one of Europe’s biggest airlines.
That’s because it has found a social accord – a common ground between what it wants (shareholder value) and what consumers demand (cheap flights).
Where other businesses touting a low price proposition have struggled Ryanair has thrived. Michael O’Leary’s mastery of the media has been one of the defining characteristics of its meteoric rise. His anger and impudence have channelled the public’s disaffection with sky-high air fares. We might not like Ryanair. We might not respect it or trust it, but we darn well fly it.
Entire industries can find a social accord. In the 1920s, tobacco did just that thanks to Edward Bernays, the father of modern PR. Using the psychoanalytic techniques pioneered by his uncle, Sigmund Freud, Bernays brilliantly aligned smoking in public with female emancipation and so helped tobacco firms exploit a market which had previously been beyond reach. Women started to use cigarettes as a cipher for freedom and empowerment. An industry and a social movement had found common cause; a social accord.
We can all think of organisations founded on a bedrock of trust and those which suffered when trust evaporated, but it is a mistake to limit the description of PR’s purpose or product as establishing high levels of trust.
Businesses which behave in trustworthy ways will doubtless be rewarded and PR has a role to play in telling the story but – crisis and issues management aside – it’s a minor role compared with staff training, operational excellence and good corporate governance.
Where PR can more easily show its mettle is in helping clients make common cause with their customers and other audiences to create value.
A corporate communications director in the industrial sector recently explained to me why his organisation supported cycling at a grass-roots level. “It’s because research shows our consumers are really interested in cycling and they want their kids to be proficient at it“, he said. Is this the basis of a social accord? I don’t think so. No doubt cycling is indeed of great interest to the consumer, but it is not self-evidently in the interests of the company. Without that mutuality of interests we’re just left with old-style, transparently disingenuous corporate social responsibility.
If that same company also discovered that consumers wanted their children to be proficient at science and technology one could perhaps see the beginnings of a social accord.
Social accords can be found in the contracts between brands and their consumers, between corporations and their stakeholders and between ideologies and the public. They can be explicit and rational like Ryanair’s or implicit and emotional like the tobacco industry’s. Either way, I believe that the social accord can be a powerful weapon in the PR industry’s armoury as we adapt to the social age.