Opinion: Authenticity central to interconnected world

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EVER since Donald Trump won the US presidency in 2016, businesses are increasingly using their social media platforms to expound on social and political issues, writes Michael Collins. Sure, the idea of stakeholder capitalism and purpose is hardly new and not at all unique to post-Trump’s election, but there has been a recent forceful push for anyone with a significant platform to use it and be also held publicly accountable for those words and actions. 

This new ‘interconnected’ world has undoubtedly raised the stakes of taking certain stands.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that sales and new Instagram followers means little if you are not speaking from an authentic place with an emphasis on people. The role of communicators is more critical than ever in building trust within different communities while establishing positions of empathy and care. Across the world, we’ve seen an appetite to look beyond home and into other neighboring backyards to find solutions to climate, public health, and technology crises.

As the world’s largest PR professional body, we have seen rivals band together to form a Global Covid-19 Taskforce to provide critical free support to PR professionals across the world at the pandemic’s peak. Furthermore, global industry leaders are increasingly taking on the challenge to address some of the industry’s most pressing issues with us, including PR ethics, mental health, and the academic and professional gap.

I would argue that PR is one of the world’s most competitive industries. It can be relentless as much as it can be inspiring. Although the pandemic has inflicted immense suffering on the world, it has also stirred the power of PR across society and business. In fact, I would go a step further to say we have truly seen the positive and transformative power of the people working in PR.

Whether it’s communicating the complexities of carbon off-sets in response to vocal customer demand, relaying critical vaccine information, or outlining an organization’s progress on diversity and inclusion, PR practitioners have acted as both reputation guardians and changemakers during this time of crisis.

All the TED Talk platitudes on “we’re in this together” and “the interconnected world” cannot change the basics of effective communications during a crisis. Those basics speak to an eventuality: The truth will eventually be told.

That truth can only be realized when a full spectrum of stakeholders have been engaged on the issue from start-to-finish. Where organizations have gone awry recently is bandwagoning on issues such as Black Lives Matter and the climate crisis without careful introspection. Does your workplace culture really foster inclusion and equity? Can you really talk green if your supply chain is riddled with serial polluters? Ultimately, the answers arise from people – employees, consumers, business partners, and the broader community in which the organization operates in. Every brand seemingly wants to publish a COP26 blog or shout about their future plans of hiring more diverse staff.

But how about simply telling the truth even if it’s a little uncomfortable?

There’s been a greater concerted effort to use all four media types (paid, earned, shared and owned media) for building engagement around stakeholder issues. Communicators have not just sat back on the old media relations toolbox to tell their client or organization’s truth. This has come with risk though, as some brands have clumsily demonstrated.

The world is bereft of honesty, true, but it might be even shorter on forgiveness, especially on social media where the criticism is swift and fierce. For the most part, we’ve seen the global PR industry rise to the challenge and lead organizations past the temptation of performance and towards clear and meaningful action. 

Michael Collins is the head of communications at the world’s largest professional PR body – the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA). Originally a journalist, Michael has over five years of international experience working across government, sports and public sector.