This was a new event, and it had some distinctive characteristics. We sat at round tables, and speakers allowed plenty of time for questions.
Most distinctive, none of the speakers was doing so from a public relations perspective (though two had held very senior corporate affairs roles before moving onto political or general management roles).
Then there was the reporting restriction (Chatham House Rule) that means I can report the event but not connect comments to the speakers. You may still be able to read who they were on the event website.
I wasn’t aware of any indiscretions, though the restriction may have been as much about reassuring the attendees who could have revealed confidences than about protecting high profile speakers from themselves.
So this report is on an event that took a very high level view of the landscape of trust and reputation, and it’s a generalised account of some of the themes that emerged from the day.
The speakers had expertise across the public sphere - in politics, media, opinion research and academia. It was eclectic - and it was exciting. It also threw together some conflicting approaches from the speakers.
The forum was held at Rhodes House in Oxford. Several speakers alluded to the reputational issues surrounding its benefactor, Cecil Rhodes. Was he a great man who gave his name to a country (Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe) and to Rhodes scholars? Or was he the champion and beneficiary of an oppressive empire whose name should no longer be commemorated? Reputation can change long after our lifetime, in unpredictable ways. ‘You never know what your legacy will be,’ as one speaker said.
So to the themes - which are full of surprises.
You’ve never had it so good
I know. We all think things are getting worse. There was the financial crisis; the rise of populism and the loss of deference and politeness. We’re gloomy about the future. Yet pollsters and academics showed us that on almost every index life has been getting better for most people.
We do trust experts
Politicians and government ministers suffered from the expenses scandal. But they were never very popular to begin with. But every other professional group - with the exception of the clergy - has maintained or increased its trustworthiness in recent years. Trust in experts has been rising, despite claims to the contrary. There has been no collapse in trust, despite the headlines.
The rise of purpose and the fall of CSR
No one proclaimed the death of CSR. But the fact that corporate social responsibility (CSR) was barely mentioned by any speaker was significant. Corporations - all organisations - have a role in society and should recognise that their own best interests are served by the long-term health of society. But there’s something wrong with the idea of assigning this to a department in charge of responsibility. It implies that left to its own devices, business will always act irresponsibly. It risks doing the right thing becoming an exercise in box ticking.
So what language do we use in place of responsibility? I heard several speakers talking up the importance of purpose and values - and enacting those values. ‘What ends in value, starts with values’ was a memorable way to phrase it. Several speakers cited Unilever’s long-term orientation and focus on sustainability.
We’re not the conscience of our organisations
We’re in public relations and communication - not moral philosophy. It’s too easy and too pious to preach about ‘doing the right thing’. If PR people claim to be the conscience of the organisation - then where does that leave the CEO? It suggests they don’t need to care, which is a dangerous way to go.
Who owns reputation?
Various experts have the ear of the chief executive. Several speakers discussed the differing perspectives from lawyers, accountants, management consultants and the many other experts involved in the management of risk. Their advice may differ from ours, so we need arguments to support our perspective and should take confidence in our role.
Who gets the first call in a crisis - and who gets listened to?
An apology is not an admission of guilt
Legal advice used to be to say nothing for fear of legal liability. But an apology can be a statement of human concern, not an admission of guilt.
Don’t feed the trolls
Keyboard bullies are often attention seekers, so while we should avoid throwing fuel on the fire, we can defuse problems by taking conversations offline and paying them some attention.
Several formulae were offered as a basis for understanding and evaluating reputation. One memorable formula was: Reputation equals performance less expectations. (At the time of writing, this is easy to apply to the England football team that has exceeded its modest expectations - and so enhanced its reputation during the World Cup.)
Another formula suggested that Reputation equals Credibility plus Reliability plus Intimacy divided by Self-interest.
Fake or fact?
We worry about the spread of fake news, and the sensitivities about how to set the record straight. But one speaker stressed the need for positivity: there’s always a positive angle to emphasise (and if there isn’t, then go on the attack). And social media provides new channels for communicators.
We need interesting stories to share - and can learn lessons from surprising places. Donald Trump is good at Twitter because he’s a showman. In ‘post-truth politics’ there’s a 12 hour news cycle.
Politics trumps economics
Don’t make the mistake of economists in the past by assuming that people always act rationally. We can be persuaded to act emotionally, even against our own economic best interests.
Who are ‘the public’?
Social media knows what we’ve liked online - but this is not the same as knowing us. We’re more complicated than that. So beware of making easy assumptions about public attitudes. Campaigners claim to represent the public, but they may be a few noisy or privileged people. Just as there’s fake news, so there may be fake opinion. One speaker cautioned against ‘cowardly corporate capitulation’ and said to ‘hold your nerve against activists.’
Richard Bailey is editor of PR Place. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.