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Do PR firms take their own medicine regarding social purpose?

June 10, 2019 #Insights
Do PR firms take their own medicine regarding social purpose?
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This article first appeared in PRWeek.

Edelman’s Michelle Hutton was quoted in these pages emphasising the mission-critical importance of social purpose for organisations.

Most of us probably agree. But is that just when we are looking at our clients, or do we do so for ourselves, too?

A flick through the websites of the top 10 UK PR agencies would suggest none of them have a social purpose; at least not a ‘mission critical’ one that they are happy putting on their ‘About’ page.

Every agency has their own area of focus – authenticity, attention, trust – but none seemingly take their own medicine.

It could be amazing.

Imagine if Edelman’s purpose was not just to “evolve, promote and protect [client] brands and reputations”, but to drive trustworthiness in our institutions, including business, to create a society that delivers for everyone.

The Trust Barometer is a hugely valuable piece of thought leadership and is regularly mentioned in debate about trust in public institutions.

Why isn’t it part of the mission statement? Edelman is a family-owned company, more able than most to adopt a radical position.

Golin claims it is about earning “attention for your brand”.

The agency operates at the crossroads between brands, digital platforms and consumers, so why hasn’t it declared a social mission to make the digital world safe, healthy and rewarding for all?

It could drive such an agenda through public policy ideas, tools to help consumers moderate online content, its own code of conduct – all with benefits for its own reputation (read: business), as well as society.

Beyond simply not looking like hypocrites, there are two strategic reasons for communications firms to adopt social purpose.

The first is managing downside risks: you don’t want to end up like Bell Pottinger, seemingly flogging PR and lobbying on behalf of the highest bidder.

Having a social purpose is part of a firm’s insurance against that.

The second is about securing a niche. Advisory firms across the board have been converging on the ‘strategic advisory’ space for a long time.

Occupying a niche doesn’t prevent you from having broader services; it is a secure foothold on the wall.

If we believe our own spiel, customers will consider services from those businesses that embed purpose at the heart of their business.

But it is more important than that.

Our society is changing. It is not clear what will define the new socio-political order, but we are already in it.

And our industry is changing. The rise of AI and the relative decline of Western economies (and their businesses) will come to bear. A lodestar would be a useful ally to navigate with.

Ultimately, refocusing our businesses to improve both society and our clients is not just good for business. It is good for us as citizens, too.

Image credit: Savvas Stavrinos on Pexels.

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