The burgeoning scandal surrounding Barclays is likely to be irrevocably destructive to the reputation of the bank, yet is just another element of a bigger scenario causing far more widespread damage. This latest episode in a now long-running series of scandals and revelations is also highly damaging to the UK's reputation and is helping to undermine the economy and overall health of the nation. It is also ultimately damaging to the British population at both a financial and social level.
Furthermore, with what's emerging (thus far), be it as a result of the phone-hacking investigations, uncovering of numerous corporate institutions breaking social and moral codes or by engaging in unethical or criminal practices, along with some shady political associations overriding democracy, there should be growing alarm within our own sector.
Many of the worst scenarios have been exposed from deliberately submerged or bad communication surfacing, but frequently only after protracted probing. As such, a cynical public and media blame some of the issues discovered this way on the involvement of PR. PROs at the forefront become implicated in any wrong doing, albeit sometimes unwittingly. Either they are unable to do anything constructive by having their professional advice ignored, or are being manipulated or obstructed. Worse still, some may be wilfully helping to cloud the process of honest and reputable management of information or are otherwise lacking in sound judgement.
Building trust through PR isn't about trying to hide the truth, being economical with it or making out that all in the garden is fine. Practice surrounding such approaches only leads to feeding further mistrust. Mistrust has a nasty habit of rapidly embedding growth, as weeds will grow where you don’t want them.
Where there are inquiries, awkward questions will inevitably be asked. Those with responsibility for how the communication has been managed should be transparently honest in responding and must concede what part, if any, they played in withholding the truth.
These scandals have the potential to create the most damaging impact on PR I can recall in over 30 years of practice. I strive to teach my students best and ethical practice in corporate reputation management. All the while they comment on how bad practice is seen to prevail and seems to be a norm.
There has been excellent work done by many in striving for a more encompassing and coherent definition of public relations, better education and adherence to building an environment of best practice which has driven up the levels of professionalism. It would be highly regrettable if any fallout from the current climate was to waste much of what has so far been achieved.
I urge the CIPR, PRCA and other industry leaders to now take a hard and honest look at the wider societal effects of these scandals, and to report on how it all impacts on the perceptions of the PR profession. Then firm and determined action is required along with codes of conduct which are followed and are enforceable. An environment must be created where tough sanctions can be applied on wrong doers where necessary.
Bernard Wakefield-Heath is a PR lecturer at University of Gloucestershire and is a director of a radio station Stroud FM. He also regularly broadcasts on a number of issues across BBC and independent channels.