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As custodians of information, PRs have a critical role to play in society says Farzana Baduel

I have always had an uncomfortable relationship with the truth. Being brought up in liberal London in the 1990s and raised by conservative Muslim parents from Pakistan led to an adolescence full of lies.

Deceit was a daily occurrence and became as natural as breathing, as I tried to bridge the gap between a western culture at school and Pakistani culture at home. When I eventually left home for university, it was a huge relief. Lying is exhausting and corrosive to the soul.

When I started out in PR over a decade ago, I would work for clients by disseminating information without any real regard for the responsibilities that come with communication. As journalism declined - due to advertising revenues moving across to Big Tech’s pockets - I witnessed the shift of journalists moving into PR and bringing with them their journalist mindset.

Over the years, they taught me the importance of being a discerning gatekeeper, cultivating a healthy scepticism and ensuring communication was based on evidence and facts. As an innate people pleaser, it took a long time to develop confidence and refine the art of pushing back when I didn’t trust the authenticity of the information.

PRs have a responsibility

As custodians of information, PRs have a critical role to play in society. We must filter information for dissemination, whether for journalists, content, social media, or some other mode of communication. It is no longer journalists versus PRs, as PRs have rapidly risen to the realisation that authentic marketing and communications win in the purposeful age. Our industry bodies, CIPR and PRCA, now have mandatory ethics modules as part of practitioners’ CPD.

Truth has become a manifesto for the PR industry, as PR professionals seek to take their rightful place in society by joining the fight against misinformation and disinformation. The PR industry is driving real change in society by championing purpose at the heart of organisations and authenticity in communications.

Capitalism has morphed from Milton Friedman’s shareholder capitalism to present-day stakeholder capitalism. The arrival of social media has driven the democratisation of communication, so anyone with a smartphone and access to the Internet can call companies and brands out.

Walk the talk

Covid-19 has led to a lack of tolerance from the public for “purpose washing”. Organisations now have to walk the talk with the increasingly savvy Millennials and Gen-Zers, who have digital tool kits in their palms to verify virtue signalling claims and weaponise them against brands if they fall short.

There is a business case for truth - as we live in an age of the ability of citizen journalists and employees to act as whistle blowers, with unfettered access to billions of people through social media. The inside realities must align with the external stories, otherwise you risk a credibility gap.

Stakeholders demand more than product or service effectiveness, they want companies to demonstrate their commitment to people and the planet as much as they pursue profit. The public is also less likely to be fobbed off with superficial talk of CSR initiatives - as they are increasingly savvy and demand accountability and impact. ESG brings much-needed rigour, as it helps measure and quantifies.

Twitter naughty step

Just like that, brands can now be cancelled, as markets are now conversations. Brands can be put on the Twitter naughty step in an instant and even the subsequent apology can strike the wrong tone.

We live in interesting times, with tech-enabled data analytics at our disposal. We are in a more informed position to horizon scan for reputational vulnerabilities, but nothing safeguards a brand like the truth.

Written by by Farzana Baduel, CEO of agency Curzon PR

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