Christopher Clarke, MD of Epoch, explains why PR must be at the heart of business

Too often, people talk about events changing the world as we know it. More often than not such claims are all hype and little substance. However, last month we celebrated six years since starting the agency and this forced a little retrospection. Thinking back, I am struck by how fundamentally different the world is to when we started in 2004. The media and business environment is almost unrecognisable.

Not that long ago it would have been unthinkable that some of the world’s most fervent free-marketeers would be advocating billions of state intervention; or that the Iranian presidential election would have been disrupted by unknown medium Twitter; or that Barack Obama, as an African American, would take the White House and break years of dynastic US politics; or that Brazil would become a beacon of the new world economy; or that we, in the UK, and in most developed countries, face the most bleak public debt situation than at any time in our history.

These changes have, and continue to, reshape business, government, society and the media. The last 18 months will reshape the next century in a way we couldn’t have imagined a few years ago.

At the G20 last year, a new global settlement emerged which saw government intervention back. The language of politics and politicians is more robust and more critical of business than it has been for a generation. You only need to look at Obama’s stance on BP or the coalition government’s language about the banking reform.

While much of this new rhetoric can be understood, it is symbolic of a new and potentially dangerous narrative emerging whereby businesses (certainly financial services companies, but not only them) are villains, consumers are victims and government is the vindicator.

This narrative represents a challenge for communications and for those of us in the business of corporate reputation. We must battle on three fronts:

Firstly, the relationship between politics and business has shifted which means managing corporate reputation must change. New stakeholders have and continue to emerge. But not only are the audiences more fragmented, there is uncertainty about how actors will act. Gone are the old lines dividing interventionists and neoliberals, the left and right. Keynesianism is most likely to be the ingredient for even the most freemarket recipes in the 21st century.

Secondly, there is a battle to adjust to a zero or low growth economy. With forecasts downgraded for UK growth, we are potentially looking at a more prolonged period of slower growth than anticipated. This means that all business – both us and our clients – must restlessly search for growth as it won’t come purely from a rising market. Diversifying into new markets, developing new products and services must be the drivers of growth and corporate brand must be its catalyst.

Thirdly, and arguably most importantly, is the battle to restate the case for business and its contribution to society. We need to prevent the perception taking hold that business only fuels the fortunes of a few, is dismissive about the environment and has little to do with social progress. We must argue more than ever that business can and should be a force for progress on the big issues facing us today.

The challenge for us as communicators is to be part of the solution in helping our organisations and clients connect to a more sceptical public and body politic, and be relevant in today’s new age. Those businesses which adapt quickly and do not become emasculated by today’s age will be the winners. As the eyes and ears of business, it is up to us to become the corporate ambassadors that will help businesses adapt to the post-credit crunch era.

It is also up to us to shake off any temptation to adopt a command-and-control approach to communications. The hallmarks of good communications in the future won’t be perfectly honed soundbites and precision media management. It will be about engaging with real and often controversial issues, taking a viewpoint and engaging in robust conversations.

This is something we as communicators should embrace. It will help fuel greater creativity and will place PR firmly at the heart of all organisations.

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