Reputation, ethical tech and fighting the good fight – CIPR National Conference 2019

The topic of this year’s CIPR National Conference, held at the British Library, was preparing for a digital future, covering a myriad of issues and some thorny themes. It wasn’t short on food for thought, both in terms of what being a PR practitioner means today and our role in advising leaders on the importance of purpose and the value of reputation.

With trust continuing to decline, reputation is more important than ever, and in a digital world where transparency is expected and every action is open to scrutiny, it’s vital for businesses to behave responsibly, with purpose at their heart. The most successful establish their purpose and communicate that narrative effectively, and PR has a vital role to play in supporting organisations in telling that story.

The CIPD’s Peter Cheese discussed the changing nature of jobs and careers, the fact that we are living in uncertain times and in an uncertain world and the need for businesses be able to deal with that by being agile and providing a clear narrative.

Peter outlined the key attributes for businesses in today’s digital age, namely a focus on leadership and culture, a strategic narrative, purpose and values, and transparency.

Tony Langham, CEO of Lansonsadded to the conversation around reputation, sharing a particularly pertinent quote from Dave King of Digitalis: “There is a strong argument that today, your online reputation isyour reputation. Sadly, human nature means the sensationalist and negative content is more interesting than its benign counterparts so, albeit unintentionally, Google has become a filtration system which allows negative content to rise to the top and stick.”

Social media and the always-on nature of news means that there is nowhere to hide for leaders that find themselves on the wrong side of public favour. As a society, we’re quick to judge and loathe to forget. As scandal breaks, there are no shortage of spectators ready to dredge up comments or actions from long ago – perhaps ill-advised or too quickly spoken but with the power to turn a hole into a trench and destroy a career. 

We’ve seen multiple examples of this in recent weeks, including Boris Johnson’s relationship with Jennifer Arcuri during his tenure as Mayor of London – a furore now threatening to derail his election campaign – and comments made by ex-radio show host Nick Conrad in a discussion about Ched Evans, the resulting burst of public anger ending his short-lived spate as Tory candidate for Broadland. 

As Tony reminded us, businesses and leaders cannot talk themselves out of a situation they behaved themselves into. It’s about doing the right thing when no-one is watching. 

Reputation management is a rapidly moving sum of parts and PRs have an important role to play in advising on the behavior and purpose at the heart of an organisation, being unafraid to speak up where that’s found wanting.

The ethical use of technology is a good example of this, as outlined by researcher and broadcaster Dr Stephanie Harein her thought-provoking talk. Dr. Hare reminded us of the myriad ways our data has been misused and the absence of repercussions which means it continues to happen. On the same day, an investigation from the FT revealed our medical data is being tradedwithout our knowledge or permission. 

Management of data is, and will continue to be, a key aspect of good governance and ethics- where data isn’t being used ethically, our industry has a responsibility to voice an opinion and encourage better practice. 

We have heard many discussions around PR as a management discipline, but the direction of travel for the future of the industry is certainly heading in that direction. 

Joanna Blackburn, Head of Digital Communications, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, reminded us that real change is never achieved by taking a safe approach, “Don’t be vanilla – encourage innovation, experimentation and risk-taking.”

The conference very aptly finished with a talk from Dr. Lawrence Ampofo, Founder ofDigital Mindfulness. Technology is all-encompassing, with its closeness causing issues for many of us, but Dr. Ampofo believes the antidote is found in “intelligent space”. It’s important to establish boundaries and the space to switch off. Check out his Digital Mindfulness podcast for more on the topic.

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