Ethics, Politics and the Media: Influences on the voice of business

An address to the Corporate Affairs and Communication Leaders’ Summit

Auckland, 20 August 2019


Let me begin with a consumer warning: The following doesn’t exactly follow the title.

Yes, it will address ethics, politics, the media, and business.

However, it will do so in the context of expectations rather than influences. In other words, it is about things you will have to factor into your future, rather than having you recognise the somewhat more discretionary effects that a word like ‘influence’ might denote.

In order to paint this future for you, I need to take you back into the relatively recent past.

Market-driven policies– call them ‘neoliberal ‘if you don’t mind what some see as a dirty word – began in the era of Rogernomics and continue to dominate New Zealand today. They have had a plethora of effects.

Not least was the effect on the very structure of the public sector.

Previously-public functions were privatised and crown-owned commercially-oriented companies were created to carry out other activities on the state’s behalf.

You can see in this diagram of the structure of the public sector that it is almost a misnomer. Indeed, judging by the breakout on the right, you might wonder whether the proportions of the blocks on the left are an accurate reflection of the public and quasi-private split.

Source: State Services Commission

The over-arching theory, of course, was that the profit imperative of private business was more efficient than bureaucracy and that the market – the laws of supply and demand – were the best regulator.

Regulation was reduced in line with this expectation, which pushed a greater responsibility for good governance on to the private sector.

This structural and regulatory change – together with a new lexicon for the public sector to make it speak as well as think in a more businesslike manner – led to a blurring of the lines between public and private sector activities but, perhaps more significantly, it led the general public to lose some of its ability to distinguish between the two.

Was Telecom just the old Post & Telegraph by another name or something else? Was Mercury Energy still the Auckland Electric Power Board and Ports of Auckland just the harbour board retitled?

As time went on the differences between the two sectors became less and less distinct and the business lexicon became second nature to state sector employees who sat alongside private contractors and were managed by executives on contracts hardly distinguishable from their private sector counterparts.

The result is that the public see both sectors through a new lens. In fact they don’t see two distinct sectors but something of a continuum. One in which there is not only a business-like orientation and structure to many state functions, but the private sector is directly involved in providing services previously regarded as the responsibility of public servants.

In parallel with this new sectoral environment, the news media having been changing.

Once upon a time, their deadlines were determined by print cycles, a nightly television news bulletin or radio newscasts that concentrated on breakfast, lunch and drivetime. In a digital environment the deadlines are immediate and never-ending. Journalists feed multiple platforms and have the ability to publish direct to those platforms using systems such as Stuff’s Twitter-like Source Fabric Liveblog. This carries with it new expectations over response times.

And digital technology has brought new players to the media landscape: News organisations like Newsroom, The Spinoff and Politik, each of which is led and staffed by highly experienced journalists.

The result of this is that the public is now offered a broad range and depth of content from click-bait to longform investigative journalism that can hold its own anywhere.

And I sense that our media has become more aggressive. As they fight for their economic lives in a diminishing advertising market, survival instinct has kicked in and they fight for position.

The result of all these changes is a shift in public expectations.

Where once they might have felt justified as taxpayers in holding government departments and other public agencies to account through elected representatives, members of the public have extended those expectations.

First, they extended to the Crown entities and the privatised operational units. Then, as the lines became more blurred and the market-led economy became entrenched, the expectations that previously focused on the public sector also migrated to the private sector.

The public now has far greater expectations across all sectors that it once did. With recognised limits to protect individual rights, national security, the rule of law and so on, the public now expects a general cross-sectoral recognition of five primary obligations:

  • Being open to scrutiny
  • Being accountable
  • Being responsive when approached
  • Acting with integrity
  • Being open in meeting public expectations

Let’s look at what these expectations mean.

Scrutiny: What aspects of an organisation’s activities might be open to scrutiny under either the public’s expectation or the media’s attempts to satisfy it?

Operations – whatyour employer or client is doing – probably tops the list but it would be closely followed by how and how wellthose activities are carried out. Particularly where there are potential direct effects on the public, those activities WILL be investigated, and time will tell.

Part of the scrutiny of activities, of course, is financial performance. The ability of news organisations to employ deep data analytics has furnished them with a powerful tool.

However, scrutiny will also focus onwhois within an organisation. Certainly, owners and senior executives might expect someattention being paid to their personal lives, but there is a fine balance to be struck between the public’s right to know and the individual’s right to privacy. It is incumbent on people like yourselves to be in a position to fairly and accurately advise the targets of such scrutiny where the right balance should lie.

Accountability: This is a consequence of scrutiny and it will be similarly broadly interpreted – from boards down.

However, people in your organisations will not only be held accountable for the performance of their duties. They, and the organisation, will be held accountable for the ways in which they treat people – both inside the organisation and among the public.

We’ve seen recently how the media push for accountability, making Sir John Key uncomfortable in his role as chair of ANZ, and subjecting Russell McVeagh to ongoing informal audits of how it is dealing with sexual harassment.

Responsiveness: This is probably more an issue for journalists than members of the public, although you’ll see later that this is not always the case. And journalists are not slow to show their displeasure at a lack of responsiveness.

Journalists do not like to be met by silence, delay, or obfuscation. And they certainly resent being put on a cynical merry-go-round in the forlorn hope of finally speaking to the right person. Remember that changed media landscape? They measure response in minutes, not hours or days.

Integrity: This is a subject I should need to say little about. There is a clear expectation by the public that organisations will work fairly, minimise environmental impact, employ safeguards for clients and the public, and deal honestly at all times.Journalists, I can assure you, will work assiduously to uncover transgressions.

Openness: Openness is a combination of accessibility, frankness, fullness and honesty. It is at its most vital in times of adversity. I invite you to study the way Rob Fyfe – then CEO of Air New Zealand – handled the crash of an Airbus on a test flight off the coast of France in 2008. It led to an editorial in the Dominion Postentitled “Honesty in the face of adversity”.I cannot recall another instance where a newspaper used its editorial column to praise a chief executive for being open and honest, but I can tell you that it has become a case study in crisis management workshops.The opposite – shutting down – has vastly different consequences and may lead to unmanaged speculation.

Put all these presumptions together and it is reasonable to suggest that the overarching expectations is that you, your organisations or clients will act in the public interest. Indeed, the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand’s set of values has two clauses dealing with just that. Professionalism implies regard for the public interest.

Twenty years ago, an American journalism professor Tom Bivins wrote a still-quoted paper on the need for public relations professionals to act in the public interest.

He acknowledged that this could be interpreted in four different ways.

His first paradigm stated that, if every individual practicing public relations acts in the best interest of his or her client, then the public interest will be served. It is embodied in the PRINZ Values under advocacy: We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. Forgive me if I find that an easy ‘out’.

Paradigm II: If every individual practicing public relations acts in the best interest of his or her client, then the public interest will be served. In other words, do some pro bono work and you’ll be sweet. Another easy ‘out’.

His third Paradigm says that if professionals assure that every individual in need or desiring their services receives their services, then the public interest will be served. So you’re OK if anyone can hire a PR consultant. That doesn’t quite cut it for me.

The final paradigm is the one for which he suggests PR professionals should strive. I think the authors of the PRINZ values read his paper.

Paradigm IV states: If public relations as a profession improves the quality of debate over issues important to the public, then the public interest will be served. The PRINZ values statement follows the same line: We provide a voice for the ideas, facts and viewpoints of those we represent to aid informed public debate. This looks easy but to fully realise it requires the adoption of most if not all of the expectations I’ve talked about.

The Public Relations Institute’s values and a code of ethics suffer, I’m afraid, from what is known as the ‘utility of vagueness’. They are fine words, but the devil will lie in how you, your organisation or your clients react when the public interest becomes a core issue.

I’m afraid you are in danger of being confronted with the prisoner’s dilemma. You may not wish to act out of self-interest, but you may be confronted by an employer or client determined to so.

I say ‘may’ because there doubtless will be situations in which the public interest must prevail and your organisation or client recognises it. Product safety is an example.

However, there is a potential ethical ambivalence between serving the needs of your employer or client and acting in the public interest. Special interests may not coincide with what is in the best interests of the public. Disclosure is a case in point.

Disclosure may be in the public interest but it’s a fact – certainly in other jurisdictions and I suspect here, too – that a large part of the job of a PR practitioner is keeping stories away from the public eye or at least minimizing their impact. Aaron Davis (an academic at Goldsmith’s College in London) was unequivocal in highlighting the practice. In News, Public Relations and Power, published in 2003, he said: “…in the corporate sphere the most politically effective use of public relations appears to have been in restricting mainstream reporter access and quashing negative stories.”  Guardian journalist Nick Davis made a similar point in his best-seller Flat Earth News.

It’s what Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy in PR: A persuasive Industry? call PR’s dark side of the moon.

We’ve recently seen images of the dark side of the moon, courtesy of the Chinese Space Agency’s lunar lander. The pictures of its remote-control buggy setting out across the featureless lunar landscape tell something of a cautionary tale. Like a lunar rover, attempts to suppress bad news have a tendency to leave tracks that can’t be blown away.

There is one device used to deny public interest access that I find particularly galling. It is the erroneous use of a private good – privacy. Too often I see and hear privacy cited as a reason for denying access to information. Too often I see that excuse knocked over if the information seeker employs official information redress.

Here is an example. A woman attacked in her own home by a psychotic meat worker blames the Nelson Marlborough DHB for failing to care for him.

Sheapplied to the High Court to have her automatic name suppression lifted, so she could speak openly about how she believes the DHB failed both the rapist and herself.

She then applied to the DHB for a copy of its review of his care and was refused on privacy grounds. That refusal was overturned when she applied for the review under the Official Information Act – and sought the assistance of TVNZ’s Sundaycurrent affairs programme.

The review proved to be at odds with clinical information obtained for the programme. So what, exactly, was the DHB protecting? Was it the man’s privacy or its own reputation? And why was no weight given to the fact that the victim had foregone her own privacy and taken the courageous step of having her automatic name suppression rescinded so she could pursue the matter?

And whose privacy was being protected when the victim of a dog attack was refused details of the outcome of council actions because it was “a privacy issue”? Was the dog’s privacy being protected? Certainly not that of its owner because the victim had been helping an ambulance officer carry her inside her home when her dog attacked him.  He knew her identity already. The council released a statement when the victim went public in frustration: “Where detailed information relating to an investigation is requested, the request is received and considered via the council’s LGOIMA (Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act) request process. This ensures that the information is reviewed, and information that should not be released, such as private information, is withheld.” The dog’s privacy has been maintained.

I am equally concerned – and have considerable sympathy for communications practitioners – when executives or boards ignore professional PR advice.

Often the only loser will be the organisation foolish enough to ignore good advice but sometimes it may be a matter of what you see as compelling public interest being at odds with the organisation’s own perceived interests. In those circumstances, PR practitioners seeking to act in public interest need to turn their powers of advocacy inward – onto their employer or client. If their advice continues to be ignored, they can do no more than draw on the lawyer’s ‘out’: “That is my advice, but at the end of the day the decision is yours”. If the matter is of such moment that the reputation of the communications professional is also in danger, my advice would be to terminate your contract.

In many ways PR means ‘managing expectations’. The expectations are those of your employer or client AND the New Zealand public.

The values held by PRINZ members gives due recognition to the public interest, but they are – like most codes – aspirational statements rather than prescriptive measures.

I believe these six steps are necessary if that recognition of the public interest is to be fully achieved.

  1. Recognise that public expectations have changed
  2. Recognise that sole control of information is illusory
  3. Recognise that the barbarians know where to find the key to the gate
  4. Ensure that your organisation/client is aware of 1-3
  5. Use your best endeavours to ensure your organisation/client balances its own special interests and the public interest.
  6. [Most important of all] Ensure you are aware of where the public interest lies.

A century ago, Ivy Lee – the man regarded as the father of public relations (or at least crisis communication) – had some enduring advice, even if he didn’t always follow it himself. It was all about expectation. He advised: “Tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find out anyway. And if the public doesn’t like what you are doing, change your policies and bring them into line with what people want.”




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