PR = reputation management. Really? Who are we kidding?


(This post originally appeared at the CIPR Conversation).

The launch of the VMA Group’s Business Leaders in Communications (BLCS) 2012  study stirred up some heated debate this week. Much of the ire was directed at the apparent lack of interest in social media by senior communications directors. According to the survey, a miserly seven per cent of these senior PR people felt social media was a major communication challenge and less than 15 per cent seek social media skills in candidates.

Speed’s Stephen Waddington blogged about the survey results and his excellent Storify round up of live Tweeting from the launch event captured the flavour of attendees views on the attitudes in the room.

Simon Francis was so incensed he issued a call to arms to have these comms “dinosaurs” outed.

And yet, isn’t this turning into a cracked record?

Peter Morgan, Head of Communications at Rolls Royce was also labelled a dinosaur back in May 2010 when he (in)famously declared that “social media was a waste of time”. He subsequently recanted – but only after Rolls Royce had endured a major comms crisis that caught the company on the back foot with regard to social media.

And as Si Francis also reported from the BLCS 2012 launch event: “David Bickerton from BP admitted his organisation was left reeling from the social media impact of recent events. And, he added, as a result, the company was now ensuring ALL staff have a role to play in the reputation management of the company on social media.”

Is it the case that comms directors only begin to appreciate the need for taking social media seriously when they suffer a major communications crisis?

But if the potential threat from a comms crisis isn’t enough incentive for action, what about the latest Edelman Trust Barometer?  According to Vikki Chowney at EConsultancy: “This year UK CEOs again face a major hurdle in convincing the public that they should be listened to: they were the least credible public spokesperson for a business or organisation, with only 30% of respondents finding them reliable. More credible were academics or experts (by 73%), followed by a ‘person like me’ (60%), a technical expert (56%), or a ‘regular employee’ or ‘financial/industry analyst’ (55%).”

“People like me” are increasingly to be found having conversations on social networks. Does that not suggest that social media might need just a modicum of attention?

However, the thing that irked me most about the BLCS survey was the fact nearly two in three communications professionals see reputation management as their most important function.  I had to stifle a yawn.

Reputation management has been ranked the number one priority for years now. Matthew Freud was quoted in The Economist in January 2011 as saying that “the future of PR is bright because of the growing importance of reputation management.”

In which case, if reputation management has been so important for such a long time – and PR is supposed to be about reputation management – why is PR and comms representation still largely absent from the board room of UK plc?

According to the BLCS survey, a third of respondents say that advising the board/CEO is one of their most important roles, Which means two thirds don’t. And fewer than half report having a major influence on board level strategic decision-making.

If reputation management really is that important then perhaps we need to up our game in terms of understanding how reputation really is mediated today. And proving our value to senior management and the rest of the business. Taking social media more seriously would be a start. As would a more robust approach to measurement (as Stephen Waddington noted, the subject appeared to be absent form the BLCS survey).

Or perhaps we should stop talking about PR being all about reputation management.

Have a reputable weekend.

Andrew Bruce Smith and The Conversation team

Please note, this Conversation Roundup is written in my own capacity.

I am not a spokesperson for the CIPR.

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