Forget the ‘dark arts’, Katie McCrory explains why you should get your comms people at the top table and harness their rich insights on language and public opinion for change.

I have a friend whose Twitter profile reads ‘I’m in PR but I’m nice really’. Those seven words sum up the bad rap those of us who work in corporate Public Relations – the dark arts of communications – get on an almost daily basis.

Because, in the decade I have worked in that sector, I’m practically giddy from all the spinning I do. I know where the bodies are buried, where the money has gone, who let the cat out of the bag, and where the long knives are kept. I’ve silenced whistleblowers, pulled stories, buried news, and levelled injunctions. It’s a wonder I sleep at night, what with all the lies I’m so busily pedalling into the wee hours. Or so many would have you believe.

No. The truth is, corporate PR has undergone quite a transformation in recent years, connected in no small way to the changes experienced on both sides of the industries it serves to bridge – media and business. Quality and accountability have become the sticks with which we beat our press and the industries on which they report, and in the past few years alone we have witnessed the unprecedented rise of social media and the catastrophic demise of seemingly ‘untouchable’ corporations. There have been winners and losers on both sides. But in the fray, PR – that discreet, knowing and unquantifiable element – has played a vital role. Not as the grave-digger for truth, but as the clarion call for change.

Let me take you back to the brisk energy of my youth, when I could run a press office on three hours sleep and a bacon sandwich. A formidable boss of mine at the time once remarked that PR was “telling the truth persuasively”. It has become my litmus test on all I do – find the truth, and make it resonate.

As I moved through the ranks in the early years, I learned that the majority of people who gravitated towards PR (our headcount is roughly 62,000) were just like me – decent folk in full possession of both their integrity and a highly attuned bullshit detector. As public perception about big corporations started to change – as disasters and blunders unfolded, from Lehman Brothers to BP – finding the truth was less about the story we wanted to tell, and more about a fight for the heart of business. In short, the way to resonate was no longer a question of ‘how do you want to be seen’ but ‘what are you going to stand for’.

You may not want to believe me when I say this, but that person sitting in the corner – the one who writes the press releases, manages your Twitter profile, and spends most of their time glued to an iPad – holds the keys to changing business for the better.

Savvy corporations already know that PR professionals have their pulse on public opinion and the logins for their social media accounts, both of which they use to mine deep and game-changing insights. These folk are at the cutting edge of language, and as we’re exploring in this series, that makes them a hugely valuable resource.

Some corporations have rightly started bringing their communications teams into the beginning of their business planning processes so they can troubleshoot bad behaviour before it gains traction, rather than mop it up at the end. Those teams deserve a seat at every board table where they can help align corporate strategy with what society demands and expects, and speak truth into power – even if it’s an uncomfortable one.

I’m not the only one to recognise the value of their work – according to its 2013 Census, PR Week reported that “the PR sector has not just survived recession and its unconfident, penny-pinching aftermath, it has positively thrived”. Good communications is good for business.

Corporate communications can be a moral compass, guiding business onto the right path and setting a vision for the difference they can make. Corporate communications can help you say what you do, and do what you say. Corporate communications can – whisper it – be a force for good.

Like any sector, there are a few bad apples spoiling it for the rest of us. But I believe that the old days of PR are well and truly gone, and the big beasts of our industry whose luxury cars and uncapped expense accounts came from the trading and burying of scandal have fallen into disrepute. There is a new generation of communications professionals on the scene, and as a collective we are a powerful corporate conscience holding businesses to account.

So if you don’t like what you read or hear, remember that old adage: don’t shoot the messenger. In all likelihood, they’re the best hope any of us have got of getting businesses to change their act, once and for all.

This blog post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite, BBH London and the B Team to spark a conversation about language and the future of business. 

Find all the other posts in the series here.

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