PR as corporate conscience

I felt pain when ABC’s Four Corners aired its story about CommInsure not paying claims.

I had to claim on my own income protection insurance (not CommInsure) when diagnosed with cancer – twice, in recent years. So, to know that sick and injured people have had their claims denied at a vulnerable time pissed me right off.

I know what it’s like to have illness fuck your world upside-down.

Also, as an ex-PR, I’ve been sitting in the CommInsure dust cloud wondering:

  1. Did the PR/communications team not know what was going on?
  2. If they did, were they facing the other way or offering fearless advice?
  3. If they were offering fearless advice, what kind of robo-capitalist arsehole ignored it?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m so NOT blaming the PRs for what happened – or any individual who may have offered advice that was ignored – but I have been pondering the advice of a lecturer to my post-grad cohort (circa 2000):

PR practitioners should act as the corporate conscience.


I remember thinking: Shit. That’s big, yeah? A huge responsibility. But, she was right.

A brief PR lesson

Let me just take a step back, here, to explain four models of PR first identified by Grunig & Hunt in the early 80s. It’s research-based and stuck in my head like mould on the rubber lining on a front loader:

Press agentry/publicity (one-way communication), which uses persuasion and manipulation to influence people and generate wanted behaviours. Like, when the federal government issues travel warnings to Bali so that Australians stay away from danger zones.

Public information (one-way communication), which uses one-way communication, such as press releases, letters and annual reports to distribute information. This is quite a self-centred way of communicating – like that friend who always talks about themselves. (However, depending on the organisation’s general approach, these forms of communication can encourage broader discussion.)

Two-way asymmetrical (two-way communication (unbalanced)), which uses persuasion and manipulation to influence behaviour, but it’s designed to push the organisation’s agenda/s.

Two-way symmetrical (two-way communication), which uses communication to engage in a genuine, two-way exchange – a negotiation – to resolve conflict and promote mutual understanding and respect.

Not surprisingly, that last one is the ideal. But, for clarity, a couple of points:

  • Excellence in PR practice is not that simplistic.
  • There’s contention around the model’s relevance with the advent of social media, but I haven’t heard strong enough arguments against the models. If anything, I’m seeing corporate use of social media still sitting heavily in the two-way asymmetrical camp – actually, CommInsure is a good example of that. Although, there are quite a few getting it very right. While I’m sure you could name a few examples of your own, I have high regard for South Australia’s SA Power Networks, which, in addition to its user friendly website, uses Facebook and Twitter, and actively engages with/responds to media queries. Take a look at their Facebook page and you’ll see there’s loads of relevant activity and timely responses to queries and comments.
  • And, sure, there’s a place for press agentry and publicity, when media spokespeople should use tight messaging to share important information. Let’s be honest, with our saturated senses it’s little wonder we need information in bites to hear and absorb the important stuff. But, on its own, it’s just not good enough. Never was, really, but even more so today.

Call that shit out

I maintain that any PR professional worth their salt should proactively challenge bad behaviour. And Commonwealth Bank CommInsure denying claims the way it did was – is – bloody bad behaviour.

It’s immoral. It’s wrong. It’s nasty. It’s cruel.

And yeah, I know it’s idealistic. I hear you: It’s capitalism, man… the bottom-line is top of mind… there’s no room for touchy-feely at the top… blah blah blah


As public relations professionals, should we not demand honesty? Should we not demand corporate social responsibility at its most basic, that is, good corporate citizenship beyond throwing money at NFPs so you can tick a box? Should we not call into question the actions of our most highly paid citizens pulling the strings within?

More than ever, we should demand it.

What I don’t understand is why it’s so bloody hard?

It’s not, really. If you exist – that is, organisation as community member – then, you should have a conscience (that’s your PR department) and you should play nice with your friends (that’s your customers and the community in which you live).

Any employee, in fact, should be able to publicly call-out bad practices without fear of retribution. (I understand some banks have whistleblower policies – and, possibly, other organisations that I’m not aware of, but I’d argue that all whistleblowers should be protected.) Besides, if an organisation isn’t doing anything wrong, it doesn’t have anything to worry about.

Stop talking shit when it hits the fan

Lastly, when the shit hits the fan, please don’t make every sound bite, quote and image a vacuous carbon copy:

  • listen
  • empathise
  • answers questions directly
  • give an indisputable apology
  • tell us what you’re doing to fix it
  • make sure your cross-media response is available online to showcase what you’re doing to fix the problem
  • keep the community informed – even when they appear to stop listening
  • move forward, humbly – don’t keep telling us how fabulous you were at fixing the problem, ask us what you can do to keep improving

It’s little wonder the broader community views corporates with suspicion.

PRs must know what the business is doing, stop placating senior management and the Board, ask the hard questions, call-out unacceptable behaviour, and explain why it’s unacceptable.

You’re a member of the community, too.

2 thoughts on “PR as corporate conscience

  1. Well done for this excellent article. True ‘public relations’ – unlike ‘publicity’ (now used by corporates really interested in propaganda) always sought to “create and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation and its (many and diverse) ‘publics’ ” (audiences, stakeholders, even including market segments). And, like (customer) service excellence, it should be led and practised from top to base of every organisation. Indeed, it’s still a good management technique to “turn the organisational pyramid upside down” so the weight of responsibility and accountability really does fall on the shoulders of the boss who looks up to (rather than down on) the front line staff, the customers they serve and the community from which they come. Everyone has responsibility to be the “conscience” of the corporation and everyone should feel free and able to speak out (“evil flourishes when just one person fails to do so”). And, yes, the PR department should be the corporate eyes, ears and conscience that is able and empowered to “speak to power” about the substantive issues that impact an organisation’s relations with its public(s). But, methinks this is a more and more an “old fashioned” idea. Long overdue are a real return to corporate responsibility – to an understanding that the purpose of a business is not profit but to get – and KEEP – a customer – and that good corporate citizenship is mandatory not just because it’s good for the bottom line – though it very certainly IS, especially long term – but simply because it’s the right thing to do. As a footnote, I too saw the 4 Corner’s Comminsure story – disgrace – but I was also moved almost to vomit by the mealy mouthed responses of the Commonwealth Bank managing director who’d clearly read the service excellence books (“manuals”) and had learned to “talk the talk”. The conversion from that mimicry (again, no doubt as part of his “PR/media” training to “walking the talk” as a true believer was obviously, in my humble view, overdue.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Ron. It was the Commonwealth Bank’s response that drove the nail – and my anger and disappointment. Perhaps I am idealising the role of PR: I think you’re right about the responsibility for ethical behaviour/corporate responsibility. It’s an operational imperative and, sadly, thin on the ground. I think, too, that capitalism supports this drive to put profit before all else – there’s a limit, yes? Finite resources, finite cuts to spending, etc. I hope this race toward the bottom drives a change in customer behaviour – I, for one, will walk the talk and turn to the Credit Unions. Thanks so much for reading and taking a moment to respond 🙂

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