ITL #422 Communication as a force for good: principles in keeping with the UN SDGs1 year, 10 months ago
Is the international PR community ready and willing to adopt a set of core principles to guide practice on social responsibility, including care for our planet? By Inge Wallage.
“Civilisation needs Gaia more than Gaia needs civilisation,”
from Whole Earth Discipline by Stewart Brand.
Can communications professionals join up to be a force for good?
In December 2019, the UN climate summit COP25 took place in Madrid. At that same time a group of engaged communication professionals got together (Wednesday 4th December) at the annual EACD (European Association of Communication Directors) Forum in Geneva. Its theme was ‘Communications in the light of the SDGs’.
At the Forum, various bubbles collided. People from profit and non-profit, government and non-government, in-house and agency. The believers, the sceptics, the challengers and the quiet ones mingled, while they discussed their roles and responsibilities, and addressed a variety of challenges. What is it like to work with seemingly conflicting SDGs? Is it important to reference the SDGs in your storytelling? Can one combine emotion with facts in the creation of narratives? What does being authentic really mean? The discussion led to the overarching and fundamental question: Does the communication function have the ability (and invitation) to drive change?
After the Forum debate, during the cocktails, someone confided in me that he wished he had challenged a little more: “our world is on fire, don’t they see that?” Two months later that ‘fire’ lit up: covid-19.
Blurring of boundaries
With the corona pandemic continuing to hold its grip on the world, we continue to live our lives, as best as we can. Both professionally and personally. So much has changed. For many of us the concept of the workplace has transformed. What once seemed a ‘dichotomy’, work and home, have now blurred into one. We will not go back to the old days of spending full days ‘in the office’. We cannot go back to where we came from anyway. The concept of going back is odd. People say they want to go back to normal. Was it normal?
The climate crisis continues to manifest itself in many different ways. The loss of biodiversity persists and we face severe food (system) challenges; and these problems are all interconnected. You will have heard of Earth Overshoot Day. How many more versions do we need before we start changing gears? On 22 April, we had the 51st version of Earth Day. Many organisations campaigned for a more sustainable world around that day: some truthfully, some paying lip service. What keeps us from actually tackling these big issues? Are they so immense that they paralyse us?
We find ourselves at a crossroads and I believe that communication professionals can play a role. We are fabulous strategists, campaign makers, digital plotters, channel and platform inventors, image creators, storytellers and wordsmiths. Shall we step up?
Catalyst for change
Covid-19 can be our portal to design a different way of living sustainably, if we choose to respond with the long term perspective in mind. I hope that the vaccines will enable us to be together again, physically. To live in a way that shows what it is like to be human, with physical distancing no longer required.
Covid-19 was a result of many faults in our systems. In my activist days we had three scenarios on our radar which could radically change our world: a huge climate disaster, a nuclear war or a pandemic. We are living the third scenario, but the first scenario is slowly but surely coming at us. Like a tsunami. Furthermore, if we do not change dramatically, more versions of viruses will come to ‘attack’ us.
Corona is a blessing and a curse. With so many people dying and others falling severely ill, it’s almost not done to address the blessing. And yet, this past year has shown what an innovative species we are. To ensure our common future, we need to continue on the path of innovation and make fundamental choices. We can do that.
When the coronavirus crisis hit us, people who were previously not allowed to work outside the office, were obliged to work from home from one day to the next. Conferences turned into virtual ones, and hybrid events are becoming the new normal in the world of international conferences.
Struggling to agree principles
Back to December 2019, the EACD board met and, among various other topics, debated a potential EACD statement that was dedicated to a few key principles that would guide the practice of our trade. The statement had been prepared by a small group of people (I was one of them). The Board did not manage to agree. There had not been enough time to properly prepare the sign off. Finalising the statement then would have created a (too) radical statement for some, a ‘too watered down version’ for others. It was agreed to explore this subject more profoundly and to make it part of the EACD Summit, scheduled to take place in Amsterdam in May 2020. Due to coronavirus, that Summit unfortunately never happened.
What better opportunity than to share it here and see whether it can engage the international PR community? Who knows, we might even agree to adopt it? Can we decide that together we will follow a moral compass by which we become brokers of trust? The full proposed manifest would lead to these three core principles:
- As communication professionals we consider ourselves to serve the global community as brokers of trust.
- We only work for organizations which recognize and act on their social responsibility.
- We shall engage audiences if we are also serving the interests of society, including the care for our planet.
As far as I am aware, the proposed set of principles is more targeted towards the SDGs than any other set of principles that have so far been agreed within our profession. I am keen to get comments and see if we can move this forward. If you feel it comes across as too activist, then let me propose that it might be time to reframe the word activist. Engagement is no longer enough. If we can see activism as the responsibility to be the voice for those without a voice – future generations, all species and our planet – then maybe it can is good to be an activist?
A beautiful world for our children, our grandchildren and for ourselves in the years to come needs us to act. Shall we be audacious and adopt the principles?
Inge Wallage, Director of Corporate Communications & Marketing, Wageningen University & Research.mail the author
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