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WikiLeaks and the Future of Public Relations

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For many days major media platforms have been carrying the story of WikiLeaks disclosure of sensitive American diplomatic information. What are the lessons businesses and communicators in particular can learn out of this story?

We're seeing a revolution in the communications world brought about by, in part, technological innovation – Web 2.0 tools for example – and in part by an increasing hunger for close relationships between individuals everywhere. So there is a hunger for transparency and authenticity, and that's a change that we have to manage for.  There are risks, but also opportunities, so the more we understand these dynamic changes and adjust our strategy accordingly the more successful we will be. The WikiLeaks disclosure of governmental information is only one step away from disclosure of business information, and apparently they have a significant amount of that – but there are many websites already revealing the internal dynamics of our organizations. So, given that there's a chance that everything will become visible to everybody smart organizations act authentically and remain true to their values.

How do communicators need to adjust to a world where WikiLeaks exists?

Have touched on this a little bit in my previous answer, but I think that we need to be the advocates for maximum transparency and openness – internally as well as externally – and for the organization that we work for or advise to be clear about who it is, where it is going, have a consistent set of values and behaviors, and then live those every day in order to get to the right business outcome.

What is the American perspective regarding this issue?

I think there's a feeling of anger and frustration towards WikiLeaks, and in any situation where there is extreme anger and frustration sometimes the rhetoric outpaces the rational approach. However if the question was more about dealing with transparency and openness then there's an increasing acceptance that as communicators we need to take advantage of this changing environment. Rather than try to fight it, the more sophisticated companies are accepting that we are no longer in control of messaging (if we ever were), so are much more interested in influencing the debate and the dialogue.

Based on what occurred now can we expect the rise in importance of the issues management discipline?

Certainly greater transparency will lead to more issues that need to be managed, and the speed with which information is shared around the globe means that wise judgment calls need to happen very quickly – so this skill is definitely going to be more important. However, I think there's a need to have a holistic view – bringing all aspects of the communications environment to bear when issues arise rather than isolating the response just within an issues management team.

What may be the next big communication issue companies will confront with?

I think the impact of Web 2.0 is only just now beginning to be felt, so the big issue is understanding what the new communications environment looks like and how to take maximum advantage of that. We've been in a revolution for a couple of years now, but what the ultimate outcome will be is still far from clear.

Corporations are often seen as speaking with two voices, cultivating a kind of parallel discourse. Is this gap between public and private communications more serious today than in the past?

I think those corporations which act with no integrity can speak with two voices – but these days they will certainly be found out. There will be no gap between public and private communications, so – to my earlier point – it's really important for organizations to know who they are and behave accordingly.

How about the corporate messianism? Can big corporations still claim this role?

I don't think that big corporations claim a role as a Messiah per se – but most of them do recognize that they have a significant role to play in the wider societal environment, and that it's wise to focus on where they can make the most contribution. And it's appropriate for them to have a view about what the future should be, and how they can contribute to that. But it is of course just one voice in the dialogue.

Peter Debreceny is a former Chair of the Institute for Public Relations, and vice president of the Arthur W. Page Society. After recently retiring as vice president of Corporate Relations at Allstate Insurance Company, responsible for internal and external communications for the Allstate Corporation and its subsidiaries, Peter Debreceny has been with Gagen MacDonald since the end of 2007.
Specializing in advising clients on corporate social responsibility and change management strategies, Peter has more than 30 years experience in all aspects of public relations and integrated communications. He has practiced in those capacities in New Zealand, Australia and the United States. Prior to being appointed to his position at Allstate in September 1998, he held the position of senior vice president, Corporate and Financial Relations at Edelman Worldwide, Chicago.
Peter is a two-time Silver Anvil award winner of the Public Relations Society of America. Peter was formally the Chair of the Communications Committee of the Insurance Information Institute, the Communications Committee of the Executives’ Club of Chicago, and is a member of the Economic Club of Chicago. He is active in community affairs, and has served on the boards of the Metropolitan Planning Council of Chicago and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago. He is currently a board member of the Chicago Opera Theater.

Romanian translation here

Interview by Dana Oancea, Forum for International Communications. Copyright PR Romania

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