Danny Rogers: Could Hillsborough lies have been stopped?

Britain is a more autocratic nation than America. This was what one global PR agency boss, based in New York, suggested to me recently.

Danny Rogers: Constantly challenging those in positions of authority is an essential tenet of a healthy democracy
Danny Rogers: Constantly challenging those in positions of authority is an essential tenet of a healthy democracy

He was trying to explain why Britain was behind America in terms of organisations adopting social media and conducting direct dialogue with their stakeholders. The basis of this claim was that his UK operation receives fewer requests for social media and owned media campaigns than his US division.

Whether or not there is a relationship between a society’s degree of democracy and the level of dialogue-driven campaigns is a fascinating debate. But as a proud Brit I bristled at the suggestion that we are an autocratic nation. It did, however, get me thinking.

The definition of autocracy is ‘undisputed influence or power’. Unlike America, Britain has never had a democratic revolution. And the devastating revelations concerning the Hillsborough tragedy provided real evidence that autocracy – or at least pernicious deference – may persist in British society. 

The harsh truth is that it took the Hillsborough families 23 years to challenge the lies that were told by those in positions of power, in this case particularly the South Yorkshire Police. The Sun newspaper, supposedly the voice of working class, not only failed to expose the lies being peddled by the police, it wholeheartedly endorsed them.

Constantly challenging those in positions of authority is an essential tenet of a healthy democracy. It is the fundamental job of an independent, credible media. But I would argue that in-house PR professionals should play a vital role.

Bearing in mind that ultimately the truth will out – faster than ever with the inherent transparency of digital conversations – then comms professionals must act as the ultimate conscience of the organisation.

In other words if South Yorkshire Police had employed a comms director with real authority in 1989, then that professional should have ensured that the force had told the truth, not only from a personal moral standpoint but in the long-term interests of the organisation.

Of course it is often difficult for that comms director to determine the truth from within that organisation. But that surely is the definition of real influence and credibility within a firm.

Comms professionals can make a real difference to society by making their employers more ethical and accountable. It is a healthy quest for a stronger, more vibrant PR industry. And it creates a fairer, less autocratic Britain.

Danny Rogers is PRWeek's editor-in-chief.

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