Opinion: It's time to redefine value

Priest and former PR man George Pitcher sends a Christmas message to the industry.

George Pitcher: "Redefine value"
George Pitcher: "Redefine value"

As the Occupy movement's protest camp digs in at St Paul's Cathedral for Christmas, it has become commonplace to say that serious questions are being asked about the way we do business and the manner in which we distribute its wealth.

Is expanding pay inequality harmful to our society? Is it ethical to deploy offshore instruments to avoid UK tax? Should corporations be more transparent? Is it equitable that we should privatise reward, but socialise risk? Are the banks really as rubbish as they appear?

But judging by the men and women in sharp suits of City and financial services PR, one would barely know that these questions existed, let alone what any of the answers may be.

The double-breasted scions of the City talk wistfully about a return to exponential earnings growth like a Chekhov heroine longing for old Moscow. Meanwhile, those with a financial services brief continue blithely to flog the same bust old product that got us into this mess in the first place.

What they should be doing is identifying where there are comms disjunctures - between the City and protesters, between corporations and their usually compliant middle-England stakeholders, between Parliament, regulators and financial institutions - and bringing comms solutions to the party. This is not just about the common good, worthy as that is as an endeavour. It is about making money in a market that is changing beyond the recognition of boom-year cowboys.

Perhaps the principal void for the comms industry to fill is between the differing perceptions held by the City's capitalist fundamentalism and, well, almost everybody else. Financial services tend to assume a model of commutative justice, which is mainly arithmetical and concerns itself with the regulation of the relations between parties to a transaction.

This is the stuff of compliance, if not of what dreams are made. But what concerns those outside the City - and comes into particular focus during periods of financial hardship - is distributive and/or social justice.

Our public concept of ethics (and, incidentally, the doctrine of the Church) has consistently highlighted these distributive and social criteria, which the financial industries play down. But without such forms of mutual trust and solidarity, a free-market economy cannot fulfil its proper function. The markets are not amoral and, like an addict taking the first step by acknowledging that he or she has a problem, a market intoxicated with neo-liberalism needs to accept that.

The way forward is relatively simple. The first task is to establish a fresh vocabulary, to better understand what is going on. During the past couple of decades there have, broadly, been two investment asset classes: growth and value. The former was steady and allegedly reliable and led to the widespread indexing of funds under management. The latter offered racier short-term rewards, through richly capitalised exits.

In a climate of negative or flat growth, we must redefine value. A culture of compliance is insufficient for today's corporations; they need a new kind of 'permission to trade'. The CSR of a thriving economy was always a fig leaf - the chairman's children occupied a remote CSR office and put windmills and wildebeest on the annual review, while a testosterone-soaked boardroom got on with the important work of exploiting human resource and destroying the planet.

Values, as opposed to value, have just moved mainstream. I am aware of the irony here, but the communicators who recognise the potential in this opportunity for consultancy, who are consequently part of the solution rather than of a three-year (so far) problem, will clean up in more ways than one.

The smart - and ethical - can inherit the earth if they want to. And that could make wishing friends and clients a prosperous New Year more than a hollow benediction.

George Pitcher is an Anglican priest at St Bride's, Fleet Street, London, and a journalist and writer on public ethics


Picture credit: Griffiths

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