Warwick University's comms: If you don't put the safety of people first, you've failed

The Warwick 'group chat' scandal, the coverage and the commentary, is a tragic reminder of the distance we need to travel as an industry to raise the bar and fulfil our leadership potential.

If we accept the recommendations of the Warwick Uni investigation as best practice, what does this mean for PR as an industry? asks Rachel Royall
If we accept the recommendations of the Warwick Uni investigation as best practice, what does this mean for PR as an industry? asks Rachel Royall

A victim quoted in Cathy Newman’s latest Channel 4 report on the safety of students at university, says that she won’t feel safe on campus until universities start to put the safety of women over their reputations.

Reading the independent report and the accompanying coverage into Warwick University, the perception is that our industry, in this sector, is firmly back in the business of ‘burying bad news’.

This perception of PR is not unique to this sector.

As an industry we need to do better so that PR is perceived as a force for good.

I know many excellent communication leaders in this sector who I’m sure would agree that organisations that put safety first have a good reputation.

My twenty years’ experience in government and healthcare has repeatedly shown me that if you don’t put the safety of the patient, student or citizen first, you have failed.

Organisations are made up of people, who are human. We will inevitably make mistakes; it’s how we deal with it that matters.

It may be tempting to avoid some short-term media attention by avoiding the issue, but overall an organisation’s reputation is built on being trusted and doing good business.

Good governance and good communication go hand-in-hand.

Great communication teams make it their business to know what’s going on, to raise issues, to listen and act as early warning systems, putting mechanisms in place for feedback, facilitating conversations.

When things do go wrong, they provide counsel to all parties affected and speak truth to power – they don’t just convey the organisation’s line.

If we accept this recommendation as best practice, what does this mean for PR as an industry and what does this mean for our role as custodians of our organisation’s relationship with the public? 

We should and must be relied upon and trusted to conduct investigations in a fair and transparent way, in the same way we are expected to deal with the public and the media.

Rachel Royall, comms director of IBM's UK healthcare and life sciences team 

In the Warwick case there is no doubt that, purely from a capacity perspective, the director of media was set up to fail.

As the ‘group chat’ issue was unfolding it would have been impossible to conduct an investigation of this scale in addition to the day job without the right resource.

However, subject to having the capacity and a number of other criteria being met, there is no reason why communication professionals should be barred from investigations.

If we have appropriate training and operate within our professional and ethical code, we should be well clear of any allegations of protecting a brand at the expense of an individual’s safety.

We should – and must – be relied upon and trusted to conduct investigations in a fair and transparent way, in the same way we are expected to deal with the public and the media.

Another observation is perhaps the mistake of appointing a director of press.

Modern day communication is fragmented; the lines between disciplines are blurred. A director of press is not enough and it is too narrow.

Culture and reputation are intrinsically linked.

If you do not communicate effectively, strategically, across audiences, channels, within your organisation, you will be unable to manage your reputation externally.

The investigating officer removed himself from ‘press’ duties, in this case, as if this was the only area of concern.

Ironically, most of the negative media stemmed from a failure to communicate with just about everybody else.

Rather than recommend the barring of communication professionals because of our inability to be trusted or act objectively, the review should have recommended an overhaul of the whole function – it isn’t clear whether or not the review questioned if the communications team acted within our professional code of conduct.

In every sector we need PR leaders and teams that operate within a professional code of practice, in a modern, integrated way, and who understand that the true value of reputation is in doing good business that puts the interest of the people we serve at heart.

Only then will PR be perceived as a profession that is a force for good.

Rachel Royall is comms director of IBM's UK healthcare and life sciences team and the former director of comms at NHS Digital

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