We are living in extraordinary times. The political landscape is
changing dramatically. We are likely to see changes in our constitution
and the ramifications of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, are
still to be fully understood. Although it is easy to draw conclusions
from these events, we may look back in five years time and see them in a
totally different light.
If there is a thread which connects these developments and events, it is
accountability. We are moving firmly from an era in which organisations
and institutions did not have to either explain themselves or, when
necessary, defend themselves, into an era when transparency and openness
will be taken for granted.
One of the driving forces behind the ’people power’ which was so
graphically illustrated in the immediate aftermath of the death of Diana
is an irritation and impatience with institutions which are not prepared
to be accountable.
The reaction of the monarchy in the days before the funeral showed how
an institution can be moved by such expectations of change.
The issue of accountability is not, however, the preserve of our most
ancient institutions. A modern government must be prepared to be
accountable, not just to the people who elected it, but to the wider
society in which it operates.
Some of the early moves by the Government have shown how important this
trend will be in the future and, in political terms, accountability
means making decisions closer to the voters who provided the mandate in
the first place.
For the media there are some awkward questions to be asked about
Who sets the editorial agenda for the press and television? Does the
media have responsibility to readers, its owners or to the wider
society? In the aftermath of the tragic events in Paris, there has been
much talk about the role of the paparazzi but the reality is that their
behaviour is a symptom, not a cause, of how the modern media works.
For the business community, accountability covers its relationships with
customers, staff, shareholders and the wider community. The moves to
make public companies more accessible and accountable to their
shareholders, small and large, is a good example of how this theme is
changing corporate practice.
We have also learnt that in an age of instant communications,
transparency can, for the person on the receiving end, be nothing short
of a nightmare.
For those of us who advise on communications the challenge is somewhat
Our accountability is to our clients, our employers and to the wider
industry. We too have a responsibility to ensure that we operate in a
framework which is both responsible and acceptable to modern
Our transparency as an industry should include who we work for and on
what basis and a preparedness to explain our actions on behalf of our
Increasingly, the role of the PR practitioner is to understand and
interpret the accountability of organisations. As the RSA Tomorrow’s
Company Inquiry made clear, there are obligations on businesses, in
particular, to explain their mission and purpose to all stakeholders.
The Pr industry is well placed to be an important part of this
development, which is why I have been keen to emphasis the importance of
accountability during my year as president of the IPR.
Simon Lewis, president of the Institute of Public Relations, will be
chairing the IPR conference in Manchester on 31 October/1 November.