by Prof. Dr. Dejan Verčič
organizer of BledCom,
Chair of Department of Communication, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia
The world in which we live is a world in crisis. I don’t expect it to end, and there is no need for a collective suicide because there is no future. On the contrary, there are many futures in front of us. We, also we in public relations, are responsible for their selections and enactments, and here is what I believe are our key challenges and responsibilities.
We have contributed to some of the world’s worse problems. We have a role to play in finding solutions.
We in public relations have to take full responsibility for contributing to culturally induced doubt in scientific evidence against smoking (causing cancer), ignorance of climate change (causing drought, melting of polar ice caps, weird weather around the globe), panic about vaccination of children against communicable diseases (causing reappearance of what were eradicated viruses like measles); dehumanization and sanitization of warefare (every war starts and ends with communication and hybrid warefare is nothing but communicative warefare: we are at the forefront of every military conflict and we have to acknowledge that); normalization of rising social inequalities that are for the first time in the recent history making it probable for the majority of population that their children will be poorer than their parents were; thus contributing to migrations and the global refugee crisis that became a business in itself (caused by drought, violent conflicts, poverty, and enabled by smart phone technology); and a general oversight for revolutionary changes brought by digitalization and the emergence of artificial intelligence – it is only now that we are really leaving the Gutenberg Galaxy (traditional media are more or less gone and new media is different; we face the breakdown of privacy, while looking for solutions from the 20th century for 21st century, like the recent GDPR directive in Europe). But we are also essential for the betterment of the world, as we have overtaken the public discourse (by some calculations, in the US there are five public relations practitioners to every journalist, with the difference increasing and the same trend evident across the globe).
What are our key responsibilities? The first one is knowledge. It is amazing how far we came from 1994 when we started BledCom, an annual international public relations research symposium. Twenty-five years ago there were practically no academic programs in public relations in Europe. Now we are nearly everywhere, although often as cash cows for schools of social sciences. There is also a lot of proprietary research done in agencies, governments and corporations, and we have to employ it (also) for the public good.
The second one is power. We attract power and we are attracted by it. The current violent crisis in the Middle East has been fundamentally enabled by us. Promotion of illiberal democracies and autocracies in Europe and around the world is largely our product. Cambridge Analytica and Bell Pottinger belong(ed) to us; they are gone, but if we look closer, they are around. And while in 2015 American Psychological Association (APA) sacked its chief executive officer, its deputy CEO and its communications chief for their endorsement of torture in the USA, nothing similar has ever happened in public relations community. We have power and we have to take responsibility.
And there is beauty. The world is black and white and all colors in between since its inception. The ways in which it reveals itself to us is in many ways of our doing and seeing. We in public relations are uniquely positioned for the betterment of reality. We have to protect the beauty of the world: life is good.
These are some thoughts from my keynote speech to the 25th annual international public relations research symposium – BledCom, delivered on 6th July 2018 to 175 academics and practitioners from 30 countries by Lake Bled, Slovenia.