Public relations means relating to the public

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There’s increasing recognition that business and political parties alike have forgotten the basic point of public relations – relating to the public.

Since the Brexit vote and the US Presidential Election, and indeed the last Australian election with its many upsets, political parties are starting to realise that because they no longer relate to the electorate, the electorate no longer relates to them.

There is also evidence in the corporate world, particularly in the financial services industry, that business leaders are just as out of touch with important stakeholders such as customers, shareholders, opinion formers and the community at large.

It has given rise to accusations that many people are living in a bubble, unaware of others’ attitudes and how they and their organisations are seen.

And while those at the top have always been cosseted and tend to live in ivory towers, increasingly they seem to be suspending reality; not getting a true picture of how they, their organisation and what it offers, are seen; and being insensitive to the attitudes and needs of others.

The example set by Qantas CEO Alan Joyce when Qantas passengers were stranded in Dubai over New Year’s Eve is a case in point. With a number of planes were delayed in Dubai, complaints were being made by passengers on social media about the delays, lack of communication and inability to return home by New Year, but these problems did not affect Mr Joyce, who was also in Dubai. He was one of the few passengers able to make it home by New Year’s Eve, in a stunning display of entitlement by a CEO seemingly oblivious to the plight of his customers.

A smart CEO – aware of the public relations implications of a delay at such a time – could have turned the situation around to his and the company’s advantage. He could have provided a valuable communication point for other stranded passengers, and announced that on principle, he was not flying out until the last customer was safely home.

The examples in the financial services industry are also numerous, and the fall-out continues.

For too long financial institutions have been criticised of mis-selling, deceiving and fee gouging. Any change in attitude must start at the top.

Perhaps, as the saying goes, senior executives need to get out more – certainly there’s evidence that banks need to talk more with employees and customers to find out what they are thinking and doing. Coles, for instance, recently set a good example by challenging its leadership team to buy a week’s worth of groceries for $150. While the results were sometimes entertaining, the lesson learnt by walking in the customer’s shoes for a short time, would be invaluable to the organisation.

Like with any good Public Relations program, banks should start with a situation analysis and document aims so they can see the size of the gap. Then they can develop a program that changes attitudes and perceptions and helps them better manage their reputation.

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