Thursday, July 19, 2007

How the BBC teaches PR a lesson in values


Mark Thompson the Director General of the BBC is facing a blizzard of criticism of the Corporation for unethical practices in entertainment, documentary and news outputs.

There is so much PR practitioners can learn from this debacle.

He has responded by saying that the corporation and its contractors need to understand and perform to meet the values of the Corporation and has put in place a number of programmes to help make this happen.

Part of his problem is that the abuse of values is hurting the trust people place in this iconic institution. The effect in audience, financial and regulatory outcomes is going to be adverse and will become ever more dangerous to the future and futures success for the corporation. Action now can mitigate some of this bad news - but, by no means, all.

At the core, and quite rightly spotted by Thompson, is value systems. It is these values that are at the centre of relationships. Corrupted values will upset many people and will only be acceptable to those who will accept corrupt relationships and the organisation will falter and fail.

How can we understand and explain values?

First of all lets be under no illusion, we all have a view of life and what we hear and see. We modify that image or idea of reality. These 'Perceptibles' are what reach the brain, but they are not what may be perceived. Rather, perceptibles reach intuitive awareness through the cultural schema and the cultural system of meanings and values.

This is a schema that consists of the fundamental culture-given values for making the perceptibles intelligible and the cultural framework for their interpretation. The values are individual to each person.

Perceptibles like a coloured cloth, a man and worman moving, an earthquake may be perceived as a flag, John chasing Mary, or a gods vengeance (R.J. Rummel ).

We can perceive events (even emotions) in a similar way. By using a set of values our brains make sense of most things.

"As the TV phone-in programme progresses its has been a success but no one has yet won the top prize, the clock is ticking, a bright young assistant in the control calls the phone line and wins the prize. There is closure, the excitement is great TV, the prize money is there until next time, everyone is happy. Except, of course, months later when people find out that they were taken for a ride and the assistant feels a bit grubby about how she saved the programme. The circumstances are the same but the context, is different."


Erving Goffman described this phenomena as "schemata of interpretation" that enables individuals "to locate, perceive, identify, and label occurrences within their life space and the world at large" [1974].

Thus perceptibles are one thing and how we interpret them is another and will change from time to time dependant on the values we apply to them.

For organisations, some things remain the same and some change. There is a set of values that can change and set of values that do not/should not change.

If we use a rose as an example. It is a perceptible, a token. It represents so much to so many and it is recognised for its many values all over the world.

Let me tell you about one particular rose.

It is a fine long stemmed rose. Its petals are pert and leaves glossy and fresh.

You see... already I can conjure up in your mind your view of a long stemmed rose. You add your own idea about the rose such as how long, colour, scent and may be some memories of giving or receiving one. What you are doing is adding a value system to this rose. Your value system and mine can be completely different.

If I were to see you give this magnificent rose to you partner, I could draw a range of conclusions and they too would be based on a range of value systems I attribute to the stem rose but this time with a range of value systems that I apply to your partner. My wife watching this may have an altogether different view about what is going on. She is using her sets of rose/partner related values available through her value systems.

The shopkeeper seeing this may be pleased not for the romance of the moment but for the opportunity to sell more such roses in the future, here we see a further set of value systems in the mix. After a week, the maid might not like this droopy stick in its vase and throws it out, clean the vases and yet still think of how much joy it had brought the household. Here is another completely different range of values at play. The rose has many value systems and they mostly depend on the values of third parties.

The rose is still a rose.

It has some enduring values as a scented flower. It's powers are immortalised in poetry, It has universal appeal and these value systems can be relied on.

What is more, the perception of the values provide the basis for relationships to form. A loving look. A knowing look, a comment in fact all manner of interactions.

Translated to an organisation.

Organisations have value systems. These are about products and services, how it treats people, customers and suppliers. Organisation value systems are how people recognise the organisations.

These values systems are the values people rely on. If organisational value systems are abused it upsets the relationship. People tend to have a very stable range of values (Rokeach) and so if an organisation changes its value systems, if forces people to adjust - or not. In the latter case they will believe that the organisation is not what it was.

While people can interpret organisational values in a variety of ways, they become unsettled if the values change. At the same time the Social Frame of the individual will influence the interpretation of the organisational values.

At one moment the user may laugh at a statement about the 'world leading, premier provider of.....' at another time this sort of marketing speak will just be irritating and getting in the way of a transaction. The context (Social Frame) changes the way people use their otherwise stable value systems (see Clive Seligman on the psychology of values.

This is why, when planning any PR campaign the practitioner should examine the value systems of the organisation from the perspective of the organisation and from the perspective of the organisation's constituency from a range of perspectives or contexts.

Creating dissonance by offering changed values only leads to alienation of the audience.

They loose trust, they turn away 9often to a competitor) and they can respond against any of the organisations' value systems.


Mark Thompson is right to focus on values.

Values are the glue and the lubricant of relationships.

No relationships = No BBC

Picture: Nick Sung