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INFLUENCE - Why public relations needs to take a lead on social capital

Why public relations needs to take a lead on social capital

There is a currency where public relations can reign supreme.

It’s an asset that could give new life and vigour to public relations practice, providing a powerful tool where other disciplines, like advertising, cannot reach.

It provides the rocket fuel to build better co-operation, collaboration, and co-creation – all recognised as the key qualities for competitive advantage in the 21st century.

What’s more our society faces a hidden crisis where there is serious decline in this property that holds our society together like glue. Its decline affects the very heartbeat of our communities.

If public relations can help address this challenge it will be the good cop, a champion for a better, richer world, and move up the decision chain, being in the driving seat for strategic change.

We have a serious crisis in the UK with the decline in social capital: It was evidenced by the recent Brexit Referendum, revealing a UK divided into two tribes, who increasingly have less to do with each other.

Fewer people devote themselves to the communal good. Less of us are getting involved in doing things, running things or just hanging around with each other – how we help each other to help each other.

It affects our capacity to connect, co-operate and collaborate on our common cause. Social capital is not just a nice thing to have but critical to how well we live and work together.

And we in PR have a special opportunity and role to play to address its decline and use it as a change making tool.

It was the poet John Donne who observed that ‘No man [or woman] is an island’. Charles Darwin identified that the species that survive and thrive are not the biggest, meanest or toughest. It’s the ones who collaborate and adapt to changes in their environment.

The guru of social capital, Robert Putnam identified in his seminal book ‘Bowling Alone’ how bowling alley attendances in the United States are rising yet bowling alley leagues have dramatically declined – hence we’re increasingly ‘bowling alone’: a metaphor for a decline mirrored in nearly every aspect of communal and civic life.

Yes, there are those who argue that we are not witnessing a social capital decline but more of a social capital transformation; we may be playing skittles less, but many of us are now, for example, doing park runs or taking part in online forums.

Yet, despite these changes in social engagement, the broad expert consensus is of social capital’s underlying decline.

Public relations needs to take the lead in being the management tool to manage, build and nurture social capital.

Building social capital needs to be seen alongside our core skills in public relations practice of listening, counselling on authentic action, managing the story, and earning trust.

From effective practice this we can yield the dividends of better brand reputation, relationships, earned influence, more powerful narratives and content marketing, as well as the social capital gems of better co-operation, collaboration and co-creation.

To create change in the communities you work messaging doesn’t build greater connectivity, confidence or capability.

We live in an age where local public service providers and community groups need to tap into the potential within our communities. Where community groups have to cope with a Tsunami of demands, yet community stalwarts, the do-ers and people who want to change their community, still work in isolated pockets.

We need to create new ways of bringing change makers, activists and anyone wanting to contribute together.

While technology creates tools that encourage greater social isolation these tools also offer the potential to encourage greater connectivity, collaboration and co-creation.

There is new thinking in how off-line networks operate. How narrative and values underpin change. There is greater understanding of how we can harness emergence and emotional engagement for change. These can all work as public relations’ tools to address the decline of social capital and rekindle and nurture its growth.

Yet there are significant shortcomings with our current thinking around ‘social capital’: how can it be measured? Do we need a national scale, a ‘social capital quotient’ that can be a dashboard to identify shortfalls or gaps? What new tools and processes can we establish as a better way of doing social capital?

Even the very brand of ‘social capital’ needs to be addressed.

The thinking within Puttnam’s ‘Bowling Alone’ was quickly adopted by political advisers like Steve Hilton, using it to frame the launch of the Conservative Party-led ‘Big Society’.

Soon social capital became tarred with being a smokescreen for politically-led public services retrenchment and austerity. The nascent social capital’s potential and momentum for change quickly dissipated.

Yet, is all lost for the cause of social capital?

For the last three years I have been working on a Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA) project – the Barry IdeasBank, in my home town of Barry, in the Vale of Glamorgan.

The original concept was to address the question of where do you go if you have an idea to make where you live better?

Since then we’ve been on a journey where we discovered that an idea by itself is an idle thought. Ideas need people to make them happen and they need other people to make their ideas realized – their social capital is fundamental to the success or failure of their idea.

Even if you invent the ultimate mousetrap, it’s who know, and who the people you know, know that’s critical.

I’m doing something to transform my social capital.

I am organising a Fellows-led event for the RSA designed to be of interest for any change activist, showcasing pioneering projects, like the Barry IdeasBank, working to tackle the crisis in social capital at the Senedd, Cardiff on November 10 between 4.30pm/5-7.30pm. It’s a free event. Book your place here.

We need to come together to explore how we can seize the benefits social capital offers not just for the self-interest of the public relations profession, but for the wider good.

What are you doing to boost your own social capital? What are you doing to integrate the building of social capital into your public relations practice? What can you do to enable public relations practice to harness the potential opportunity of social capital?

It seems we all need a new social capital agenda.

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