Trust me, this was an ‘un’-common debate

by Lisa Jones |

Surrounded by the splendour of the Palace of Westminster, perched on a pew and trying to resist tinkering with the brass caps on the ancient inkwells, I joined a select group from the CIPR and CIM for a debate about trust. Or more accurately, what part does marketing have in rebuilding it?

The esteemed Dr Jon White, who became Chartered with me earlier this year, and former PR Director of the Year Bridget Aherne, who partied with the spotty pack at last year’s CIPR Awards, had been given a very contentious motion to propose. “Marketing has little part to play in rebuilding trust in business, charities or public institutions.” Marketing was well represented on the other side, led by Sharon Johnson and Professor Ian Bruce CBE. The Chair was the Rt Hon the Lord McNally – who was in fact the MP in the Privy Council the day the Institute for Public Relations received its royal charter.

The Commons stage was set for a PR vs marketing fight of Amazonian proportions. Which is ironic, as the Amazon brand got several mentions throughout the evening.

Jon led the debate by setting out the management boundaries for marketing, suggesting that the discipline had perhaps taken on a little more than it should over recent decades. The focused viewpoint of marketers, he claimed, meant that they had become myopic.  He described Public Relations as a complementary and corrective measure for marketing – an alternative discipline that could be better placed to build relationships with stakeholders and restore trust.

This assertion was roundly rebutted by Sharon, who saw PR as a subset of marketing. She agreed that PR was incredibly important in rebuilding trust, but that was simply proof that marketing had a big role to play. Her definition of marketing focused on Promise, Meaning and Truth. Marketing, she asserted, has the power to deliver the promise the people, provide the meaning and the goods, and vigilantly protect and preserve the truth. Amazon, for example, has carefully used marketing to persuade the public to carry on shopping despite concerns about its tax affairs.

While Bridget used emotive examples of PR in the public sector rebuilding trust, Ian countered Jon’s academic arguments to claim that while he agreed with the role that PR has to play in relationship building, the proposers hadn’t proven that marketing only had a little part to play. It was suggested that whether PR is a subset of marketing or a complementary discipline, that should be topic for debate another day.

I was struck by the frequent references to Amazon – as its ability to increase profits even in the face of declining reputation is an interesting conundrum. In a post-truth world, it seems to me that the issue of who is best placed to earn trust is simultaneously both irrelevant and more important than ever.

Heavily outnumbered by CIM members, CIPR’s motion was defeated – but it raised some interesting questions. In a world of global communication and democratised channels, how important, or even possible is it, to have a single, definable truth? How tangible is trust? And how will the relationship between PR and marketing professionals change over the next decade?

But before I forget, I need to finish my Amazon Christmas order.