Image: Protest against corruption at University Square in Bucharest / Photo: Mihai Petre/Wikipedia
The recent European Communication Summit in Brussels started on a very serious note with the EACD launching its Manifesto Against Fake News. It was a bold, and perhaps still the only, explicit move taken by communicators to revisit and reiterate their ethical standards in reaction to current developments in the media and society.
This has taken some time to be formulated and, perhaps, one of the events spurring it was the EACD Forum and discussion that took place in November 2016 in Berlin. Focused on the trendy “post-truth” concept, the panellists then discussed the role of social media in political communication, revisiting Brexit, the USA elections and looking rather worryingly towards other European elections. The discussion however brought into focus long-existing ethical conundrums: such as what is the role of communicators in society and where should their allegiance be.
Moving forward to the beginning of 2017 when Romania was shaken, and continues to be, by street protests against corruption, EACD’s Manifesto is worth revisiting especially because this is the sort of event that shows how important the principles iterated in the Manifesto are. More specifically, this post will be discussing responsibility, beyond its link to fake news, from the EACD Manifesto and link it to the lessons learned from the recent Romanian protests and the online publication, #Rezist Romania’s 2017 Anti-Corruption Protests: Causes, Development And Implications (doi.org/10.23774/QUAS.RP2017.00) report that Dr. Darren G. Lilleker and I have edited.
The Romanian protests were sparked by the then newly appointment Grindeanu Government’s decision to issue an executive order which would have decriminalized corrupt activities valued at less than 200,000 lei (cca. 40,000EUR). In effect, this would have resulted in either the release from prison or the dropping of charges against many key political figures. At their peak, the protests gathered more than 300,000 in Bucharest, Romania’s capital city and another 300,000 in the country. The protests began immediately after news of the proclamation was made public and quickly spread to 81 cities in 36 countries and achieved both the repeal of the order and the fall of the government.
Most of the participants in the protests were young urban dwellers working mainly in the private sector and having average to high education levels (IRES via Adevarul.ro). Among them were also communication professionals. Their presence at the protests is well documented by the articles of Ana Adi and Decat O Revista. This is also stressed by Eliza Rogalski’s - founder of a PR agency - commentary on the start of the protests and Raluca Feher’s - advertiser, journalist and activist - journey of promoting a petition calling advertisers to stop using television stations known to broadcast fake news and redirect their budgets to supporting independent and investigative journalism projects instead. Their reaction and involvement in the protests, although emotionally driven (fueled by disappointment and outrage) meets EACD’s description of the civic responsibility and duty to call out fake information and work against it, while supported by evidence. These protesters have decided to take a public stance independent of their companies and/or employers.
It was also the case it seems of Steven van Groningen, CEO of Raiffeisen Bank in Romania, who has joined the #rezist protests together with his family and friends. Later catalogued as a political movement and a sign of involvement of international corporations into Romania’s politics, van Groningen reacted on his personal Facebook page (Facebook is the most popular social networking site in Romania, with more than 90% of the internet users having a Facebook account) reiterating his personal choice.
The duty of civic responsibility emphasised by the EACD aligns itself well with the postmodern perspectives of public relations (Holtzhausen and Voto, 2002), where the power comes not only from authority (hence its position within a hierarchy) but rather from the variety and multidirectionality of connections. But unlike in the case of Holtzhausen and Voto, when the practitioner is an activist within their own organisation pushing boundaries towards the common good by resisting unethical decisions rather than seeking consensus, the practitioners who joined the Romanian protests treated Romania as a whole as an organisation that needs a change of direction.
By taking a public stance and joining the protests (and, in some cases, taking an active role in their communication lending thus an expert hand) these practitioners show that the function of communicator and activist can be blurred. They also show that the civic responsibility calls at times for actions that need to be parallel and independent of the organisational goals, reputation and credibility of their clients and employers. This civic responsibility in Romania stemmed from what was a protest of principle, one in which corruption cannot be quantified or excused, one in which advertising cannot continue as business as usual because selling products or services through all the means possible is independent of politics, one in which the private and public sector together cannot thrive when paying for favours is the standard.
What the Romanian communicators protesting embody is the postmodern practitioner: unafraid of discomfort, dissensus and dissymmetry, critically appraising information, embracing of a philosophy that goes beyond the profit line and choosing sides. Just like the EACD Manifesto which suggested that practitioners should disavow fake news, so did the Romanian practitioners choose a side by joining the protests.
Dr. Ana Adi is a professor of public relations and corporate communications at Quadriga University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. She defines herself as a digital humanist and writes often about the strategic intersections between digital media and communications, and more recently on storytelling, and protest PR. She is the co-editor of #Rezist Romania’s 2017 Anti-Corruption Protests: Causes, Development And Implications.
Dr Darren G. Lilleker is head of the Centre for Politics and Media Research and associate professor at Bournemouth University. His interests are in political communication, with particular focus on the use of digital environments and the impact upon citizen engagement. Recent works include Political Marketing and the 2015 UK General Election (Palgrave, 2016), studies of recent elections, and co-editing #Rezist Romania’s 2017 Anti-Corruption Protests: Causes, Development And Implications.