Four Keys for Our Industry’s Success

I spoke at the PR Agency Management Summit last week, where the focus of my speech was a roadmap for our industry.  This post is a distilled version of that speech.  I spoke on seeing the future with clearer vision through four “eyes”— interaction, integrity, integration and innovation.  Our industry continues to strengthen its position as a strategic business function, and I am confident that our work will  increase in relevance and importance if we are able to embrace these four key elements.

Interaction

The communications consequences of this new digital reality are well documented.  Two-way dialogue isn’t enough anymore – full, multi-directional engagement is required.  The future is about meaningful dialogue between and among communities of interest.

According to Unilever’s outgoing CMO Simon Clift, PR agencies are taking the early lead in the ownership of social media.   It’s great to receive confirmation that we’re moving in the right direction; however, I’m also reminded of the proverb, “Time waits for no man.”  The digital revolution waits for no industry.  We must keep our foot on the gas when it comes to asserting our leadership in social media.

Integrity

Stakeholders expect more from companies today.  It’s not enough to sell a successful product or service; companies must also produce goods in an ethical and environmentally friendly way, treat their employees and communities fairly, and govern themselves well.  In short, according to Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, they are looking for both value and values in their purchasing decisions.

It thus becomes important that companies are clear on what they stand for and that they align their behavior with their actions and communications.  This is the only way to be authentic, and in this environment of great skepticism about business (and really all institutions), living by one’s values and operating with intelligent transparency backed by meaningful social responsibility is the only way to win the trust and the “vote” of consumers and other important stakeholders.

In light of the new technologies and broadening expectations that currently exist in this evolving business environment, our skills and the needs of our clients come together to offer our profession a great opportunity.  We know how to develop a strong corporate culture – and we know how culture shapes reputation.  We can help create internal accountability for “stress-testing” whether corporate actions match corporate values.  This is a sought-after skill-set.  If we take on the responsibility to act as chief cultural or values officers, we can ultimately expand the value proposition for our profession.  By championing integrity and transparency, we can help organizations rebuild public trust and customer loyalty in this post-financial crisis era.

Integration

In today’s marketplace, most clients do not care what discipline solves their problem or creates their opportunity.  Is it marketing?  Is it public relations?  Is it advertising?  Is it lobbying?  In fact, it is probably a combination of a variety of disciplines all organized into one successful solution.  As the marketplace shifts, and as needs have changed, communications has taken on a differentiated and increasingly central role. We’re being asked to operate at the nexus of traditionally distinct business units like marketing, human resources, information technology and legal.  We are expected to lead integrated efforts to avoid problems and create solutions.  Our companies have to speak with one voice across disciplines, geographies and cultures.  Providing this integrated response is more important than ever and requires a new way of thinking.  We need to be these agents of this change.

This sense of integration is not just about what we do as public relations professionals – it’s also a reflection of the way the world is operating.

If ever this notion of global inter-dependence was to be tested, our recent financial meltdown in the United States should prove that we are one world.  To be successful in this interdependent world, we need to be able to work in a seamless way across borders.  The communicators of the future have no choice but to be globalists, or should I say glocalists—developing and executing programs and messages across a diverse array of global communities, each with their own local flavor.

Innovation

In this changing world, new ideas are continually evolving.  Jobs that are in high demand today did not even exist five or 10 years ago.  Given how quickly the world is changing, it’s surprising that the structure and practices of company management have remained virtually unchanged.

Gary Hamel, director of the Management Lab, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on management innovation, wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review claiming that management was “a mature technology that must now be reinvented for a new age.”  While managers today face a new set of problems, he says, we’re still mostly structured in a way that was meant to address the old ones!  These days, we need to create organizations that are “as adaptable and resilient as they are focused and efficient.”  We need to continue to inspire employees to demonstrate initiative, imagination, and passion at work every day.  We need to encourage the responsibilities of corporate citizenship and fulfill our obligations to an increasingly diverse network of stakeholders.  We need to do this for ourselves and for our clients.

For the past year, we have been struggling alongside our clients to understand the “new normal.”  As communications professionals at this important time, we’re all trying to uncover the most relevant ways to add value to our firms and for our clients.  By articulating the values of integrity that build trust and create transparency … by leveraging our role as a central player in an integrated, often global, matrix of culture and reputation … and by remaining innovative, nimble and ahead of the curve, our industry can be at the forefront of building a new class of educated consumers who are empowered to make good choices that affect behavior, create customers and ultimately change society.

2 Responses to “Four Keys for Our Industry’s Success”

  1. Stephen J. Kasser, Ph.D. said on April 14, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    While these sentiments are admirable and timely, it’s interesting to see that mainstream PR management appears just now to be dealing with what behavioral scientists and systems thinkers involved in PR discovered years ago — that a highly organized, systematic approach to content management was the key to success.

    These methods worked in a slower world but were surprisingly not widely used because slow turnaround times and the domination of traditional media offered a situation more tolerant of mistakes.

    Such approaches will probably be more universally adapted now that the communication turnaround has sped up and the formation of stakeholder groups is more rapid and more flexible.

    But having the strategy driven by the current media technology is still letting the tail wag the dog. It is still in the organization and formation of content / messages where organization and agencies succeed or fail regardless of the central or dispersed control of media and the quickness of message turnaround.

    The quicker turnaround makes it even more important than ever to be organized and systematic in this area. But it seems that, while the social media situation is making people pay more attention to stakeholder input, it has also sustained the ready-fire-aim approach that didn’t work in the past, and doesn’t work now.

  2. Margery Kraus said on April 19, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Dr. Kasser. As consumers and other stakeholders share more opinions online, I believe we’re able to tailor and refine messages more than ever. At APCO, we encourage our employees to leverage the initiative, imagination and passion I described in my post to learn more about online communities and the leaders in them. We’re building strong, strategic relationships with online opinion leaders, and we’re connecting those leaders directly with clients to advocate for common interests. Of course, there is much more – the new technology helps clients bridge from successful messaging to positive action. We’re well past the days of telling clients, “This is what you should say.” We’re telling clients, “This is what your stakeholders are passionate about, and this is how you can work with them.”

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