PR leaders focus on trust at major industry meeting

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I recently attended a rousing discussion at the Critical Issues Forum hosted by the Council of Public Relations Firms in New York City. The Council is the leading industry association for just over 100 of the country’s top public relations agencies (and RLF is proud to be a member) and they convened some 200 agency and corporate communications professionals on the roles and responsibilities of our industry in getting the country back on track. I jotted down a number of comments that struck me as particularly insightful, misguided or just plain intriguing. I’m not the best note-taker so don’t quote me verbatim, but here are some insights shared by some top public relations professionals who participated in panel discussions, and my brief reactions.

  • One of the panelists quoted management guru Peter Drucker that “underneath the world’s problems are a raft of entrepreneurial opportunities.” A great perspective for all of us as we plan ahead for the next 3-5 years.
  • Another panelist commented that “let’s not confuse the fact that people may understand something, but really not care.” So true. If we think about levels of engagement in what we strive for – it is awareness, understanding, caring, acting.
  • One panel member strongly urged taking your communications staff to see Michael Moore’s movie Capitalism. Regardless of how people feel about the politics of it, it is a stark reminder of the gap that exists between corporate America and citizens. Might be something worth doing one afternoon.
  • The panel moderator commented that in an age of so many competing media streams, do we really know what “truth” is? Can PR professionals really make a claim on this front? Truth is influenced by context, and our job is to help give people more context.
  • The head of marketing for General Electric was great. She said their research is pointing to a new reality that people want “experiences not stuff.”  Our client Byron Carlock from CNL Lifestyle Properties has been talking about this emerging trend for years and it is right on the mark

  • David Gergen, former White House advisor, warned corporate America that they are not out of the woods in being held accountable to the public. With more than 10 percent of Americans out of work, a fact that will not change anytime soon, the mood is still fragile and that has implications for communications. He relayed the story about President Obama summoning nine CEO financial services executives to the Oval Office and telling them that he was the only thing that stood between them and the “mob with pitchforks.” Gergen’s point was that while the pitchforks have been put away, the mob didn’t toss them in the river. They are “in the closet, and it will not take too many missteps by corporate leaders for the mob to pull them back out if trust is not restored.”
  • On exactly that point of restoring trust, the head of communications for Morgan Stanley was completely out of touch. Perhaps it was just me, but his comments that “the financial crisis was caused because of irrational behavior” and that bank executives “deserve all of their bonuses despite the public bailout” came across as bitter. On the issue of bonuses, he lambasted another panel member who suggested that banks make contributions to help people in need rather than dole out all of the bonus money to executives. His response was something like “that is a cuckoo way of thinking. It’s like Bono thinking he can solve problems in Africa by just dumping money on the continent.” Does Morgan Stanley really think they have the moral high ground over Bono leading charity efforts in Africa?
  • Margie Kraus, CEO of APCO Worldwide, had one of the best comments of the day for leaders (and PR people). She said that we can all acknowledge that trust in institutions (corporate and political) are at all time lows, and for good reasons. She urged folks to not think this was going to change on its own accord. “If you want to earn back trust with the audiences that matter to you, then stand up and earn it. Find ways to reestablish the social compact.”

In tough times, tough leaders communicate

I recently attended the annual employee meeting at one of our client companies. Although I had no formal role in the process (their internal communications team does a great job organizing every facet of the event), I have been fortunate to attend the past five annual meetings. This year’s meeting – although smaller and more low key – may have easily been the best. The executives in this company focused on the core issues that employees are focused on in these turbulent times. With clear, compelling speeches and examples, they laid out the case that:

  • The company was on the right track to navigate difficult financial times, and that there is  a clear path forward that will allow the company, and its employees, to be successful.
  • The leadership of the company is committed and capable. At a time when corporate leaders are either being publicly ridiculed or jailed, it was critical for employees to see that their executive team is up to the task at hand.
  • Employees are the bedrock of the company’s values and vision. The capstone of the annual meeting was an awards presentation (complete with crystal trophies and $1,000 checks) that celebrated teamwork, innovation, leadership and community service.

Our client, like virtually every company in the U.S., has faced many tough challenges in recent months. But the character that was shown in how company leaders address those issues and lay out a vision for the future goes a long way to ensuring that its employees are committed to tackling the challenges ahead.

Beware Scooter Hypocrisy…

montys-scooter

A year ago, I sold my beloved Lexus GS 300 and bought a scooter. It is Carolina blue, gets 75 miles per gallon and can exceed the speed limit on my short one mile commute to work.

Most people thought I was nuts when I made the switch. My wife was skeptical about our ability to “share” a car.   The RLF staff took up an office pool to see how long it would last. Clients lobbed in calls to laugh when the temperature was in the teens.  But some 750 miles later, the scooter is still my primary form of transportation (although RLF employees have learned to hide their car keys when I look like I am running late to a meeting.)

Many people ask if I sold my car because of a commitment to “go green.” As much as I would like to claim that mantle, I have resisted the urge.  Yes, there have been environmental benefits, but I cannot claim to be a leading edge environmentalist. I don’t recycle very well. I waste energy in many ways. And I’m virtually positive that I will own a car again in the future, and it may or may not be a fuel efficient vehicle (although no car can have worse gas mileage than our current Jeep).

The point is, I do not want to hold myself up to a standard that is not true to who I am or motivates my actions. Over the long run, my reputation and credibility will be damaged.

That is the advice we give clients who want to get credit for their environmental friendliness. Companies should absolutely get credit for environmental efforts, but there are short and long-term consequences to overstating ones actions. Charges of greenwashing (the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue) are difficult and messy to fight.

So, as I embark on my second year of scooter life, I want to thank my wife, staff and Avis Rental Car for helping keep me on the road when I need more than 2 wheels.

Public Relations is More than Negative vs. Positive Publicity

I’m going to violate our Orange Slices policy of not commenting on how companies handle public relations and media relations. In reading this morning’s Wall Street Journal, I was stunned to read the comments [subscription required] by Bayer CropScience CEO Bill Buckner regarding a tragic explosion at one of its chemical plants in 2008. Buckner is quoted as acknowledging that his company’s response efforts created “confusion and concern” because the company had tried to keep details of the explosion confidential out of a desire to “limit negative publicity.”

Note: If you cannot get to the WSJ article through the link above, you may be able to access it by searching for “bayer wall street journal” and then clicking on the first link, which apparently bypasses the newspaper’s pay wall.

I thought we had moved past the time when corporate CEOs think that they can hide or obscure information simply because they want it that way. That is difficult to do in the best of circumstances. It is virtually impossible to do when your building explodes, fireballs shoot hundreds of feet in the air, two employees are killed and rescue workers are injured. And it did not go unnoted that the chemical the plant produced was the same chemical that leaked from the Union Carbide plant in India that killed 4,000 people in 1984.

However, for our profession, the real issue is not the misguided desire to “limit negative publicity.” It is the continued misunderstanding and misperception that public relations is about good or negative publicity. Public relations is about managing communications with stakeholders who can help or hurt an organization’s mission by what they think, believe, say and do. It is an interactive process and it is an open process that builds trust, understanding and credibility. When the CEO of a major company talks about limiting information and obscuring details so that it could better shape the “public debate,” then we know our profession still has a long way to go in making our voice heard at the management table.

Engagement marketing

If you have seen RLF’s brochure or website, there is a quirky sentence that seems to capture people’s attention. And I am glad it does, because that is why we put it there.

“Ingenuity has a color.” That sentence, combined with the picture of my bare feet, has generated quite a few conversations over the past few months. And that was the point.

Most of us are exposed to hundreds or thousands (depending on which sources you believe) of marketing messages each day. And most of us are pretty good at ignoring those messages.

Effective marketing – whether it comes through a news article, a collateral piece, a TV commercial or a website – is engaging. It’s designed to provoke questions and conversations, and ultimately bring brand and customer home.

Not every conversation I’ve had in the last few months will turn into a new client, but every conversation helps get people a little more engaged with RLF, and gives me a chance to tell people how we help companies that are industry leaders, or have the courage to become industry leaders.

This is also how we think about helping our clients. How can the public relations, collateral, advertising, marketing and other services we provide help them engage their customers? What message will help our clients start new dialogues with their customers, colleagues and industries?

For us, it’s “Ingenuity has a color.” And that color for us, is orange. Vividly rich, bold and a yard off the beaten path of corporate colors. We picked orange so we would stand out from the crowd, and show our clients that we could help them stand out too.

Reframing perceptions

Wow!

That is what my wife, daughters and I kept saying last night as we watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. It was a visual and musical feast of color, precision, costumes, pageantry and surprises.

Much has been made about the desire of China to use the Olympic Games to help transform their image on the world stage. It’s working. For my young daughters, the predominant imprint of China in their minds will be a country that blends magic, beauty and technology. And the sheer size of the spectacle – from the number of synchronized performers to the successive waves of fireworks – conveyed the message that China is not looking to arrive on the world stage; China is here.

Companies and organizations can take a lesson here. China has shown us both style and substance; powerful forces in transforming the way that people talk, think, believe and act towards their country.

The Olympics will not whitewash away the many troubling issues that China must deal with – human rights, environmental pollution, unfair trade practices. But China set out to proactively and deliberately reframe and broaden the world’s view of their country and their people. It took a tremendous investment of time, money, resources and faith to make it  happen, but they didn’t back down from the challenges that led up to the opening of the games.

Wow!

Welcome

The relaunch of our website brings some new additions. We’ve added additional information about the type of work we do for our clients, we will soon unveil an expanded work section that showcases specific examples and we have started our own blog.

When our clients ask about blogging, we suggest they think about all the reasons they want to blog, who the audience is, and how they will keep up with the time it takes to blog. We have taken our own advice.

We started Orange Slices to highlight examples of good work in our industry, contribute insights, to inform and enlighten, and to begin a dialogue with our colleagues, our clients, and talented young professionals. We plan to begin by updating the blog at least weekly, so we encourage you to check back.

The other reason we hope you’ll return to this spot? To give us your comments and feedback. Without your input, a blog is just like a website: one-way communication.