6 A.M.

Our Time to Lead



I have just delivered the keynote for the PR World Forum in Melbourne, Australia, via the magic of videoconferencing. Given the uncertain nature of my father’s health, I opted to spend the weekend in Chicago instead of travelling “Down Under.” Here are the highlights of my speech:

It is PR’s time to lead because the world has changed. Communications can no longer be top-down and controlled; in fact, credibility is conferred horizontally by conversation and the wisdom of the crowd. Simplicity, in the form of well-scripted words or polished video images, is being replaced by the complexity of an array of real-life experiences in the community. We have moved from managing relations with a small group of elites plus a broadcast world of audiences to an inverted pyramid of influence with impassioned consumers, empowered employees and social activists – a stakeholder universe. Hence the days of advertising dominance are numbered.

But to lead, the PR field has to evolve beyond perception management to the changing of reality. We must aim to meet the bar set by PR legend Arthur Page, who said, “Public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by what it does and 10 percent by what it says.” Too often, PR people have only been able to affect that 10 percent; now we must aim to impact the other 90 percent.

We can achieve this evolution via Public Engagement, which has five operational principles:

1. Bottom-Up—Actively listen to regular people and recognize that everybody, from employee to consumer, is an activist now, even if only to their own network of friends and followers.

2. Be Social—Participate in the always-on conversation. Every company or institution should be a media company, generating content that can be shared across the entire media cloverleaf of Mainstream, Hybrid, Social and Owned.

3. Be Radically Transparent—Companies must establish goals, then report regularly on achievements or areas for improvement.

4. Values-led—Institutions should lead on the basis of principles, not by minimum compliance with the law. We should exceed public expectations and take on the major issues of the day.

5. Rooted in Action—Our job is to advise on policy as well as communications, to deliver measurable impact.

The outcomes of Public Engagement are quantifiable in Increase Trust; Deeper Communities; Behavior Change; Commercial Success.

This new paradigm marks an elevation of our profession above advertising in the communications hierarchy. The Chief Communications Officer will become the steward of Public Engagement. We will get beyond the micro-targeted messages, superficial slogans and clever campaigns to finding solutions that allow companies to achieve long term business objectives in product development, employee engagement and customer service. The advertising folks are not going to roll over and play dead—note the appointment last week of Harris Diamond, a superb PR man, as  CEO of McCann Erickson, where he will bring his knowledge of how to combine brand marketing and corporate reputation to CMO and CEO alike. But in the end we will win – not by shaping perception but by helping to change reality.

As Pablo Picasso wrote about his artistic endeavors, “What one does is what counts and not what one had the intention of doing.” Now is our time to lead.

  • The role of public relations in product development activity and customer service has enormous scope I think. While stakeholders in marketing disciplines may be prone to protecting their turf, those in product development and customer service seem to have a growing appetite to make public relations part and parcel of their plans.

  • Wonderful presentation Richard and insights about the changing landscape and how we, as PR professionals, must lead change. Thank you

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