In a speech I presented earlier today to the PRCA, I told attendees that we need to make a massive change in what we do and how we add value to clients. I stressed that this is a time for us to reevaluate our approach to solving problems and to expand our notion of what effective PR entails.
We must move our industry from defense to offense and help clients make significant change now and not wait for a crisis to provoke it. I propose that the way forward for our industry is ‘Action Communications’ because people will trust what we do. The new paradigm is: Do, Say and Advocate.
This is the moment for communications leaders to become the force that prompts change by companies and brands.
Please read my full speech below and an interview I did with The Drum on the importance of Action Communications.
My major message today: we need a massive change in what we do and how we add value to clients. This is a time for us to reevaluate our approach to solving problems, to expand our notion of what effective PR entails. In a world forever changed by Covid, we must not only drive sales and advance reputation, we must also increase trust in the companies we support, while instilling confidence in the global institutions that form the framework of our society.
Today, I am calling for our industry to move from defense to offense. I want us to get clients to change now, not to wait for a crisis to force it. I want us to be brave enough not answer the client’s brief literally. I want us to re-consider the strategy and to recommend the action that creates a catalytic moment in time for a business or brand. Only then can we communicate and that we must do differently as well.
Like a play, I have set up the speech in three acts. First, I will consider the cultural forces and tectonic shifts that demand a new mission for PR. Second, I will offer a new framework for the public relations sector. Third, I will consider what this mission looks like in practice and how we might achieve it.
Act one: Technological, political, social and environmental changes have shaken the core institutions of society over the past two decades. So, the pandemic’s effect has been equivalent to nudging a teetering house of cards.
Today, the media is on shakier ground than any other institution due to economics, partisan politics and the pursuit of clicks. The rise of social media has diverted advertising revenue to new platforms, leaving a circulation-based business model that mandates reduction of fifty percent or more in head count of reporters. The precipitous decline in advertising spend is accelerated by the growth in streaming viewership on Netflix and other platforms and the ubiquity of ad blockers, particularly among the highly sought-after youth market.
The trust issues for media are profound; we are in a Battle for Truth. Thirty percent say that there is no trustworthy information source at all and instead rely on friends and family. In America, only 22 percent believe that the mainstream media is the best place to get the truth about racism. Half believe that the media stereotypes people of color. In a recent Edelman study on trust and Covid, we found that one-third of readers now feel they need to see a story in three different places before it is believed.
At the same time, many communicators have learned to go direct to their end user through social media and other channels. Donald Trump has 60 million followers on Twitter. In our studies of Trust, we found that 35 percent of global respondents are getting most of their information about the virus from social media. Social media is immensely powerful. Yet, the same survey, found that social media is the most distrusted source of Covid information. This mismatch is leading to an info-demic – a plethora of information, little of it credible.
For example, instead of understanding that the historic forest fires in the Western United States are further evidence of climate change, many are embracing social media conspiracy theories that the fires were started by leftist antifa arsonists.
The other institution we historically look to in crisis is government. The public sector had its moment at the initial peak of Covid, when only government was believed able to handle a crisis of a magnitude not seen since World War II. As of May, government was the most trusted institution in the world for the first time in our 20 years of study, surpassing business and NGOs. But now with recent stumbles on re-opening and inability to quell Covid, trust in government has waned. In the UK, for example, the apparent inconsistency of government-imposed lockdowns of restaurants in Northern England juxtaposed with government-subsidized dining out in London creates confusion and loss of trust. Is it any wonder why only two-thirds of people in the UK intend to take a government approved, no cost vaccine if it were available? In the U.S. and France, that number is in the fifties, in part due to low trust in government.
The ebbing of trust in media and the perceived failures of government has left business to manage issues on its own such as return to workplace, out of home eating, safe transportation and production of protective equipment. Covid-19, systemic racism and populism have thrust business into the unfamiliar position of acting in the interests of the broader society. What was once an academic debate around stakeholder capitalism is now being practiced for real, for businesses are now trying to meet the new standards set by the Business Roundtable last summer.
This is the crucible moment where business has to prove its capability. While trust has gone local to My Employer there are major gaps between expectations of business and its relative performance. Nowhere is this more evident than on systemic racism. On Creating Change, there is a 27-point performance gap between expectations and what business has delivered. On Educating and Influencing, there is a 25-point gap. On Getting Their Own House in Order, a 28-point gap. Blacks identify performance gaps ranging from 41 to 45 points, Latinx, 27 points, and Asian Americans, 30 points. In sum, too much talk, not enough walk.
The payoff for business when it turns talk into action is trust. Trust is now the #2 reason for brand purchase after price. Trust yields 30-point advantages in employee loyalty, advocacy and performance. Similarly, we know from our Trust data that companies that take a stand on systemic racism are four and a half times more likely to gain trust, while brands that stand up for consumers on issues gain more trust, more advocacy and higher purchase intent. This is particularly true of young people (18-34) where the data shows that a majority will buy or boycott brands based on its systemic racism stand.
There is a very important change in how we earn trust. A company’s competence– that it is good at what it does – used to be the predominant driver of Trust. Today, it gets only 25 percent of the way, with the other 75 percent now dependent on a company’s purpose, integrity and dependability.
So now let us turn to Act Two: The developments I have just described were evident to many of us five years ago, including the vicious downsizing of the media, inadequate performance of government and dispersion of authority to employees and influencers. At that time, I suggested that the marketing services business be reclassified as Communications Marketing, where PR would be used before advertising or digital to establish a foundation of trust. I called for the PR firms to recruit creatives and planners so that we had our own ideas, not just promoting those of others. We had to build social communities willing to interact with our messages. All of this had to be premised on data, so that we knew who wanted targeted information then to measure our effectiveness based on sales or loyalty. This describes my own firm’s strategy of moving beyond PR into communications, to compete with ad agencies and digital firms, to work with CMOs and CCOs.
Now I want to propose a further evolution of strategy for our sector. The way forward for the industry is Action Communications. It is a step beyond the McCann Erickson 1912 slogan, “Truth Well Told,” an essential mission for communications. People will trust what we do, because actions speak louder than words. The new paradigm should be: Do, Say and Advocate.
Or as my mentor Stephen Greyser from Harvard Business School says “acta non verba - deeds, not words.”
This is the moment for communications leaders to become the force that prompts substantive change by companies and brands.
We can describe the theory of Action Communications with four insights: First, our communications must follow meaningful actions.
This means image and persuasion matter less than tangible commitments and accountability.
The result is that our success will be measured not only by business impact but also improvements in society.
Second, our communications must be inside-out.
This means siloed communications for consumers, shareholders and employees is over. The new way is multi-stakeholder, inside-out communications with employees as first priority.
Third, our communications must be peer-to-peer and based on listening, not telling.
This means we will go beyond communications that are transactional and one-way, to relationships that are built on mutuality and trust.
For example, controlling the narrative is a futile endeavor. Broad community story development and validation is better.
Finally, our communications must be relatable and honest.
Telling only good news is not sufficient. Not truthful. We need to offer a full picture based on facts and transparency. Side effects included.
Moreover, it is our responsibility to help correct misinformation as a conduit of reliable information attributed to independent sources.
So how will we know Action Communications when we see it? Here are some examples:
Let’s start on the reputation side, Starbucks moved adroitly after an incident two years ago when two African American men were mistreated. The company quickly changed its policy on nonpaying guests, welcoming anyone to stay as long as they liked; it also closed 8,000 stores for a half day to train 175,000 employees on racial bias. After the shootings at its facility in El Paso, Walmart decided to end sales of handgun ammunition and asked customers not to carry firearms into stores. CVS ended the sale of cigarettes in its drug stores five years ago, walking away from $2 billion in sales, thereby becoming a healthcare company instead of retailer.
There is a special role for brands in taking on the important issues of the day, setting a higher standard for societal behavior. In the course of celebrating the 100-year anniversary of its Good Humor brand, Unilever learned that the jingle on an ice cream truck in the U.S. had originated in minstrel shows in the 1890s. So they hired RZA, co-founder of the Wu Tang Clan, to write a catchy successor. Ajinomoto sparked action with a “Take Out Hate” campaign that called for Americans to order takeout from local Asian restaurants that were battling discrimination at the onset of Covid-19 and going out of business faster than other cuisine categories. LinkedIn’s #HearItFromMe campaign started a cultural conversation in Saudi Arabia giving its women a professional voice that had never prior existed. And last year, Heineken designed a program that helped to reduce drink-driving by redesigning the bar experience.
Each of these examples illustrates the primary principle of Arthur W. Page, legendary PR man from AT&T: “Public relations is 90 percent doing and 10 percent talking about it.”
So let’s get to Act III—How do we implement the change because no doubt you are asking whether our industry can make this work, and make it work at scale?
First, we will diversify our talent, so that we are representative of society, with locals not expatriates leading operations and with diverse people in charge.
Second, we will evolve our staffing mix with a higher percentage of senior people capable of advising and counseling clients at the highest levels.
Third, we will challenge those who sanitize messaging to minimize liability in favor of communications that is empathetic, transparent and values based.
Fourth, we will embrace creative that is both emotional and factual. It will be inspired by data-led insights and a better understanding of people.
Fifth, we will move from exclusive reliance on the media to add direct to end user communications relying on production capabilities for content, ready in hours not days.
Sixth, we will determine the appropriate action to take by asking ourselves the following questions: Does it solve a societal need? Does it have a clear connection to our company or brand? Does it satisfy employee demands? Does it meet stakeholder expectations?
Finally, not every client is worthy of our attention and support; we are not lawyers, we are actually public advocates. Remember Bell Pottinger and the shame that was felt by our entire industry. We need to have a higher bar for engagement; “performative” behavior will be discovered and called out.
Why will this pivot work? Employees are only willing to stay with companies that exhibit and act on values. Customers want to instigate change through their product purchases.
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
In this context, I look at PR as the communications modality that is for action, not just for image and perception. Companies must lean into the problems. It’s not about just amplification anymore. It’s what’s the problem that needs to be solved? What’s the strategy? What’s the idea? And, then how do we amplify it?
Let’s move! Thank you.
Richard Edelman is CEO.