Reimagining Our Profession: Public Relations for a Complex World

January 9, 2012

Richard Edelman, president and CEO, Edelman, delivered the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) Annual Distinguished Lecture on Nov. 10 at the Yale Club of New York City. He urged the audience to reimagine the profession and its responsibilities.  An excerpt from his speech follows. For the full text, please visit here.

We can all agree that public relations is a vital management competency that guards reputation, builds brands, ensures license to operate and facilitates economic opportunity. We are now at the management table, but our role is often misunderstood. Communications must be a core element in the business-planning process. That includes decisions on pricing, supply chain and brand marketing.

Unfortunately, many organizations still determine policy and operating approach in a vacuum, and then hand it to the PR folks to explain. That’s the road to failure, and here are two good examples:

  • This past fall, Bank of America reversed its decision to impose a $5-per-month debit-card fee on customers who weren’t carrying a minimum balance of $25,000. The policy triggered a customer exodus, with 300,000 organizing a protest on Facebook. The bank had utterly failed to provide context for its decision or explain the benefit to the consumer.
  • The Tokyo Electric Power Company recently sought a 15 percent rate increase to pay for the damage to its nuclear reactors caused by the tsunami. The rate increase was denied because the company had zero credibility after failing to promptly disclose information about the nuclear fallout in the surrounding communities. 

In both cases, the companies could have been spared huge reputational and financial damage had policy, operations and communications been aligned. We must operate at the same level in the C-suite as the general counsel, the operations manager, the chief marketing officer and the director of corporate strategy do.

We are at exactly the moment in time when this is possible. In this age of complexity, public relations can guide business better than any other discipline. Now is our moment to create a new and compelling narrative that defines who we are, what we stand for and why we are in a position to lead. Let’s look at how companies set policy and communications today.

Plotting a course

Along a continuum, you can plot six different groups of advisers, each with its own DNA. There’s some overlap among the groups — but each has an important role.

On one end of the continuum are those who focus on policy and strategy, and on the other end are the communicators tasked with creative and execution. On the policy end, you have management consultants (they’re entrusted with reviewing marketplace factors, identifying competitive advantage and the roadmap to implementation), researchers (they’re tasked with insight, message development and testing), and lawyers (responsible for risk management, regulatory interaction and compliance).

At the other end of the continuum are the communicators: advertising (traditional home of the big idea and leader of marketing concepts through multiple channels to reach the consumer), digital (the source of technical tools that facilitate customer relationship management and consumer participation) and finally, public relations. Public relations has been at the far end of the continuum, often using creative we are handed and explaining policy that has been set.

But the role of public relations must now be greater. As the stakeholder discipline, we are the profession that pays attention to the broad interests of the corporation. We belong right in the middle of the continuum of advisers, with one foot planted on the policy side, and the other on the communications side.

Consider what we are already doing as chief communications officers or agency executives:

  •  Working with leaders to catalyze employees
  • Co-creating products with customers
  • Cooperating with civil society
  • Interacting with communities
  • Informing legislators
  • Reassuring investors

This is a broad remit for public relations, which we define as “public engagement.” Public engagement reflects the evolution of business as a positive force in society and calls for business to participate meaningfully in the global conversation. Public engagement is policy and communication unified to realize the full aspiration of PR. The outcomes of public engagement are increased trust, changed behavior, deeper communities and commercial success. Our most progressive practitioners are already applying the principles of public engagement.

Recommending an action

We must aim to make public engagement the standard for the PR?profession. I want to recommend four principles that will help make that happen. These principles reflect the work of Bill Nielsen, first on the agency side at Carl Byoir and then at Johnson & Johnson, which he helped make one of the most respected corporations in the world. It seems only appropriate that we consider calling these four ideas the Nielsen Principles. They are: drive the operating strategy, practice radical transparency, take full advantage of a democratized media. and attract and develop talent with broad skills.

These four principles define a new narrative that our profession urgently requires. Let me explain how we can bring these principles to life.

Principle 1: Drive the operating strategy

I believe that PR executives must help fashion operating strategies for companies and brands that transform the supply chain, propel innovation, motivate employees and drive commercial success. We must also take a leadership role in creating the big idea that markets the strategy.

Here’s a great example: As part of its goal to lead consumers in an environmental evolution, Wal-Mart launched a pioneering eco-campaign. They drove suppliers to reduce packaging on common household products like concentrated laundry detergent and made Wal-Mart’s size an asset that worked for consumers and its reputation as a progressive agent of change.

Just this year, Wal-Mart and the White House announced a partnership to make healthier food choices more affordable to fight the obesity epidemic. Both initiatives were started by my former colleague Leslie Dach — now a top officer at Wal-Mart — and then led by the chief executive.
This is the type of action that can happen when an executive with roots in communications takes a leadership role.

Principle 2: Practice radical transparency

More than ever, business must explain how and why people make decisions. This is not a strategic opportunity; it is a necessity. There is no such thing as a “secret strategy” in this complex world.

Practicing radical transparency means establishing benchmarks, then showing demonstrable progress against them. Let me give you an example: PepsiCo has gone public about its 47 commitments that ensure it is delivering performance tied to human, environmental and talent sustainability. CEO Indra Nooyi calls it “Performance with Purpose,” and employee compensation is tied to the achievement of those goals.

As part of radical transparency, companies must also change their priorities on stakeholder outreach. Employees should come first, not last. They must be given information they can share easily with friends and family. Employees should also be free to blog and share their work experiences, because open communication is key to credibility in the new horizontal, peer-to-peer axis of communications.

Principle 3: Take full advantage of a democratized media

In the digital era, news is everywhere. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly half of Americans say they get news from as many as six media platforms on a typical day.

Content is infinite, but attention is finite. Our greatest challenge today is deciding where to begin telling a story. There are four distinct types of media today: mainstream, hybrid, social and owned.

Imagine them as a four-leaf clover. In the first leaf — mainstream — we have the traditional delivery vehicles of print or broadcast. In the second leaf — hybrid — are the dot-com versions of traditional media and media that is born digital like the Huffington Post. The third leaf — social — includes Facebook, Twitter feeds and YouTube channels. The fourth leaf — owned — includes a brand or company’s websites and apps, which are vitally important because every company should be a media company.

Sitting in the middle of the clover is search — the new on-ramp to all forms of media — as well as content that fuels search rank. And there are also new influencers, such as the 25,000 people who provide half of the world’s tweets. They’re passionate, fast and prolific, which makes their expertise and personal experience resonate globally.

We must work to stimulate storytelling that creates motion across all of the different types of media. We must ensure that personal stories and ideas are part of our output and that high-quality content — infographics and short-form video — can be easily found and shared to enhance search results.

Principle 4: Attract and develop talent with broad skills

For us to effectively guide organizations on policy and communications, we need professionals with skills beyond communications. It begins with the undergraduate PR curriculums. Future practitioners should be required to take basic courses in economics, engineering, finance, foreign language, government and statistics. This last course is essential as we must use new insight tools to find digital influencers and rigorously measure our results across all stakeholder groups.

Once in business, practitioners should be given the opportunity for line experience, time overseas and exposure to the public sector. They should also belong to the board of a charity.

Public relations must offer a career, not just a first stop. We have to look hard at the salaries we are offering, starting at the junior level. And we have to welcome professionals from the other disciplines along the policy-communications continuum.

Shaping the future

The Nielsen Principles are a reimagining of our profession. They are also a call to action. It’s time for us to become a senior member of the group of advisers who determine company policy and shape communications.
What will this mean for business? We will see:

  • Corporations and brands regain trust with their publics as they move from defense to offense
  • Employees are first among stakeholders
  • New products emanate from the passion of brand advocates
  • Supply chains and vendor relationships acknowledge shared value
  • The transition from a compliance-based culture to one that is values-based

For the balance of the decade, our goal will be to elevate public relations as a management discipline that sits as a full partner alongside finance, operations, legal, marketing and strategic leaders in the C-suite.
We need to offer coherent strategy. We must work together or we will fall short.


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