In this divisive era of outspoken messaging, PR’s best days are yet to come

Public relations pros today have a unique opportunity to dictate and determine corporate messaging—if they’re willing to step up and speak out.

PR's best days are ahead

Divisiveness is the watchword of the day, and no one is immune.

Organizations large and small are increasingly compelled to speak up regarding societal and industry crises. Those of us in PR and corporate communications are uniquely qualified to shape, guide and mediate that discourse. We are the storytellers, and we are the ones who can craft delicate messaging with authenticity and objectivity. It’s just a matter of being willing to step up and speak out.

Of course, it’s not just about what we believe and what we would like to say. It’s about communicating with your audiences—internal and external.

For example, Nike’s highly controversial Colin Kaepernick campaign did not arise out of nowhere. Painstaking research preceded the campaign. Nike’s leaders were well aware of the blowback the company would face, but they determined that the benefits of featuring Kaepernick would outweigh and outlast the backlash. So far, the gamble seems to be paying off, which will surely embolden other companies to follow suit.

3 reports to inspire and guide your efforts

The Institute for Public Relations (IPR) has published three seminal research reports that should inspire and empower PR pros to take the workplace messaging reins:

In the first report, “Reputation Management All The Time,” Leslie Gaines-Ross of Weber Shandwick anticipated the uncivil society in which we now live, and she underscored the crucial role to be played by public relations in establishing corporate trust and reputation. Her firm’s research showed that CEOs had listed marketing/communications as the “fourth highest driver” of a strong corporate reputation around the world.

The reason is obvious: In today’s fractured society, an increasingly outspoken employee population expects their CEO to speak out on important issues. Silence is no longer a viable option.

Guess who these flustered execs are turning to help determine which issues to address, as well as what to say and how to say it?

The second report, “Taking a Stand: The Changing Role of CCOs and CMOs,” examined how chief communications and marketing officers are faring in preparing their organizations to anticipate, evaluate and respond to relevant industry or societal issues.

The report found that two-thirds of the marketing and communications leaders admitted they were not prepared to speak up about a controversial societal issue.

Many also said they hadn’t vetted their execs’ vulnerability to a #MeToo scandal, determined a strategy to correct a false news report or respond to an angry attack from President Trump. (If you do find yourself on the wrong end of Trump’s Twitter feed, check out Google’s recent response.)

One communications pro who participated in the research said: “You do not want to be on the receiving end of a call from your CEO, who has just been asked by his board why the corporation hasn’t taken a stand on a breaking issue.”

That, my friends, can be a career-ender.

The third relevant IPR study was co-authored by Linda Locke and Mike Ziegler: “How To Build A Stronger Reputation With Trust And Resiliency.”

Their research pinpointed exactly why target audiences choose one product, service or company over another when making a purchasing decision.

It comes down to two aspects of trust:

  • Operational resiliency: It’s the ability of an organization to regain normal business functions in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, societal or otherwise, in a way that engenders trust.
  • Reputational resiliency: This is how the organization maintains reputational trust throughout the crisis period. This is a far more arduous task, and it’s also precisely where PR can play such a huge role. We ensure the goodwill that’s been established prior to the crisis event is re-emphasized and over-communicated, all while working to return to the pre-event level of trust.

The authors provided four fundamental pillars to building stronger relationships that are infused with trust and resiliency (the illustrations are mine):

1. Understand stakeholder perceptions. A retired military friend of mine said he found the Nike/Kaepernick ad offensive because it didn’t factor in the feelings of the proud men and women who have served, and are serving, in our nation’s military.

2. Identify the drivers of those perceptions. Why did my retired Army colleague find Nike’s campaign offensive? If the marketer doesn’t know the answers to the 5 W’s—as well as to the question “How?” in advance—then they should re-evaluate the initiative.

3. Develop strategies to understand, monitor and influence perceptions. Did Nike take time to understand why the campaign might offend veterans? Would focus groups have helped? Even if the majority of current and former members of the military still found the ad insulting, should Nike have “enlisted” brand ambassadors who could have helped mitigate consumer backlash?

PR is vastly more complex and sophisticated than ever. In addition to the examples cited above, employee engagement is another communications component that PR pros are primed to exert more influence over. Mix in CSR programs, community relations and strategic partnerships to increase brand awareness and credibility, to name a few, and you can see the limitless future of PR. The opportunity to lead is there for communications pros, but you must be willing to tackle complex and controversial issues.

 Steve Cody is the vice chairman of the Institute for Public Relations, and is also CEO and founder of Peppercomm.

Topics: PR

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