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.”