The philosopher Confucius was asked by his disciple, Tzu Kung, what is most essential for a government to survive. The master answered, “Enough food, enough weapons and the confidence of the people.” The disciple pressed further. “But suppose that you had to do without one of these; which would you give up first?” “Weapons,” said Confucius. Then the acolyte probed, “Which of the remaining two is most important; what would you give up next?” The sage answered, “All men must die but a state cannot survive without the confidence of its people.”
This exact series of events has played out the past few weeks in regions around the world including Turkey, where the flash point was the government’s decision to convert a beloved public park, one of the few open spaces in Istanbul, into a real estate development. As columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote in The New York Times, this was government exerting its functional power, ignoring its need to cultivate moral support by explaining how and why these changes were desirable and necessary.
The new role of the communicator is to lead in policy formulation and only then on implementation of outreach. There are several examples of chief communicators who are driving their companies into important issues that fall between public and private spheres. Humana* is building play parks for adults to encourage physical fitness at all ages. GE* is leading a coalition to employ veterans returning from Afghanistan as part of its GE Works manufacturing campaign. PepsiCo* provides higher value seed to farmers in Mexico so that they can have a sustainable business of providing more nutritious corn to Frito-Lay factories. From supply chain to human resources, we can have a major impact in getting our clients engaged in solving societal problems while generating a better bottom line for shareholders.
The communications challenge is also profoundly different. The dispersion of authority in media means that communicators must be facile in all four leaves of the media cloverleaf, from mainstream to blog/hybrid to social and owned. The work in media now demands show and tell, with visual elements such as six-second Vine videos or 15-second pieces on Instagram. It is not enough to rely solely on instinct, the idea born in the late evening shower; there is need for insight by following social commentary and community sentiment. There is a much higher expectation of reporting on results, which I call radical transparency, beyond the financials to purchasing or emissions. The people of the institution must be able to express themselves about their work, how they feel about their brands and management, as they are twice as credible as a CEO. We will also need to be able to form social communities, for insights on brands and to create content for the media cloverleaf.
The speech I will deliver tonight at the International Association of Business Communicators World Conference is a call to arms for the PR business. Don’t run away from our PR brand, which has as core values newsworthy, mutual benefit, immediacy and credibility. Don’t give in on creative leadership because we are story-tellers who have a unique ability to start movements that get results. The world is moving toward us. Note that in an April 2012 report, Nielsen* found that trust in advertising has dropped about 25 points, to under 50 percent, for both display digital and television spots. Meanwhile, earned media placements is around 85 percent trusted and peer-to-peer social communication is over 90 percent trusted.
There will be those in our field who claim they are reinventing their offer to become full-service communications advisors because clients want solutions. In my estimation, clients want the best advice, which will more often come from a PR firm working with partners in advertising and events, focused on its clients, doing what it knows how to do well in PR, research and digital.
My favorite U.S. President, Teddy Roosevelt, has a wonderful line. “The best thing is to make the right decision. The second best is to make the wrong decision. The worst is to make no decision at all.”