PRSA chair and CEO Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, discussed the state of the public relations industry, along with the challenges of corporate reputation management in the "WikiLeaks Age" in a speech given to the PRSA Miami Chapter Feb. 15, 2011.
State of Public Relations in 2011 — Rosanna Fiske Speech
The State of Public Relations in 2011: Corporate Trust Meets the WikiLeaks Age — Rosanna Fiske PRSA Miami Chapter Speech Feb. 15, 2011Thank you, Annabel, PRSA Miami Chapter Board Members and my fellow colleagues forinviting me to speak here today …I come before you less than two months into my tenure as chair and CEO of the PublicRelations Society of America, a professional opportunity that is immensely enlightening and onethat I am fortunate to have the opportunity to pursue. I’m also an associate professor in theFlorida International School of Journalism and Mass Communication, so my experience andinsight spans from many years on the agency side, to now, mentoring the next generation ofpublic relations professionals.Like many of you, I have seen the dramatic changes that have taken place in our professionover the past decade, and viewed more broadly, since I started in my first corporate positionsome 20-odd years ago.After all this time, I’m still passionate about our profession; where our industry is heading; how ithelps businesses grow; public relations’ ability to serve the public good; the role we play inprotecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information that is essential todemocratic societies.It’s a responsibility that I do not take lightly, both my role leading PRSA and my belief in publicrelations’ ability to do good for the world — both for society and for the clients and organizationswe counsel. As you know, we’re in a time of significant global political upheaval, augmented byour own domestic concerns. More specifically, the media landscape we all live and play in hasbeen irrevocably reshaped after the tragedy in Tucson; a moment in time that shed light on asubject dear to our hearts: discourse, the written word and communications. I’ll return to thatsubject a little later.It’s not all gloomy, though. We’re in a vibrant period for the industry’s growth and perceivedvalue. While our brethren in advertising have seen a fairly sharp contraction in spending on theirservices in the United States, down eight percent in 2009, public relations spending is rising —rapidly. In the U.S. alone, we’re now a $4 billion industry, with a 55-percent increase inspending, to $8 billion domestically, by 2013.When I told this recently to a reporter at the Financial Times, he was so surprised by the robustgrowth in our industry — he’s used to ad agency execs boasting about the latest big accountthey’ve won — that he came back to the number 10 minutes later and asked me if this couldpossibly be correct. It is. And as I told the FT reporter then, businesses and executives oftendon’t realize they need strategic public relations until it’s too late; PRSA is out to change thatperception.As part of PRSA’s revamped national advocacy program, there are three key areas we nowfocus on, each of which I’d like to discuss with you today, in the broader context of the currentgeopolitical and business landscape, and what effect that has on our profession and our value.
Briefly, our national advocacy efforts fall within three categories: • The business value of public relations … • Ethics, and … • Diversity within the profession.Each forms a core area of focus for PRSA, and will be heavily discussed, among other excitingtopics, at our 2011 International Conference in Orlando Oct. 15-18.Let’s extrapolate that out to what really concerns your clients and employers: what value do theyget out of public relations? It’s a great question to consider, and a few recent events help putpublic relations’ value into perspective.What do today’s CEOs want and need most? If you were to ask the public, they would likely tellyou CEOs need better reputations. It’s doubtful many would argue that sentiment. I read arecent post in The New York Times’ “You’re The Boss” blog that put the need for improved CEOreputations into perspective. In it, the author relayed a story from a CEO who has a school-ageson who came home one day and asked if his father would call himself something other than aCEO. It seems that the boy’s classmates were giving him a hard time about the fact that hisfather runs a company — as if it were something to be embarrassed by. Not exactly a ringingendorsement for modern executives.As the 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer indicates, trust in American businesses, and byextension, the reputations of corporations and their leaders, is now at an all-time low, at just 46percent, or barely above last-place Russia.Think about that for a moment: trust in the American business community — the very clients yourepresent and the organizations you work for — is barely above the level of that in a country stillstruggling with the modern concept of free enterprise and democracy. That’s a somewhatdisturbing thought.Unfortunately, the massive data dumps that WikiLeaks have inflicted upon governments aroundthe world likely will not leave American and global businesses immune from significantreputational threats. If you’re to believe numerous revelations from WikiLeaks founder JulianAssange in recent high-profile interviews, a leak of business-related secrets is imminent, onethat could “bring a bank to its knees.”Simply put, WikiLeaks has thrown governments and corporations into an international anxietyattack.And while the common perception has been that CEOs are most concerned with financialreturns, recent studies and surveys don’t bear that true. In fact, a 2009 study by McKinsey & Co.found that reputation risk was the top concern of CEOs, echoing similar findings from AONInsurance that nearly 50 percent of the CEOs they surveyed felt unprepared for managingreputation risk.This comes at a time of unyielding reputational threats from the likes of WikiLeaks, OpenLeaks,the Brilliant Yes Men and a variety of underground groups that have technology and, some
might contend, a plurality of public sentiment on their side in foreign markets, to expungecorporations of their most treasured secrets.Like it or not, the coming year will see corporate America attempting to manage the "gotcha!"whims of transient whistle-blower organizations that dont play by conventional rules ofengagement. These are groups that can outsmart and outrun even the best of a businessshigh-tech security measures, and our profession’s most thorough crisis management plans.CEOs will never again know if, or when, an assault on their companys reputation is coming, orwho from within is spilling the proverbial beans.Perhaps for the first time in our profession’s history, technology, rather than our keen insightand experience, largely dictates whether our ability to help clients and executives manage theirreputations is successful or falls flat. I don’t mean to be hyperbolic in saying that; recent eventslead me to believe this is becoming our new reality. The New Normal in reputationmanagement, if you will.So what is the logical, practical, and above all else, most ethical manner in which we can guideCEOs toward building greater corporate trust and reputation in this new era of reputationaluncertainty? Echoing the sentiment of my predecessor, Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA,this may sound clichéd, but it’s been proven to be immensely effective: advise clients to be astransparent as possible. We must help businesses focus on building and, in some cases,rebuilding trust, with the public, while they simultaneously fortify their financial standing after twoyear of bleak economic returns.That belief is reflected in this year’s Trust Barometer, with 65 percent of respondents saying thattrustworthiness is one of the top-three factors toward enhancing corporate reputation.That doesn’t necessarily mean advising clients to take unnecessary risks just to appease asmall, but vocal, group of dissenters. That’s not feasible, and would most certainly devalue ourefforts to help businesses prosper. There are equally important benefits to confidentiality in theC-suite, so long as it is buttressed by a small gap between public and private conversations anda commitment to disclosure.But it does mean we should help executives find new and innovative ways to better expresshow they manage their business. We have to be the eyes and ears — and yes, the conscience— for external and internal reputational opportunities and threats for the executives werepresent and counsel. They turn to us to understand the sentiment of their key audiences,whether that be customers, stakeholders, the public at large or their employees.Despite all of this, we appear to have entered an era where, paradoxically, image matters morethan reputation. We live in a hyper-connected world, one that is constantly throwing new ideas,links and a myriad of distractions our way. The question of which is more valuable — image orreputation — is largely a moot point, and I would argue both have equal value within certaincontext.Certainly, having a strong brand image is vital to quickly grabbing and maintaining a customer’sattention. That level of attention, however, can be fleeting. A strong reputation is often theantidote to what commonly ails brands trapped in a crowded marketplace, one where everycompany is competing to have the flashiest ad, or spiffiest new app; a marketplace that
becomes watered down over time.Reputation is hard-earned and long-standing. It comes from years, not moments, of doing andsaying the right thing. And it’s an incredibly powerful bellwether indicator for how well executivescan lead a company out of tough times. According to a 2010 Inc. magazine article, 60 percent ofemployees in America do not trust that their senior management can turn an organizationaround when it gets off track.A comparison of results from the 2007 and 2011 editions of the Edelman Trust Barometer offersome perspective on how quickly companies can lose their affirmative reputations. In the pre-financial crisis results of 2007, trust in American businesses was measured at 62 percent — a13-percent rise over the previous year — higher than both media and the government. Fastforward to 2011, and the credibility of businesses in America has plummeted, to 46 percent, orfive percentage points above last-place Russia. Meanwhile, trust in American CEOs stands atonly 34 percent, compared to a plurality among global respondents in their level of trust forCEOs.Circling back to a point I made earlier, if the reputation of our country’s businesses is onlyslightly better than Russia that certainly says something about the immediate need within theUnited States to rebuild the business community’s credibility among the public.When successful, trust is the climax of actually putting customers first, ahead of revenues andbrand recognition; of having a meaningful relationship and conversation with the customer. Andthat sticks with people, gets passed along in the best form of word of mouth possible and helpsbrands sustain success during the inevitable marketplace challenges.Returning to the reputational threat of WikiLeaks, much concern has been raised within theglobal business community over a group that has no physical location, little trust from the publicand whose reputation is based on an enigmatic personality that New York Times executiveeditor Bill Keller recently described as “having his own agenda” and “openly contemptuous ofthe American government.” Hardly a character one would associate with inspiring worldwideadmiration and respect.Yet, in a way, Assange and his cohorts at WikiLeaks have attained all of that, and more. Ofcourse, he’s also considered a pseudo-enemy of the state in many countries, including our own,and his actions appear to be getting more sinister and bizarre by the day.But viewing WikiLeaks as purely an enemy threat to corporations would be a mistake. Instead, itshould be seen as an opportunity; a global call-to-action for CEOs to transparently present theirfull and honest side of the story. This is true at nearly every point in history, but certainly nomore relevant than in the current climate of public skepticism.That brings me to my second point: we’re at a precipice for ethical standards that meet today’smodern business, marketing and communications challenges. As I noted earlier, the past fiveyears have been a remarkable time for marketers, communicators and public relationsprofessionals. Technological advancements, from Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, blogs,Facebook, Quora … the list goes on and on … have infused a new and refreshing vibrancy intoour profession, making public relations more relevant to consumers and the public, and equallyvaluable to the business community.
But that increased value comes with greater responsibility.Technology is moving so rapidly that it’s becoming increasingly apparent the need to establishmodern ethical standards for today’s modern public relations and marketing practices. AsWikiLeaks and other new threats to corporate reputation shows us, the old marketing playbookhas been completely thrown out the window. We’re now left to rewrite the rules of engagement.Hopefully, for the better.As you well know, PRSA’s Code of Ethics has been at the forefront of the profession’s ethicalconscience for more than 60 years. But, like everything else, the Code must evolve as timeschange and as the pressing business concerns of today’s executives trump those that wererelevant when the original Code of Ethics was unveiled more than 60 years ago, or even when itwas completely overhauled in 2000.A recent example comes to us from our friends at the Word of Mouth Marketing Association.Each year, WOMMA performs what amounts to a crowdsourced review of is Ethics Code,soliciting input into what pressing business and marketing matters it should address in its Code.This year’s review looked at two key issues affecting marketers of all stripes: digital disclosure insocial media contests and data scraping across websites, which is the practice of onlinemarketers and advertisers using computer algorithms to extract data from the users of certainwebsites. Typically, these websites are forum-based, where people are offering advice,information and other content that would provide invaluable purchasing and lifestyle informationto advertisers about each user.We’re in an era where incorporating such norms as disclosure in our communications isn’talways in vogue. It’s a time of rapid-fire online engagement between brands and consumers.Greater emphasis is often given to reaching the biggest influencers, rather than how well youconnect with and inform your core audiences.That leaves the ethical public relations professional stuck in the middle between aiming highwith disclosure and other ethical standards, but possibly feeling constrained by time, resourcesand client pressures. Not to mention the increasingly abbreviated space available to actuallyprovide proper disclosure. Hello, 140 characters! Actually, make that 120 characters, if you wantto get retweeted …So what came of our efforts to help WOMMA revise its Ethics Code? Two things: • One, we developed greater organizational understanding and respect for the challenges that our members must overcome to solve the modern marketing challenges perplexing businesses in the digital age. • Secondly, we prescribed a set of clear and simple points of focus for how, when and why disclosure within social media contests should be used. Those include: o Disclosure of relationships, motivation, compensation and other pertinent factors should be the basis of all forms of marketing and communications, including emerging practices like social media and online contests. o Marketers must reasonably inform consumers of the motivations and intent of use behind the messaging they receive, no matter the medium used. o Where practical, social media contests should provide a link to a clear and simple Web page noting all of the uses for the contest, the information submitted as part of the contest and to whom that information will be given to and for what purposes.
o A material connection exists between a brand and a blogger when the blogger writes about and/or discusses his or her contest entry in any format, whether that be a blog, Tweet, Facebook wall post or a LinkedIn update.You can find more information on PRSA’s commentary for WOMMA at our website, PRSA.org.While public relations professionals will always be a shining light for innovative digitalcommunications and social media practices, we also must remain cautious and vigilant in ourunderstanding of the implications of the new channels and technologies we use. The onus is oneach of us to ensure that the same stringent ethical standards and best practices guidingtraditional practices are infused in work that engages new technologies and techniques.The coming year, I have to believe, will finally see us finding that happy middle ground betweenreal-world marketing realities and instilling modern ethical standards for modern marketingpractices.Finally, I’d like to touch on two issues very dear to me: diversity in profession and publicrelations research, along with the value each holds for the business community. We’re in themidst of Black History Month, a time of celebration across the United States for the uniqueperspective, vision and insight African-Americans bring to our country. In mid-September, we’llbegin celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, a time that is dear to me, as it is to many of you.I’ve been particularly struck by the thought-provoking blog posts and comments that many ofour members and industry leaders have written as part of PRSA’s Black History Monthcelebrations. Larry Jones, who is the director of communications at the Consumer SpecialtyProducts Association, made a passionate argument recently for the business value of diversityin a blog post he wrote for PRSA.In it, he noted that, “By incorporating different types of voices to tell an organization’s story, itcan only enrich the communications capabilities while adding to the creative mix. Diversity incommunications also can mean building bridges to new audiences or tapping into newperspectives and ideas.”I can’t think of a better way to describe the real-world economic impact of diversity. Playing aleading role in conversation development across a variety of societal, economic and ethnicvariances has always been one of public relations strongest areas of focus. A key componentof public relations continuing its surge in value will be our ability to generate two-wayconversation-themed strategies. And this can only come from the inclusion of nontraditionalhires, such as bloggers, social-media influencers and analysts that come from a variety of ethnicand racial backgrounds.Taking that a step further, our members tell us that diversity within the profession will be key totheir agencies success in the year to come, as businesses continue seeking a more globalperspective to their communications and marketing initiatives.As a Hispanic American, I have seen first-hand the immense growth and impact that diversity ishaving on the American economy and culture. When the final analysis of the 2010 censusbecomes available, it will show that there are now more than 50 million Hispanic-Americans;that is sixteen percent of the total U.S. population. By 2050, that is predicted to rise to 133million, or one-third of the U.S. population. Even more impressive: the combined annual buyingpower of Hispanic Americans is in excess of $1 trillion.
If Hispanic-Americans comprised their own country, it would be the fifth-largest, by population,in the European Union. Our level of acculturation is enhancing rapidly, meaning that marketers,advertisers, lawmakers and all of us are hurtling into an era where the business and marketingof diversity, particularly Hispanic-American business, will be at the forefront of the Americanconscience.While public relations, like other professions, has progressed significantly in the area of diversityin order to meet the global business community’s diverse communications and marketingchallenges, we still have a ways to go. Similarly, funding for our industry’s educationalendeavors lags behind our peer professions.A report released last December by the Commission on Public Relations Education, whichreceived partial funding from the PRSA Foundation, found that total philanthropic supportdedicated to public relations education has reached at least 15 million dollars. The report’sauthor, Kathleen S. Kelly, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, professor of public relations at theUniversity of Florida, documented sixty-four major gifts ranging $10,000 to $2 million.While those figures may sound impressive, the report emphasized that philanthropy for publicrelations education is in its infancy compared to the amount of funding and resources dedicatedto business and other areas of professional education.As I noted earlier, I’m a communications professor at Florida International University, so thistopic is of great interest to me. For any field to gain credibility, and more importantly,believability, it needs to constantly augment its body of knowledge. Much of that isaccomplished through research.A good example of this is in the field of medicine. Medical research is happening every singleday, every single hour and a significant amount of money is poured into medical research andphilanthropic work. When there’s a medical finding or breakthrough of some kind from theresearch, there’s growth in medicine and in its body of knowledge — and hopefully in humanlife.Public relations, on the other hand, started very late in the research game. Therefore, we’redecades behind our peer industries in terms of accumulating the funding we desperately needto advance the scientific and educational research required to advance our profession. A focuson funding for public relations research would lead to unimaginable possibilities for publicrelations: • Imagine for a moment having the research that would once and for all confirm that companies who secure customer trust indeed fare better in profitability? • What about if you tie trust directly to messaging or message strategy? • What if there was a way to show that people’s comprehension of a message, crafted through communications and public relations led them to actual behavior?As a public relations professional, educator and leader of PRSA, I know firsthand the value thatresearch can have in building our industry’s value. Hopefully, you can see its value as well.
Reflecting on where our profession has come over the past few years, and the remarkablefuture I truly believe it holds, it’s easy for me to stand up here and tell you that the state of thepublic relations industry is vibrant.Advanced technology, an increasingly diverse business community, augmented by greaterdemand for ethical and strategic communications in an era of corporate transparency, have allcome together to create a moment in time in which public relations can and should own theconversation. There is an incredibly exciting and innovative path forward for the public relationsindustry, and you can be sure PRSA will be at the forefront, ensuring our members and thebroader profession are well primed on their journey along that path.That’s the new frontier for the state of the public relations industry. Let’s go for it!Thank you. I welcome your questions. # # #