OP-ED: Opportunities for firms and clients abound if we stick to our principles

In remarks I delivered at last month's PRSA international conference, I had occasion to remind listeners of something I told them at the 2001 gathering: Our profession has entered a Golden Age.

In remarks I delivered at last month's PRSA international conference, I had occasion to remind listeners of something I told them at the 2001 gathering: Our profession has entered a Golden Age.

I firmly believed those words then, despite the uncertainty and shock of the weeks following September 11. And I believe them even more strongly now - after two of the toughest years our business and our clients have ever faced. The PR profession is better positioned today than it has ever been because of one central fact: More than ever, our clients need clear and effective communications, and they know they need it. This includes clients who are served by those of us at agencies, as well as by our colleagues in corporate roles. To an unprecedented degree, communications affects every discipline within our clients' organizations. That translates into greater opportunities for all of us. But to take advantage of those opportunities we must ensure that our profession keeps changing and developing in a number of ways. One of our greatest challenges is in the area of diversity. When I was starting out, PR, like many other professions, was dominated by men. Today, our business is 70% women, including a growing number at the most senior levels. Unfortunately, however, our ethnic and cultural diversity is a very different story. Based on the latest figures I've seen, African Americans make up less than 5% of our profession, Hispanics less than 3%, and Asians only 2%. Our firm has managed to exceed the industry average, but we know we have more work to do. We all do, especially in light of our clients' need to communicate in an increasingly multicultural marketplace. We need to continue to change and grow in other ways. We must continue to expand and integrate our global capabilities. Our clients want more than just international assets. They expect us to organize and align our global teams to deliver strong and consistent results in any part of the world. This ties back to the cultural-diversity issue, as an important element in serving clients' global needs is having staff who are fluent in a variety of languages and cultures. We need to continue to bring more specialized talents and expertise to our clients. Recently we have hired former congressional and military leaders, nutritionists, legal experts, and others with degrees in fields as varied as philosophy, medical anthropology, psychology, biochemistry, zoology, architecture, theology, education, and social work. It is no coincidence that over the past 18 months this team, with its variety of backgrounds and perspectives, has introduced more than 30 new products that respond to - and in some cases anticipate - very specific client needs. So, clearly, there are areas where we need to grow and change in order to deliver results for our clients. But we must work even harder to ensure that some things do not change. I am talking about the fundamental things. Things like clear, disciplined writing. In whatever medium or in whatever language we may express ourselves, putting ideas into words is still at the heart of what we do. We cannot overestimate its importance. It has been our longstanding practice at Fleishman- that any job candidate, at any level, takes a writing test before we make a hiring decision. Our entire profession would benefit from the same practice. Another thing that cannot change is our obligation to apply our best thinking and analysis to our clients' issues. It is critical to the strategic insight and honest counsel we give our clients, especially when our advice includes things they may not want to hear. Most important, we must not waver in our commitment to observe the highest standards of ethics in everything we do. Our clients look to us to help them build - or rebuild - a bond of trust with their customers, employees, or communities. To do that, and do it well, demands a solid bond of trust between us and our clients. It is a trust that must be earned, not just by the quality of our work, but by the strength of our principles. No matter how sophisticated our technology tools may be or how complex the global economy becomes, our business still comes down to some pretty basic elements. It is about face-to-face relationships. It is about making and keeping promises. It is about character and integrity. So long as we keep getting these things right, there is no limit to the opportunities ahead for our profession and for our clients.
  • John Graham is chairman and CEO of Fleishman-Hillard. Widely recognized for his industry leadership, he most recently received the PRSA's Gold Anvil for his contributions to PR and for his active involvement in professional organizations.

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