20/20 Vision

Two weeks ago, Carmichael Lynch Spong celebrated its 20th anniversary with 400 of our favorite staff, clients, alumni and friends of the firm. While mingling with guests that evening, the most common question was "What's changed the most over the past 20 years?"

Two weeks ago, Carmichael Lynch Spong celebrated its 20th anniversary with 400 of our favorite staff, clients, alumni and friends of the firm. While mingling with guests that evening, the most common question was “What's changed the most over the past 20 years?”

When I founded Carmichael Lynch Spong back in 1990, President George H.W. Bush was building his case to Congress and the United Nations for the first Gulf War. The hot movies in theatres were “Pretty Woman,” “Home Alone” and “Dances With Wolves.” Madonna was all the rage with her #1 hit “Vogue.” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was only six years old and still sucking his thumb. There was no “i” in anything. No iPod, iTunes, iPhone or iPad. It was just ol' school “we” versus today's Wii. And I was a young, dumb and excited 31-year-old practitioner.

So, what have I learned in the past 20 years?

Like water is to life, digital is a fundamental element of all communications. Here's the no-duh of the past 20 years. Digital has migrated from producing client websites in the early- to mid-90s to activating online communities through socializing brands, opinions, ideas and assets. As such, Carmichael Lynch Spong like many PR firms has evolved from simply staffing a digital department with digital designers and web producers to embedding digital strategists, user experience architects, creative technologists, designers, digital producers, social media specialists, and digital analytics professionals throughout the firm and our client teams. The idea of compartmentalizing all things digital in a single department is old-school thinking. If a professional believes that digital is somebody else's responsibility or expertise, it's time for that professional to retire or find an alternative career.

Ideas rule. It used to be said that public relations is about content and advertising is about concept. Historically, the PR profession viewed itself as the younger sibling standing on its tiptoes and waving its arms saying, “Look at me. We're just as important – if not more so – than advertising.” Ask any chief marketing officer about their #1 complaint with PR, and they'll say we're too tactical in our thinking, focused only on the rational appeal and minimize risk at the expense of new and different. Our industry's best firms have developed a healthy gag reflex to bland, ordinary and expected ideas. Instead they're less worried about “best practices” (doing what everyone else is doing, only a little better) and more interested in “fresh practices” (bringing entirely new concepts to the table).

Measure up. There's an old saying that says, “Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that can be measured matters.” PR practitioners used to talk about the art of reputation management as if our profession was staffed with witch doctors who could cure a company's ill will, but never wanted to share their secret potions. Largely thanks to digital analytics, just about everything we do can be tracked, evaluated and reported. I'm not talking about tonnage of press clippings, but real brand health or corporate reputation metrics. Instead of waiting for the conclusion of a campaign year to measure what we achieved, we now can predict outcomes with a high degree of reliability as well as optimize our efforts in real time.

Embrace change. When I first started practicing public relations 29 years ago, General Motors enjoyed the distinction of being the world's largest company. When I founded Carmichael Lynch Spong in 1990, Microsoft ran GM off the road to own the largest market cap. Today, it's Google, which may soon be deleted by Facebook. In another ten years, who knows what company will be king of the hill in market value. What we used to call the information age has evolved to be the digital “infotainment” age. In other words, the most effective PR campaigns emotionally find a way to engage and activate an audience through entertainment in addition to the rational appeal through information. Adopting this new “infotainment” reality has required firms like mine to be constant in our commitment to change, inspire a learning culture and be inventive in our thinking.

Doug Spong, APR, is the founder and president of Carmichael Lynch Spong with offices in Minneapolis, New York and San Francisco. The firm is owned by Interpublic Group (IPG).

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