PR's value proposition is now undeniable

The presence and perspectives of CEOs and CMOs at PRWeek's annual conference in New York yesterday proved once and for all that PR now has a seat at the table - now it must use it effectively.

Arby's kept it simple and revitalized an embattled brand with smart social media and content.
Arby's kept it simple and revitalized an embattled brand with smart social media and content.

Many illuminating insights came out of yesterday’s PRWeek conference, not least of which was how Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove manages to appear to be in his mid-50s when he is actually 76 years old.

I interviewed youthful-looking Cosgrove to kick off the day and the one-time heart surgeon who performed more than 22,000 operations before transitioning to the CEO office has such straight-talking and fascinating perspectives on healthcare that could easily have been allocated twice as much time.

He is adamant Obamacare is here to stay whoever wins the election – "[Its repeal] is politically untenable. The Affordable Care Act has become part of fabric of the United States."

He called on the pharma industry to sort out the mess around drug pricing before the government steps in.

And he noted how Cleveland Clinic was cutting through the inherent time sucks in the health system by using new technologies and remote consultations and diagnoses via tablet or cellphone.

He also said academics estimate the doubling time of medical knowledge, which in 1950 was 50 years, is projected to be a startling 73 days by 2020. Cleveland Clinic has enlisted IBM’s Watson to help it navigate this morass of new data.

But the most important insight for me was that the engagement with communications outlined in Cosgrove’s and other sessions was taken as read. The premise that in-house PR pros, and the agencies that support those in-house teams, are an intrinsic part of the business and organizational planning process is no longer in doubt.

The "red-headed stepchild syndrome" is no more – the value PR brings to the table is undisputed.

"You can never communicate too much," said Cosgrove. "I don’t think you can begin to move and change an organization without people understanding what you’re doing and why you’re doing it."

Other CEOs including Girl Scouts of America’s Sylvia Acevedo and Big Machine Label Group’s Scott Borchetta – the man who discovered Taylor Swift – also understand the value of the PR function and lean on it heavily.

CMOs from Arby’s, Mars Chocolate, and GE (Rob Lynch, Berta de Pablos-Barbier, and Linda Boff) outlined the integrated structures and teamwork that have brought the communications and marketing structures closer together than ever.

And Richard Edelman described his firm’s concept of communications marketing, which encapsulates all of the above from the modern agency services perspective.

Chief communications officers that don’t have close and effective working relationships with their marketing colleagues are setting themselves up to fail. PR agencies that can’t integrate social media and digital as table stakes in their service offerings are doing likewise.

Five other takeaways from the day included:

  1. Keep it simple – some of the best insights and ideas come from basic insights, such as celebrating Mars’ 75th anniversary – "Celebrate with M" – and Arby’s slogan "We have the meats." Don’t over-think it. "We wanted to tell people we have meat, so we came up with a tagline that said, ‘We have the meats,’" as Arby’s Lynch said wryly.
  2. Manage the CEO – Richard Edelman said the CEO is not always the best person to front up communications, especially in a crisis: "The CEO has to act really decisively and quickly and appoint someone who is in charge of the cleanup. The running of the business needs to be done by the CEO, and the running of the crisis should be run by the PR people." And be wary of the CEO who gets too engaged on Twitter and social media, Edelman cautioned that only rare individuals such as Starbucks' Howard Schultz or T-Mobile's John Legere could get away with this.
  3. Take risks, don’t be afraid to fail – Two quotes from our speakers sum up this point perfectly. "If you aren’t nervous about a decision, you aren’t pushing it enough," Arby’s Lynch; "You have to lead, not follow. Research is what has already happened. You can’t be afraid to fail," Big Machine’s Borchetta.
  4. Try new platforms – one of the most frequent questions communicators ask is whether they should jump onto the latest hot social media platforms that crop up constantly. GE may be uniquely focused on the concept of innovation as part of its DNA – it was founded on the concept of "light bulb moments," after all – but Boff and chief communications officer Deirdre Latour recommended going for it regardless. "We think of being first as a competitive advantage," said Boff. "You don’t get learnings if you’re not on the playing field. We’ve made it part of our strategy to experiment. The risk of not being on platforms is much higher."
  5. Integration – This is a concept everyone talks about but few master in practice. GE is a great illustration of true integration, with the proviso that this is always a work in process by definition, and the teams’ impending move out of 30 Rock to 285 Madison has given them the chance to build a bespoke office environment from scratch, mixing up Boff and Latour’s teams, as well as chief creative officer Andy Goldberg’s function.

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