Don't forget culture is currency

For all the messages PR folks create, control, and spin, what is rarely explored is the culture of the industry itself.

"Let’s not take things too seriously," a client colleague once said to me. "We are selling consumer products, not changing lives."

On one hand, he was right. It’s important to keep things in perspective. And, we weren’t doing life-saving surgery. On the other hand, we were indeed able to change lives – we just didn’t know it.

After spending more than 15 years in public relations, I can say with confidence and fondness that it truly is a special field. Not many career paths afford its professionals the opportunity to be a subject-matter-expert, of sorts, about so many things at one time. Particularly for those in the agency space, it’s possible to work in QSR, automotive, health and beauty, retail, or just about anything else – all at the same time.

PR has a profound impact on mass media and pop culture. Whether consumer brands, technology, healthcare, government, finance, or entertainment, PR is often the unseen hand behind some of the biggest headlines trending in news and social media today.

You can find a webinar about managing millennials, navigating technology, or embracing diversity, but for all the messages PR folks create, control, and spin, what is rarely explored is the culture of the industry itself.

About three years ago one Saturday morning, when I was able to sleep in and channel surf, I came across marathon episodes of CBS' Undercover Boss and found myself captivated by the show’s underlying themes. No matter the line of business, people’s ability to be honest and transparent in their personal and professional goals – as long as they were not aware they were talking to the boss - never failed. In fact, there was a consistent sense of fear and anxiety as employees waited in the lobby at corporate headquarters only to go in and discover they had disclosed intimate thoughts to someone who had the power to control their destiny.

I was so compelled by this phenomenon, I built a whole business around it. In doing so, I leveraged the experiences and insight I’ve garnered from working in public relations, coupled with the understanding of the vast return on investment a company gets when it understands that culture is indeed currency.

Some organizations have made it a point to evaluate and invest in their culture in order to attract and retain talent, secure like-minded clients, stay relevant, and competitive in today’s marketplace. They offer more paid time off, remote working, creative team structures, cross-company opportunities, and other modern approaches. Many also have strong corporate social responsibility or volunteer programs. 

Yet and still, I have spoken with several PR professionals, from students to very seasoned leaders, about their views on the industry and life goals. Whereas there is optimism, there also is apprehension about what the future holds. Beyond awards, accolades, tweets, and "likes," an undercurrent of smart and talented individuals seek a more mindful norm at work and in life. 

This industry is filled with so many creative thought leaders who at their core are world changers. As much as what we do is important, how much more important is why we do it. The politics, social justice, diversity issues, and overall tone of the news of today could use more of the thoughtfulness and spirit of open and transparent PR practitioners.

Imagine what would happen if client-agency relationships got more authentic. Rather than worrying about retaining the business, every agency’s primary focus was bringing pure and unfiltered solutions to the table – to grow the client’s business, but also to help that client have more genuine and sustainable connections to the people and communities where they do business.

Being a professor, I get lots of questions about the future of PR. In my estimation, the industry will continue to change with technology as a driving force. The lines will become blurred between key messages of organizations and the voices of their constituents. Everything will be on the table – no more wizards behind the curtain. And, the brands that figure out how to live out loud are the ones that will find the most fulfillment and financial success.

Many are touting 2017 as a year of alignment and fresh starts – a year of meaning and purpose. I believe this could be a real game-changer for PR. The industry is already an influential force, and its people already influencers.

So, cheers to a year where undercover thoughts and ideas become leading strategies and we all acknowledge and embrace that public relations can, in fact, change lives.

Rashada Whitehead is an award-winning professor, writer, and the president and chief transformation officer of KGBERRY, an organization that helps conscious companies navigate big changes. Connect with her on Twitter here.  

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