Focus on people and truth is key to success in 2006

Six industry leaders share their thoughts about 2005 and how they envision PR evolving over what is sure to be a challenging next 12 months.

Six industry leaders share their thoughts about 2005 and how they envision PR evolving over what is sure to be a challenging next 12 months.

A recent New York Times headline declared, "New Surveys Show That Big Business Has a PR Problem."

From Wal-Mart to pharma and oil companies, corporations faced major reputation hurdles in 2005. Corporate America was not alone, either. DC kept confusing propaganda with news. And controversies with Ketchum and Fleishman-Hillard rekindled talks about profession- al ethics and responsibility.

So just what have professionals learned from this year? We put that very question to a handful of the industry's leaders.
Anne McCarthy
SVP, global comms, SAP

For those of us who were classically trained in crisis communications, it's time to pitch our security blankets (the coveted "black binders" with scenarios, phone trees, and checklists) and take a lesson from our colleagues who chartered new territory in the aftermath of Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.

We are living in an era of hard-core counseling and real-time judgment calls. Recent catastrophes challenged PR colleagues to reach stakeholders without the luxury of electricity, phone lines, or web access. I've learned that the force of Mother Nature beats technology every time. Natural disasters reinforced the need for speed, accuracy, and the human touch, and taught me that PR leaders today must be able to solve problems and execute like an emergency-room staff.

I was pleased to see many big firms take their own advice and apply tried-and-true reputation-management strategies to mend their own tarnished images.

Regardless of all the tech advances and the development of new communications channels, it is incumbent upon all PR pros to start and end with the truth.

In simple terms, it's the Arthur W. Page principles that must be followed: Tell the truth; prove it with action; listen to the customer; manage for tomorrow; conduct PR as if the whole company depends on it; stay calm, patient, and good-humored.

Torod Neptune
SVP/US public affairs practice leader, Waggener Edstrom

I've been heartened by the ongoing convergence of the public affairs discipline and the more traditional corporate communications approach being sought out by the public policy and [government relations] business.

Many more current clients and new business prospects are coming to us seeking innovative ways to both build their corporate reputations and shape and influence policy and regulation in a real, coordinated manner.

So while much of our work remains policy focused, it reflects, at its core, more broad-based and highly integrated thinking.

Regarding the national dialogue, blogs and online communications are a big part of our world. From a public affairs view, we need to take a hard look at the changing face of influence.

We also saw, in the wake of corporate financial accounting scandals and increased consumer expectations about global giving, that companies are focusing more attention on CSR and community-based causes and their link to influencing policy and public opinion. We have partnered with many more companies looking at CSR through the vantage point of its dual benefit/impact on their business.

Andy Polansky

President, Weber Shandwick

The emergence of community marketing and how that intersects with new technologies is presenting opportunities for PR pros to deliver programs and messages in innovative ways. In fact, we have seen how PR people can be the overall drivers in terms of strategy and outreach.

We've learned a great deal in the past few years about how to manage global accounts more effectively and efficiently, and continue to see more multinational companies work our firm across borders and practice areas. In fact, we've had a number of clients leverage that expertise by soliciting our advice on how to build their internal communications operations.

Jennifer Prosek
Managing partner, Cubitt Jacobs & Prosek

In 2005, passive inquiries from corporate clients about Asia and our PR capabilities there became strong requests. As a mid-size firm that competes for global business, we've always provided Pan European services through our London office. This year, we shored up our Asian resources and spent one week at the Singapore campus of our client Insead (the international business school), learning about doing business in Asia. Our 2006 approach will include an Asia business audit for our clients who do business in Asia, but have not yet thought about their reputation in the region.

I've also learned that it's no longer enough to be a classically trained PR pro. We have to be "renaissance marketers." In 2005, this meant acquiring a deep understanding of emerging new media strategies so we can counsel clients. In 2006, new media strategies will be part of every communications program.

We've also expanded our roster of "smart clients" - those from whom we receive not just financial income, but psychic income. They make us smarter, expand our knowledge base in key sectors, and add value to our broader client portfolio. For example, Insead has provided us with vital lessons about Asian business, innovation, and Blue Ocean strategies. Royal Bank of Scotland has given us insight into global economic markets.

Dave Samson

GM of public affairs, Chevron

One of my biggest lessons in 2005 had to do with the increasing - and increasingly important - overlap of government affairs and corporate communications. This is especially evident in the energy business where commerce, markets, and geopolitics constantly intersect. This point was driven home by our acquisition of Unocal. When the Chinese came in with an 11th-hour competitive bid, our straightforward business transaction suddenly became highly political.

The back-to-back hurricanes - Katrina and Rita - taught me a lot, too. In advance of the hurricanes, we had to evacuate thousands of staffers, more than 700 of whom ended up losing all their possessions. But despite that, these individuals were still the first responders to recovery and restoration efforts. Their unselfish - and unimaginable - efforts taught me the true meaning of human capacity.

Of course, neither of these events were anticipated in my business plan coming into 2005, yet both clearly defined a good part of my team's year. So, going into 2006, I will make sure that my team has a chance to catch its breath and remember that the things that really define the value of our profession are often those things we least expect.

Douglas Spong
Managing partner, Carmichael Lynch Spong

A rising tide may float all boats, but you darn well better know how to sail. PR recovered quite nicely in 2005 from the hangover of the dot-bomb days. According to the Council of PR Firms' Quick Survey findings, 2006 is forecast to be even better.

Now that the winds have changed and most firms are sailing along nicely, there's a renewed appetite for people. As if finding outstanding talent isn't hard enough, hanging on to star performers is even difficult. I'm always reevaluating everything about how we identify, attract, train, motivate, compensate, and inspire like-minded achievement addicts.

[It] used to be that doing smart, creative work and delighting your day-to-day client contacts were enough. Today, how- ever, there are several new faces riding alongside to assess what's going on and ensure accountability. Given the size of many client budgets, procurement has saddled up. Likewise, search consultants have joined the posse to add their insight to "maximize" the client-agency relationship.

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