In Detroit last week, I met with a number of PR pros at the PRSA International Conference. The crowd, estimated at just under 3,000, included educators, CEOs, top-level agency and corporate PR pros, and students who attended a PRSSA session concurrently.
Everyone was bullish on PR, including Bob Lutz, vice chairman at General Motors; Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist; Jon Iwata, SVP of marketing and communications at IBM, and Lou Capozzi, chairman emeritus of Publicis PR and Corporate Communications Group. Yet, there was a sensitivity to anyone who diverged from the preferred lexicon. Penelope Trunk, author of Brazen Careerist, stirred up the crowd as she continued to use the word “spin” as a positive tool. Out of work for a bit? “Spin” this into something positive, she counseled. This is what you all do so well – spin – Trunk continued. Finally, PRSA chair Jeff Julin corrected her, and she toned it down. What she was trying to say should have been obvious, yet the word clearly hit a nerve with the audience.
The industry continues to take knocks from the general public, Congress, and the media. But simply shouting back won't change anything. As I've learned in my six months with PRWeek, transparency and authenticity are words that readily trip off the tongue, and, certainly, there are those making concentrated efforts to educate the rest of the world on the value of communications, and just what it is that PR pros do.
However, Lutz pointed out in his PRSA talk that there's still too much “canned” corporate speak that gets passed off as communications. He called himself a lifelong critic of “corporate communications” that don't actually say anything. He complained that, while offering a “sanitized” version of events and communications might mean that nothing wrong per se gets through, neither does anything worthwhile or memorable.
He's absolutely right. Although Lutz focused on GM's success in promoting the Volt development in an unprecedented open manner, his point has particular relevance in a down economy. As some continue to shake from market fallout, leaders will emerge. Those leaders will be people – executives to bloggers – who offer real information, real guidance: The truth, ugly or not.
I'm not so naïve as to believe that corporations are just going to hand over their innermost secrets, nor would that be wise – Lutz aptly noted that you can tell someone how you're feeling without discussing the inner workings of your digestive tract. But with a world looking for direction, there's opportunity to stand out and offer real, thoughtful communications – minus the Purell.
Take a risk, and you'll risk standing out. I'm still waiting for a PR exec to speak candidly, on the record, about how the current economic strain will affect business. Call me.