Tuscan Square restaurant was the setting for my meeting with Weber Shandwick's Billee Howard and Jennifer Risi, who head up the firm's global strategic media group.
Howard had participated in our New York roundtable this year and was a great addition to the mix, prompting me to ask Weber's marketing person, "Where have you been hiding her?"
Howard and Risi, who come from the Weber Shandwick side originally – rather than the BSMG ranks – launched the global practice in 2005, dedicated to providing senior media relations strategy in key markets around the world. When taking me through the ways in which they work with clients, the discussion turned to the topic of innovation and why it is such a hot topic for companies right now.
Corporations want to be seen as innovators, a fact that really hit the big time with GE's "Imagination at Work" repositioning. It's not enough anymore to run business as usual – companies of all shapes and sizes want to be known for driving innovation, not just embracing it.
In a recent example of the trend, IBM is holding what it calls an innovation jam in September, the first ever on open source, inviting clients, employees, consultants, and family members to join in for its biggest-ever brainstorm. The stakes are high for the company, which has promised to put $100 million behind the best ideas.
Innovation from a product or operations point of view dovetails perfectly with the "renaissance", as Howard characterizes it, happening in communications and marketing. The empowered consumer – of goods and services, as well as information – is here to stay, says Risi. "Companies can continue to ignore the realities of the new environment, but those who do will not succeed."
She says deep connections with consumers, "fostered through next-generation communication techniques", are essential to competing successfully.
But how do you get there? Howard says some companies are separating the innovation paradigm and the new media environment to their peril. Making the connection with key publics is not just a matter of product or service innovation, but of receiving and responding to the clues about the needs and desires of the company's stakeholders that fuel innovation in the first place.
The trick is that companies can no longer rely on traditional methods such as television advertising to resonate with key individuals. Simply put, one-way communication thwarts innovation. "This separation is causing companies to lose traction and market share," she says.
In other words, it's all connected. You can't have one without the other. If you're not reaching your key publics, then you aren't hearing them either. Thus meaningful innovation, in the traditional sense, is impossible. One can't even rightfully claim innovation, through a one-channel marketing campaign, unless it's the result of innovation by inclusion. This was heady stuff, and, in the soporific heat in which I returned to my office after our meeting, I was struggling to process the implications of this for the industry as a whole. If I'm struggling to get it, when we cover so much new media and innovation angles, imagine how the C-suite feels.
Our discussion has made me realize that PR professionals have a critical and difficult job to do – pushing the communications agenda to the forefront of this innovation trend. The danger is that innovation becomes another word for rebranding, and that companies will fail to realize the need to have communications at the center of the evolution. This is exciting stuff, but it's a little bit daunting when you realize how much there is at stake.