This was the stern warning from José Manuel Velasco, comms gatekeeper for Spanish utilities and logistics company FCC, just one of the international PR luminaries who convened to confront the biggest issues facing the industry at the first PRWeek Global Congress & Awards in Barcelona last month.
Those present at the two-day event included Ford’s group vice-president of comms Ray Day, winner of PRWeek’s Global Professional of the Year; APCO global chief Margery Kraus; Chris Hogg, deputy head of global media relations for Nestlé; and Roger Bolton, president of PR trade body the Arthur W Page Society.
Velasco deliberated that in a world where faith in leaders has diminished, PR has an opportunity to take the lead over its siblings advertising and media.
"We are in the centre of a new space of debate and conflict, and could lead in the debate if we can act as leaders for the first time," he argued.
Marjorie Benzkofer, Fleishman-Hillard’s global leader, reputation management practice, spoke of the mounting public cynicism that had resulted from businesses becoming "obsessed" with the idea of developing a "brand".
"It has become a lot harder to find the authentic truth about organisations and those that lead them," she claimed. The speakers also flagged the disconnect between what an organisation says it does and what it is perceived to do.
"You can’t paper over problems with campaigns any more," Benzkofer warned, adding that PR professionals had "got cocky" in an era of "big branding".
Kraus said a recent APCO global poll had revealed that 66 per cent of respondents claimed it was as important for them to know how a company operated, as it was to know what it sold.
Companies must give as much attention and conviction to communicating their impact on society and management of this approach as to their product range.
A "vacuum" in this area has caused an erosion of confidence among consumers and the danger of having a "hollow conversation" with the public, Benzkofer warned.
And to truly communicate with conviction, Bolton insisted, requires engaging with advocates, reaching "beyond stakeholder value to societal value".
During a panel discussion on Ford, the car maker’s comms head Day (pictured below) spoke of what he termed his work around developing "four-way integration".
As well as developing a cross-agency team for Ford’s agency network WPP, Day had been pushing for closer working between marketing and comms, labelling the "war" he had seen between the two functions "archaic".
Bolton said that some were in "panic mode" with regard to the chief marketing officer "taking over" decision-making from comms heads.
However, he observed the natural advantage held by the well-placed CCO, stating: "The CCO who works for the CEO is the only one with an overarching role across the whole organisation."
Björn Edland, Edelman chairman for Europe & CIS, who had previously worked in-house leading comms at Shell, asserted the future rise of a CCO’s power should not be assumed.
"The CCO role is either expanding or shrinking, depending on your perspective. If you think it’s just about reputation management, then it is shrinking," he explained.
"If you think it’s a cross-functional role dealing with marketing, HR, sales and communications, then it is expanding."
While CEOs may be taking the encroachment of the CMO role much more seriously, during a debate IBM’s global partner for social business, Andrew Grill flagged that arguing for investment in social media could still be a struggle.
"As practitioners we’ve done a disservice to the industry because we keep on pushing the word ‘social’ when it comes to CEOs," he explained.
"When I’m asked to speak to the CEOs of different companies and I am faced with a sceptical audience, I will instead talk about market research and use that as a way to frame the conversation – I drop the word ‘social’."
The debate moved from the amount of trust that could be placed with employees in handling a company’s social media response to the limits of digital response in the world of the "pre-approved" message.
Global digital and social media PR manager for GE Healthcare, Veronica Botet, said that overregulation of the comms function meant that even tweets had to be signed off before they were allowed into the public domain.
But whether labelled social media or social business, all on the panel agreed that although there was more room to improve, the initial struggle to convince their paymasters of its importance was being won.
Penny Studholme, EMEA vice-president of corporate affairs at food processing company Cargill, said that it was the responsibility of communicators to move from simply creating online content to truly adding value: "Corporations are the uninvited guest to the party, so you’d better make sure you add some value. Don’t turn up to a beach party in a tuxedo."
One of the key subjects of the conference was the often thorny issue of measurement. During the digital debate, when asked about truly measuring the impact of social media and justifying the investment from a brand across these platforms, the reaction was muted.
Nestlé’s Hogg told the audience there was still a "struggle" with finding "good enough metrics".
"Metrics and measuring are what I’m obsessed with at the moment. I don’t think there are good enough metrics out there."
Hotel reservation website Booking.com’s global PR head Andre Manning called for the industry to address the issue of measurement more effectively.
Manning, a former global vice-president of corporate comms at electronics leader Philips, said: "A common standard [of comms measurement] is urgently needed. Whatever the standard is, I think we are losing too much time on negotiating the issue and there is a lot at stake. If we don’t come up with one, then we will lose relevance."
The comms sector’s advancing relevance is a subject that will only increase in importance over the coming years and is clearly a challenge for the industry. Let’s see the progress made by next year’s event.
Case study: LinkedIn – Bring In Your Parents Day
During the Congress, LinkedIn’s head of global programmes Danielle Restivo explained the rollout of the biggest consumer initiative in the social network’s history.
On 7 November last year, bosses at LinkedIn offices across 14 countries allowed staff to bring in their parents for the day to give them a better idea of their jobs, with brands including Wrigley, Regus and Logitech partnering the event. The event, Restivo explained, was the result of an email from her mum asking about her own job and was aimed at creating a "warmer feeling" around the firm as one that "helps people grow as professionals" rather than just a site for job hunting.
The campaign, which was backed by PR agency Brands2Life, was initially met with scepticism by LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner.
"There was a scary moment when our vice-president pulled me aside and said Jeff isn’t entirely convinced, so you’d better hope you can pull it off. But though it was nerve-racking at times, we did pull it off," said Restivo.
A key part of the initiative was to understand which markets would be problematic, with Germany excluded after negative feedback and the company deciding it was not in enough of a "position of strength" in China.
After approaching a number of firms to back the day and designing a global website explaining it in 11 languages, the initiative was launched in September 2013 calling for businesses to sign up.
The project also included the release of research highlighting the most misunderstood jobs. More than 700 parents attended the event at LinkedIn’s offices and it garnered 500 pieces of consumer coverage.
PRWeek Global Award Winners
Winner: Text100 for IBM – IBM Digital Academy
Highly Commended: Ruder Finn, MediaVest, Evol8tion for Mondelez International – Mondelez International Mobile Futures Program
Consumer Launch of the Year
Winner: Iris Worldwide for Adidas NEO – Rule the Runway
Highly Commended: Dynamo PR for 3Doodler – 3Doodler Raises $2.3m Globally in 30 Days
Winner: Waggener Edstrom for Microsoft – Microsoft 4Afrika
Highly Commended: APCO Worldwide for Cruise Lines International Association – Cruise Forward
Corporate Social Responsibility
Winner: TogoRun for Bristol-Myers Squibb – Path B
Highly Commended: Axon Communications for Global Salmon Initiative – Global Salmon Initiative
Global PR Breakthrough of the Year
Winner: Ketchum for Bayer HealthCare and PHA Europe – Get Breathless
Highly Commended: Ogilvy Public Relations for University of Maastricht – The Burger that Could Change the World
Winner: AstraZeneca – One Path to Success
Highly Commended: Waggener Edstrom Communications – Waggener Edstrom Ignites Employee Engagement and Connection
Issues and Crisis
Winner: Ketchum Sports & Entertainment for the Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling, USA Wrestling, International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles – Keeping Olympic Wrestling in the Ring
Highly Commended: Burson-Marsteller for BSH – Global Dishwasher Repair Program
Nonprofit Campaign of the Year
Winner: Havas PR North America for United Nations Foundation and 92nd Street Y – Galvanizing for Giving
Highly Commended: Edelman for Malala Yousafzai – Malala Yousafzai: Global Communications Program
Product Brand Development Campaign of the Year
Winner: Weber Shandwick for iStock by Getty Images – Free the Creative
Highly Commended: Cohn & Wolfe France for iDBus – No News? Create an Alternative Trip with Bloggers!
Global Brand of the Year
Winner: Kyne and Roll Back Malaria for United Against Malaria – GOAL! Scoring Against Malaria with Football
Winner: Weber Shandwick for Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee – Tokyo 2020
Highly Commended: UK Prime Minister’s Office/Number 10 – GREAT Campaign
Winner: Cargill and CARE and the Rural Development Initiative – Improving Livelihoods for Thousands
Highly Commended: APCO Worldwide for MasterCard – MasterCard’s E-card Launch for Syrian Refugees
Winner: Ketchum – KSR 2015: Celebrating a Milestone Anniversary
Highly Commended: Havas Worldwide Paris – The Airfood Project
International Agency of the Year
Winner: TogoRun – Blazing More Trails, Bringing New Hope
Highly Commended: APCO Worldwide
International In-House Team of the Year
Winner: Ford – One Team, One Goal: One Ford
Global Agency of the Year
Highly Commended: Weber Shandwick
Global Professional of the Year (In-House)
Winner: Ray Day – Transforming Ford Motor Company
Global Professional of the Year (Agency)
Winner: Marian Salzman – Havas PR North America
Highly Commended: Matt Neale, GolinHarris; Dave Senay, FleishmanHillard
Global In-House Team of the Year
Winner: Starbucks – Building a Performance-Driven Brand Through the Lens of Humanity
Campaign of the Year
Winner: Cargill and CARE and the Rural Development Initiative – Improving Livelihoods for Thousands
Click here to download an eBook with case studies of all the winners.