Say it loud: PR is an impact business

As we call it a wrap on a difficult 2021, let’s be proud of the PR industry’s achievements this year and push back against lazy stereotypes about it.

We lost one of the good ones this year in Story Worldwide's Simon Kelly.
We lost one of the good ones this year in Story Worldwide's Simon Kelly.

The end of a year is always a time of reflection but it feels even more so this year as we approach the second anniversary of a global health pandemic that has upended everyone’s lives.

The lines outside COVID-19 testing centers are winding their way down the blocks of American cities again. While the Omicron variant of the virus may not be as deadly as previous strains, especially as many people are now vaccinated and have booster shots, it is still starting to infect people at scale and has spread to 36 states.

That’s a depressing prospect with which to enter a new year and has led to full hospitals again, significant changes in travel plans and canceled holiday parties.

Yesterday, JPMorgan canceled its big healthcare conference in San Francisco and moved it virtual. It’s difficult to see CES following suit and going by the wayside – it’s in Vegas after all – but anything is possible.

As well as infecting 50 million Americans and killing more than 800,000, COVID has upended everyone’s lives in many other ways, causing them to be separated from friends and family, unable to mourn departed loved ones properly, shattering businesses and communities, and leading to problems with isolation and mental health.

At PRWeek, we lost our former reporter Thomas Moore, who died in June after leaving us in February to go and work for The Hill. Canadian-born and a longtime Las Vegas resident Thomas joined us in April 2018 and, like many PRWeekers past and present, was a bit of a character.

He formerly worked in PR with utility companies in Nevada and would wax lyrical about that life given half a chance. He loved music and DJed his own radio show on Monday nights. I know he made many friends in the PR industry and kept in touch with them when he went to The Hill. He was a good guy.

One of my best friends, Simon Kelly, who many in the industry will know as CEO of content marketing agency Story Worldwide, died of an aggressive form of brain cancer in May after a - mercifully - short battle with that horrible disease.

Simon would have had a giggle about his picture appearing underneath a headline about PR and impact - he was all about the "post-advertising age" and had been a groundbreaking content marketer since 2005 when the concept barely existed. But I don't think we were far off the same page on this and most other things.

Thomas interviewed Simon in June 2020 for our Around the ‘Office’ segment. Now they’re gone. RIP both.

Personally, it’s been almost two years since I’ve been able to travel back to my hometown of London to see family and friends, and in that time I missed the funerals of three other friends who were also taken by cancer. Maybe it’s just my age, but these sad events have taken on so much more significance in these restricted times.

I’m sure pretty much everyone has been affected in similar ways and has their own stories of loss and absence among families and friends, all of which have been magnified in this hyper-concentrated environment around the pandemic.

That’s part of the explanation for COVID trends such as the Great Resignation - or as Korn Ferry dubbed it, the Great Reshuffle - people generally reassessing their priorities in life and cutting out the parts that just weren’t working for them.

With all that being said, people are incredibly resilient.

And, amid these difficult times, the PR industry in particular has proven especially resilient.

It regrouped after the initial shock of lockdown in the U.S. in March 2020 and immediately started proving its value across different elements of the profession including crisis communication, employee engagement, healthcare PR, corporate and brand reputation, purposeful business, management consulting, storytelling and communications technology.

I’ve said this numerous times this year already but it bears repeating, no longer do we need to wistfully talk about gaining that “seat at the table.” The PR function has that seat and now needs to prove it can deliver on the increased expectations that come with it.

Every day, PRWeek tracks the ways in which different in-house PR departments and the external agencies that support them are stepping up their game.

Just today, Weber Shandwick announced a rebranding that puts extra focus on its hugely successful United Minds division, which offers the counsel to senior C-suite executives that is in such demand at that famed “table.”  

Yesterday, McDonald’s announced it has centralized its U.S. and corporate communications teams under the leadership of Michael Gonda, reporting to McDonald’s chief global impact officer Katie Fallon.

Fallon’s impact job title and its alignment with PR is significant. The comms function is no longer relegated to a support role that arrives at the end of business process to apply a little burnish.

“A top priority is ensuring that we bring in a leader to provide the U.S. leadership team with a holistic view of the risks and opportunities ahead, and who can continue to harness the great work of the entire impact function,” she noted in a memo to staff about bringing in a VP of comms to support Gonda.

All this leads me to my 2022 New Year’s resolution, which is to do everything to change the outdated and disingenuous narrative about the PR profession whenever it comes up in mainstream media.

How many times have you sighed when yet another Times, Journal or New Yorker piece characterizes PR as spin, dark arts or obfuscation and its leading practitioners as masters of manipulation, toxicity and disingenuousness?

Sure, there are bad actors in any industry and there are debates to be had within PR about ethics and the rights and wrongs of working with industries such as fossil fuels, rogue nations and opioids.

Business is tough and sometimes it gets rough. That’s why companies need advice in steering themselves through it. But nowadays there’s no reason why PR should be held in any lower standing than the legal profession, accountancy or finance.

It’s time for my journalistic friends in popular media to shed their lazy generalizations and biases and wise up to the new reality.

So, as we reach the end of 2021, let’s cherish our friends, families and loved ones during this holiday season. Remember those who are no longer with us. And continue to give mad respect to essential workers across healthcare and all the other services we came to appreciate and rely on more than ever during lockdown.

From the whole PRWeek team: thank you to all our readers and stakeholders for your continued support and good vibes during these difficult times.

Let’s reconvene with renewed vigor in 2022 and continue to prove there’s much more to the PR industry than the mainstream media gives it credit for.

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