-Linda Descano, EVP, Havas Red
-Shannelle Armstrong Fowler, director, business unit communications & public affairs – Immunology, AbbVie
-Jackie Hartzell, executive director of PR, Ally
-Brendan Lewis, EVP, global comms and public affairs, Oatly
-Letena Lindsay, VP, global comms, Peloton
It’s almost a shame that being a “conveyor of truth” needs to be emphasized as a responsibility for PR pros today. Yet, that distinction is necessary as a result of all the misinformation being spread and believed by so many.
That reality has also notably changed the way in which PR pros go about one of their core functions – storytelling. Yes, a key goal remains to always tell a great brand story. However, it is equally as vital to ensure that you tell the right brand story. This is just the latest example of how communications needs to evolve, a reality that our quintet of industry leaders were very eager to discuss.
Becoming an advocate
Comms “has moved from simple media relations and PR into brand advocacy,” notes Peloton’s Letena Lindsay.
And to be “the leader of your brand advocacy or the reputation of the company in total, you have to start speaking the business language differently,” adds Ally’s Jackie Hartzell.
“A lot of that comes to responsibilities around your communicators being good with data,” she continues. Tapping into social insights, media trends, search volume and customer-call data can “build that trust and help people feel comfortable with communications leading,” concludes Hartzell.
As AbbVie’s Shannelle Armstrong Fowler well knows, the challenges of all this are quite unique in the pharma sector.
Her industry has had “to raise the visibility to help educate a marketplace where there has been a push-pull relationship,” she says. Truth-telling is particularly vital for patients, but “what we have to understand and fight in our industry is that we don't own the ecosystem.” Healthcare providers, patients and more can also influence a brand’s reputation.
“The problem with misinformation now is that, previously, we thought about it purely in terms of brand damage,” notes Oatly’s Brandan Lewis. “Now, damage can actually extend to the end user.” On social platforms, misinformation “can get proliferated very quickly, will take forever to undo and, in that resulting time, you've got damage that can be inflicted upon people.”
The key is to maintain an “internal ecosystem for communications, coordinating with marketing, sales, customer service and all the other functions to be sure that the organization is speaking with a unified voice,” suggests Havas Red’s Linda Descano. “One misstep in that value chain can also have another type of unintended consequence.”
Even with a misstep, “how your pushback against misinformation lands is wholly dependent on how your company brand has acted,” points out Lewis. It’s critical to foster “a culture of transparency and authenticity in everything that you do so that you're not accused of just being a talking head.”
Equally important, adds Lindsay, is “getting internal alignment and understanding about any misinformation to ensure that your own internal team is not conveying the wrong information externally.”
(clockwise from top left) Armstrong Fowler, Descano, Hartzell, Lindsay and Lewis.
Controlling the uncontrollable
As brand narratives increasingly get shaped by external voices, communicators have had to adjust for a reality where they simply cannot control much of what is said about their brand. And in such a world, the first key decision to make is often how to react – or if you even need to react – to what others say.
“Do a risk-benefit analysis to determine what you're going to respond to,” advises Fowler, who also emphasizes just how much external messages “can influence key stakeholders. Those are the ones that will bubble up, that have more of a risk to our business, our brand and our livelihood across all of our medicines.”
It's also helpful to have “strong relationships with community leaders around the country in a variety of different areas,” reports Descano. “They are eyes and ears. If they have an inkling that there are certain issues bubbling, they will pick up the phone and let one of the community relations leads know. That intelligence is invaluable in how to get in front of potential issues and be sure you can pivot.”
The truth is many issues die down quickly and may not even be related to customers.
“If you respond to everything out there, you might be responding to bots and that might elevate things in the stack,” notes Lewis. Communicators don't “want to necessarily respond to everything reflexively because you legitimize it or give a greater visibility to the people that follow your brand.”
To reach actual brand followers, “one of our most powerful tools is our own channels,” adds Hartzell. “Leveraging the channels that you can control can help you mitigate where things feel sometimes totally out of control.”
Being both great and right
Finding that elusive balance between a great story and a right story is “a sliding scale,” suggests Lindsay. The story fluctuates based on the business needs “that might shift dramatically for the next quarter or might stay consistent.”
An important filter is “deeds over words,” says Hartzell. Decide if “this is our story to tell and can we put deeds over words in the way that we ultimately put it in the market or not.”
And, of course, timing is everything.
“The number-one reason why ideas fail is timing,” suggests Fowler. “Creativity oftentimes can be driven by the timing of the things to which people can be receptive.”
A key part of creativity is “looking outside for inspiration and thinking about what you've connected with and why,” adds Descano. “See how other brands and businesses are meeting those challenges, what seems to be breaking through, and then look at how you can apply those learnings in a way that's right for your brand.”
So, what makes a story right? According to Descano it’s the one in which “the audience I want to reach sees themselves.”
In determining which stories to tell, communicators “must have confidence in their own abilities to say no,” Lewis asserts. “That takes a lot of equity that you build within the organization.”
However, saying no can be difficult for even experienced professionals, let alone junior staffers.
The key, says Fowler, is to “give them permission to be able to give counsel. Truth requires psychological safety in your organization.” And that safety starts with transparency.
The team “should fully understand and be aware of the strategy that you're trying to create around your brand,” Lindsay explains. “That should hopefully empower them when they're going into conversations where they have to say no.”
The changing media-PR relationship
The media is clearly not exempt from conversations around the spread of misinformation, yet that same media remains a vital partner in how brands communicate with the public. This simultaneous reality has brought on a change in the media-PR partnership.
We now often have to do more “on background,” reports Fowler. “We work in a very complex space” and reporters are not as specialized today.
In addition, “there are no ethical standards when it comes to lying,” underscores Lewis, “yet in an editorial environment, there are ethical standards to telling the truth.”
The result, he continues, is “an overall drag in the entire ecosystem, where it's really hard to combat misinformation about you that is chattering on social and is picked up by a legitimate news outlet.”
In the end, PR pros have to not only “refute what was said, but then educate about what the truth is,” explains Lewis.
“We've worked hard to [get to a point] where we are now seen as partners,” says Lindsay. And media relationships are critical to changing the narrative about misinformation.
PR pros have “had to change the way we think about how we measure our effectiveness,” Hartzell concludes. The focus today is on “what is the heart of the stories we’re telling, the most meaningful outlets for our customers, the most compelling messages and the right type of story.”