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October 03, 2011

Rising Power: PR's Value in the Digital Age — Rosanna Fiske Keynote at PRSA Northeast District Conference

Remarks from PRSA Chair and CEO Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, who delivered the keynote address at the PRSA 2011 Northeast District Conference Sept. 28, in Rochester, N.Y.

Rising Power: Public Relations' Value in the Digital Age

                                 Rosanna M. Fiske, APR
                                            Chair and CEO, PRSA

Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. I am so happy to be here today, with so many friends and colleagues whom I admire and respect. I want especially to thank the PRSA Rochester Chapter for hosting this year’s Northeast District Conference — an excellent professional development and networking opportunity.

I come before you a “veteran” in my year as chair and CEO of PRSA. This is a professional opportunity that has been greatly enriching for me, and one that I have been privileged to pursue.
I’m also a professor at Florida International University. After many years on the agency and corporate side, I find that this is the best part of my life — mentoring the next generation of public relations and advertising professionals.
Like many of you, I have seen the dramatic changes that have taken place in our profession over the past decade, and viewed more broadly, since I started in my first corporate position. In case you can’t hear the excitement in my voice, let me make some points clear, right off the top:
After all this time, I’m still incredibly passionate about our profession; where our industry is heading; how it helps organizations grow; how public relations serves the public good; and the role we play in protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information that is essential to democratic societies. 
It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly, both my role leading PRSA and my belief in public relations’ ability to do good for the world — for society and for the clients and organizations we counsel.
We’re in a time of significant global upheaval, augmented by our own domestic concerns. This is what my grandfather would refer to as an “arroz con mango” … literal translation would be “rice with mango” — real translation is “a hot mess.”
But, seriously, in preparing for today, I asked myself how can we as PR professionals be better? Were there some principles in my professional experience, perhaps, that can add perspective to what you and many of your colleagues have come here to learn about?
What I am here to discuss with you today is a rising power in the global marketplace — the rising power of public relations. And what a rise it has been!
Rising from the ashes of a crushing global recession, the U.S. public relations industry has roared back like never before. With profit margins at agencies predicted to again reach double-digits in 2011, plus a more than doubling of the value of the U.S. public relations industry to $8.3 billion annually by 2013, public relations has solidified itself as one of the premier counseling services for businesses. This is great to see after so many years of being a proud, card-carrying member of the public relations profession.
I won’t tell you how long I’ve worked in public relations … let’s just say that Bush 41 was in office at the time, gas most certainly didn’t cost $4 a gallon, Mark Zuckerberg was, oh, only about 4 or 5 years old, and social media referred to the new era of watching music videos on television. I so wanted my MTV! Come on ... you did, too!
But, today … today, it’s absolutely remarkable the power that social media has given consumers, businesses, community activists, future presidents … you name it. And no, I don’t intend for this to turn into a “Social Media is Amazing!” speech. We’ve all heard that, and there’s no point rehashing it.
But think about what you do now, and put that into perspective of what you did, say, five years ago ... 10 years ago ... 20 years ago.
Does anything remotely look the same now as it did then?
Perhaps. Then again, five years ago, Twitter was just getting off the ground.
Ten years ago, most websites still looked like an Etch-A-Sketch, with lines and dots seemingly going nowhere but claiming to connect us everywhere and to everyone.
Twenty years ago … the commercial Internet barely existed; word processors were the name of the game – who here remembers Xywrite, WordPerfect and Multimate? And our fax machines and pagers were nearly as ubiquitous as today’s iPhones.  
Remember the original cell phone that looked more like a concrete block with a protruding black antenna? Try making that fit in your Coach bag … not pretty.
The truth is, we’ve gone from needing half a dozen tools to communicate — a word processor, whiteout, an AP Stylebook, a fax machine, a landline phone, a pager, etc. — to just one: the smartphone.
Mobile technology, more so than anything else in the past 20 years, has transformed PR and marketing into thriving industries. What used to take five hours, now takes as little as 15 minutes. We can draft a release on our phones, edit and proof it, send it to our various contacts, Tweet it and post it to Facebook in less time than it used to take to get our IBM selectric to erase the last typo.
All of that is but one sliver of the total hemisphere of public relations’ value and influence. In the U.S. alone, spending on public relations services now exceeds $4 billion annually, and is projected to increase 55 percent by 2013, to more than $8 billion.
This, from a business that just a few years ago, some called irrelevant. Outdated. Dead. Or, as Silicon Valley blogger Tom Foremski so adroitly proclaimed in an infamous blog post headline, “Die! Press release! Die! Die! Die!
His sentiment may have been spot-on — that the press release of old was going the way of the Dodo — his premise that public relations is stale or that it is outdated, all about one-way push communications, rather than actual engagement with the public, just isn’t the case. At least not in the modern public relations I believe those of us in this room, and the more than 32,000 PRSA members practice every day.
How times have changed.
I relayed those figures I quoted a moment ago to a reporter at the Financial Times with whom I had lunch with recently in New York. He was very surprised at the robust growth in public relations, calling it “palpable” — he’s used to hearing CEOs boasting about their latest bottom lines. He was so surprised, in fact, that he came back to the numbers 10 minutes later and asked me if this could possibly be true. It is.

And as I told the Financial Times reporter, businesses and executives often don’t realize they need strategic public relations until it’s too late . . .

PRSA is out to change that perception.

Earlier this year, eMarketerreleasedareport that found that among the top-25 principals in advertising, marketing and public relations agencies, PR professionals are the most effective when it comes to leveraging social media. This is huge. For the first time, three inter-related disciplines have agreed that public relations is really the owner of social media.
I’d have to agree!
This begs the question: what exactly is public relations’ overall value? We can’t be all things to all people. That’s a recipe for disaster. There already exist too many snake oil salesmen and gurus, who are out to make a quick buck from an unassuming CMO, who happens to be overwhelmed with the dozens of new social networks, CMS platforms, and analytics tools that come out each year … one replacing the other, one making the other obsolete.
This is the opportunity for public relations. Business leaders are constantly asking “Where should I market my brand online?” That seems to get more attention than “Who should my brand reach and what’s the influence factor?”
But, in public relations, we stand for something greater. We reach beyond the lowest common denominator to ensure public relations’ value is not compromised by the swift dealings of a few. After all, the next big thing will always be on the horizon. Any PR professional worth his salt should not be selling his services to clients based solely on helping them tap into the next big thing.
Public relations is about building a reputation, through solid and credible relationships, over time.
That brings us to the really big question all of us are faced with every day: What do today’s CEOs want and need most?
If you were to ask the public, they would likely tell you CEOs need better reputations. It’s doubtful many would argue that sentiment.
I read a recent post in The New York Times’' "YoureTheBoss” blog that put the need for improved CEO reputations into perspective. In it, the author relayed a story from a CEO with a school-aged son, who came home one day and asked if his father would call himself something other than a CEO. It seems that the boy’s classmates were giving him a hard time about the fact that his father runs a company — as if it were something to be embarrassed by.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement for modern executives.
We’re at a precipice for trust in America, not only trust in our institutions — government, health care, insurance — but in business. American capitalism — the driving force behind what has helped make first- and second-generation immigrants, like me, successful in this country in a relatively short period of time.
As the 2011 EdelmanTrustBarometer indicates, trust in American businesses, and by extension, the reputations of corporations and their leaders, is now at an all-time low, at just 46 percent, or barely above last-place Russia. Yes, you heard right … Russia.
Think about that for a moment: trust in the American business community — the very clients you represent and the organizations you work for — is barely above the level of that in a country still struggling with the modern concept of free enterprise and democracy. That’s a somewhat disturbing thought.
All of which leads me to believe we’re at a monumental moment for the public relations industry.
Despite the worst economic recession any of us have experienced, and hopefully will never have to endure again, public relations is actually growing — rapidly.
Certainly, public relations is no longer a “nice-to-have” add-on; it’s a “must-have” for businesses and organizations looking to stand out from competitors, to gain and sustain their footing in an increasingly competitive and global marketplace. You know, the kind that you-better-have-it-or-you’re-going-to-regret-it type of service …
Why do I say that? Well, aside from the fact that it’s kind of my job (I mean, I wouldn’t be much of a CEO for PRSA if I said otherwise!), anecdotal evidence and data all back me up.
Take, for example, the recent New York Times small-business blogger, restaurant owner Bruce Buschel.
Have you heard of this guy? Take a look around you, and it’s a good bet that the person sitting on either side of you has, and he or she can tell you all about his viewpoints on the value of public relations, or his belief in a lack thereof. Let’s put it this way: he thinks we all suck. And that’s putting it kindly.
Last spring, Mr. Buschel went on a three-week tirade against public relations. At first, it seemed innocent enough. He wrote a post called “TheProblemwithPublicRelations.” Not exactly original, but hey, the guy isn’t like you and me (clearly).
It seems that Mr. Buschel has a beef — no pun intended — with a couple of New York City agencies that he hired to help generate buzz — ugh, that awful word, buzz.
He hired a PR firm for the opening of his new restaurant in the Hamptons. Everything goes well until the firm starts providing counsel, as any good PR agency or PR professional should. Apparently, Mr. Buschel doesn’t take too kindly to market research and to counsel from the very professionals he hires to do just that.
Fast forward two weeks. After hundredsofcommenters patiently tried to explain to him the very real, business value of public relations, Mr. Buschel still didn’t get it. He pens another blog post, this time condescendingly breaking down some rather good points from one commenter, and showing that he clearly had no intention of ever trying to understand public relations’ true business value.
But then he throws us all a 180. His last post on the subject, titled, “ArrivingLateattheSocialMediaParty,” shows Mr. Buschel walking his readers through how many professionals, some of whom may even be one of you in the audience today, patiently helped him understand the new realities of public relations and marketing in the digital age — the fact that that dreaded word, “buzz,” means very little in a world where consumer sentiment can change hourly, if not instantly.
That means actually understanding what it is your customers want from your business, rather than what you think they want or, heaven forbid, what you want them to want, is one of the greatest modern marketing challenges facing businesses today.
In essence, these professionals who commented on the blog, were working pro bono, offering Mr. Buschel and his thousands of New York Times readers, the best counsel and perspective of public relations’ strategic business value one could ask for.
Let me sum up what the hundreds of comments boiled down to:
It’s no longer about you, Mr. Client. It’s about them ... the customers. It’s about what customers want, desire and need from your business. And ranting and raving about how a PR firm that you hired doesn’t understand what it is that YOU want, but is trying to help you understand what THEY want, isn’t going to get YOU anywhere.
So what initially looked like another mass attack on the value of public relations, turned into a vast crowdsourced initiative of how public relations has stepped up to meet businesses modern communications challenges.
And that brings us to an interesting debate that has heated up in recent months within the industry: redefining what public relations is. What is the definition of our work? What do we do? And what value do we truly have?
Do your friends and family understand it? I think we’ve all been in that situation where someone asks, “So, what is PR?” and you have to spend 10 minutes just getting to the beginning of an answer.
Again, PRSA is out to change that perception.
It’s a great question to ask, and one that many of my colleagues at PRSA have been exploring for quite some time. If you look at PRSAsdefinitionofpublicrelations, what many consider the industry’s de facto definition, it says:

“Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

OK … that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly relevant in 2011. Or even in 1995. Perhaps that is because PRSA’s definition was established in 1982, and it hasn’t been updated since because we can’t find industry consensus on the definition. That’s right: what our industry uses to define its work is a concept that is now 30 years old and all the related organizations can’t even agree on.
Let me offer some perspective here. The last five years, let alone the past decade, have given rise to forms of communication that many of us never dreamed possible. Thus, the working definition of public relations has changed dramatically. What was once considered a form of "push" communications has now clearly evolved into a more prosperous and valuable two-way communication platform in which brands, organizations, governments, non-profits, NGOs, are able to communicate and engage directly with key audiences in a mutually beneficial manner.
What this all means is that it’s likely time we explore how we can modernize, revise and update this definition to meet the modern communications challenges our clients and employers face today.
Many of my industry colleagues, some of you, perhaps, have thoughtfully debated for several weeks — months, maybe years? — what public relations truly means. What it means today, and more importantly, what it will need to mean tomorrow, five years from now and perhaps, 30 years down the road.
However, just like protests don't resolve policy questions, blog posts and endless talk don't resolve what is at its heart a complicated issue: redefining the essence of what we do. It is time to move past endless talk and start laying the groundwork for progress.
I keep coming back to this theme of meeting today’s modern business challenges because that is precisely what public relations professionals, marketing professionals, social media folks — you name it — must be doing in order to sustain our value to the different communities we serve and continue to develop innovative methods of helping businesses prosper.
It’s that simple … well, if only it really were.
Finally, I’d like to address a subject near and dear to my heart. It’s one I think every public relations professional in America should be keenly following: the rapid rise of the Hispanic-American population and its acculturation and buying power.  
Much of the talk over the past year in America has focused on just how lucrative the Hispanicmarketwillbe once the dust settles from the 2010 Census.
Will mainstream marketers finally wake up to the reality that there is an immense market in America that is waiting, actually, make that begging, to be leading?
They better. Because as my good friend, Forbes columnist Glenn Llopis is fond of saying, “Hispanics are the mainstream in America.”
Are Hispanics the same now as we were, say, 20 years ago, when Hispanic communications and marketing leaped from novel concept to the market de jour? Not even close.  
I thought Hernan Lopez, president of Fox International Channels, said it best when he wrote recently in Advertising Age, that “This is not your abuela's Latino community of two decades ago. A new generation has emerged, with a new Latino DNA, and marketers who fail to decode it will struggle to survive.”
Many of the 50 million Hispanic Americans, and I count myself among them, are first- second-, third- or even fourth-generation immigrants. They come from families deeply rooted in their native culture. It’s quite different from immigrant groups of the past.
To help businesses truly understand and tap into this market, without doing so in a clichéd or off-putting manner, public relations professionals must understand the cultural identity that is at the heart of the Hispanic-American culture. One foot is in America, embracing the culture here, while the other foot is firmly planted in the native culture, helping to bridge the gap between generations and customs, cultures and purchasing habits.
Hispanic-American marketing today cannot, and should not, look, feel or sound anything like it did 20 years ago. The market is simply too big and powerful for any business to not pay attention to its many nuances.
We must avoid this temptation to address this market as one monolithic unit without the right cultural affinity. We must aspire to something greater; an earnest effort to continue innovating Hispanic marketing and public relations, to continue talking with Hispanics as though they are the new mainstream in America. Because we are.
And to tempt fate with a market as big as 50 millionAmericansand $1 trillioninannualspendingpower would be bad karma or mala suerte. Not to mention it’s just bad business.
The future of the public relations profession can be found in the innovative opportunities that exist in emerging markets like the Hispanic sector in America and the BRIC countries, most especially China and Brazil. As the world’s developed economies continue to lurch through a stagnating economy, we in public relations must look beyond the low-hanging fruit to see what lies beyond our comfort zone. A whole world of opportunities exist beyond what we know and see everyday.
America will always be a global power in the public relations profession. But the reality now upon us is that emerging markets and prosperous demographics are quickly reshaping how the global business community interacts with, and markets to, different consumers.
As chair and CEO of the world’s largest professional organization for public relations professionals, I’m confident you, my colleagues, are up to the task of engaging audiences new and old, no matter what demographic, age, race or gender they comprise, in a manner that helps businesses, organizations and causes tell truly powerful and engaging stories.
The foundational principles that have allowed PRSA to succeed for more than 60 years — a commitment to ethical and transparent communications — must be upheld by all of us if we are to help the public relations profession continue to prosper in an environment where money is tight, skepticism is rampant, and businesses are often desperate to find, engage and deliver value to their customers.
Our future is rooted in innovative communicators like you. I’ll see you in Orlando at the International Conference in two weeks!
Thank you. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have at this time.
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