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May 11, 2011

Rising Power: Public Relations' Value in the Digital Age — Rosanna Fiske Speech

PRSA chair and CEO Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, discussed the state of the public relations industry, along with the challenges of corporate reputation management in the "WikiLeaks Age," in a keynote address given May 4, 2011, in Atlanta to the PRSA Georgia Chapter Conference.

Rising Power: Public Relations' Value in the Digital Age

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR

Chair and CEO, PRSA

Keynote Address — 2011 PRSA Georgia Chapter Conference
Delivered: May 4, 2011, in Atlanta
Thank you, PRSA Georgia Chapter Members and my fellow colleagues for inviting me to speak here today.
When I was asked several months back to speak at your annual conference, I was delighted. I have been to your chapter before as, mostly recently through my tour last summer of PRSA Chapters across the country to survey what matters most to our members. I know from my many conversations with some of you that the Georgia Chapter is a leader within the organization.
Before I get into my main thoughts of the day, let me tell you a little about myself.
Besides my other day job as chair and CEO of PRSA, I’m an associate professor in the Florida International School of Journalism and Mass Communication. My professional experience and insight spans from many years on the agency side, to now, mentoring the next generation of public relations professionals.
I’m also an accredited member of PRSA. And while I believe the APR program is a personal choice — one we each must make for ourselves — I have found great value in being an accredited professional. Allow me to state very simply the value I believe one derives from being accredited in public relations: it means never having to explain to someone that you truly know what you’re doing.
I’m also aware that a good friend of PRSA, Ray Crockett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is in the audience today. Ray is the co-chair of Georgia Chapter’s APR Committee and a dear friend. He’s also an expert on the value of the APR program, and I encourage anyone who has questions to seek his guidance.
I would be remiss if I also did not recognize the other accredited professionals in the audience. If you have earned your APR certification, please stand so we can recognize you.

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 some 20-odd years ago.
After all this time, I’m still passionate about our profession; where our industry is heading; how it helps businesses grow; public relations’ ability to serve 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 do not take lightly. I take great pride in my role leading PRSA and my belief in public relations’ ability to do good for the world — both for society and for the clients and organizations we counsel.
As you know, we’re in a time of significant global political upheaval, augmented by our own domestic concerns. More specifically, the domestic media landscape we all live and play in has been irrevocably reshaped after the tragedy in Tucson; a moment in time that shed light on a subject dear to our hearts: discourse, the written word and communications.
When I first started my tenure leading PRSA, back in January of this year, there were many questions within the profession about what the future held for public relations. How do we remain ethical while keeping up with the constantly changing norms and expectations online? Perhaps most prescient, the biggest question I’m often asked is: How do we keep up with it all?
It seems that many are facing remarkable challenges on a scale that can be overwhelming at times. Perhaps some of you have felt the same. I know I have.
Hopefully, today, I can shed some light on those major issues that are affecting our profession and what PRSA and others are doing to help you, our members and the broader profession, address these new challenges and realities.
We gained some clarity early in my tenure PRSA asked 11 respected public relations professionals to offer their perspective on the top-11 trends for the year to come.
And wow! was I amazed at the perceptive insight those 11 members provided. The top-3 predictions should come as little surprise to those of us who live and work in the digital age:
  • Reputation Management Meets the “WikiLeaks Age”;
  • A New Data Deluge: Opportunities Meet Analytical Challenges; and
  • The Rise of Mobile PR.
But one prediction has stuck with me all these months: the resurgence of public relations agencies, their role as a predictor for the overall health and growth of the broader industry and what this portends for independent practitioners. As PRSA member Roger Pynn, APR, noted in that “11 Trends to Watch For” blog post, “Savvy agencies will deliver multi-faceted approaches that go beyond both traditional and social media campaigns and demonstrate the value of direct stakeholder programs, including that old basic: internal communications.”
That is a nice segue to what I’d like to discuss with you today: where public relations stands now, where it is heading and the major issues and trends you should watch for.

The State of Public Relations: Now

We’re in a vibrant period for the industry’s growth and perceived value. While our brethren in advertising have seen a fairly sharp contraction in spending on their services in the United States, down eight percent in 2009, public relations spending is rising — rapidly. In the U.S. alone, we’re now a $4 billion industry, with a 55-percent increase in spending, to $8 billion domestically, by 2013.
The latest agency report out last week from Advertising Age shows one one-quarter of all U.S. public relations professionals — that’s 200,000 total — working for an agency or consultancy. That’s up 1,900 employees since staffing hit bottom at the height of the recession in February 2010.
Additionally, spending on U.S. public relations firms’ services is up 6.5 percent over 2009, to $3.6 billion annually.
Indeed, it is a prosperous and exciting time for public relations in America … and abroad. 
As part of PRSA’s revamped national advocacy program, we have sought to tap into this recognition of the growing value of public relations while always keeping PRSA’s core focus on ethical communications at the forefront. Late last year, I led an overhaul of our national advocacy program that placed PRSA’s efforts within three categories:
  • The business value of public relations …
  • Ethics, and …
  • Diversity within the profession.
Each forms a core area of focus for PRSA, and will be heavily discussed, among other exciting topics, at our 2011 International Conference in Orlando Oct. 15-18.
Let’s extrapolate that out to what really concerns your clients and employers: what value do they get out of public relations? It’s a great question to consider, and a few recent events help put public relations’ value into perspective.

Ethical Challenges Abound

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’ “You’re The Boss” blog that put the need for improved CEO reputations into perspective. In it, the author relayed a story from a CEO who has a school-age 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.
As the 2011 Edelman Trust Barometer 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.
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.
We are increasingly faced with mounting ethical challenges in our profession. Whether it’s the ethical use of interns or concerns over public relations firms providing reputation counsel to dictators — topics which PRSA has been actively commenting on and addressing through various communications, statements and professional guidance — the public, media and business community are increasingly looking at public relations to set a higher standard for ethical business practices.

What the Future Holds for Public Relations

While the common perception has been that CEOs are most concerned with financial returns, recent studies and surveys don’t bear that true. In fact, a 2009 study by McKinsey & Co. found that reputation risk was the top concern of CEOs, echoing similar findings from AON Insurance that nearly 50 percent of the CEOs they surveyed felt unprepared for managing reputation risk.
This comes at a time of unyielding reputational threats from the likes of WikiLeaks, OpenLeaks, the Brilliant Yes Men and a variety of underground groups that have technology and, some might contend, a plurality of public sentiment on their side in foreign markets, to expunge corporations of their most treasured secrets.
Like it or not, we’re now in the business of helping clients manage the “gotcha!” moments of business. This is largely predicated by individuals and transient whistle-blower organizations that don't play by conventional rules of engagement. These are people that can outsmart and outrun even the best of a business's high-tech security measures, and our profession’s most thorough crisis management plans. CEOs will never again know if, or when, an assault on their company's reputation is coming, or who from within is spilling the proverbial beans.
I don’t mean to suggest that all that public relations will be good for going forward is helping CEOs avoid having their businesses become the next victim of a WikiLeaks-like attack. Certainly not. I believe the business community is increasingly appreciative public relations role as a strategic management function; as vital to the operations of successful businesses as a CFO or the HR department.
The point I am making, however, is that perhaps for the first time in our profession’s history, technology, rather than our keen insight and experience, largely dictates whether our ability to help clients and executives manage their reputations is successful or falls flat. I don’t mean to be hyperbolic in saying that; recent events lead me to believe this is becoming our new reality.
The New Normal in reputation management, if you will.
So what is the logical, practical and above all else, most ethical manner in which we can guide CEOs toward building greater corporate trust and reputation in this new era of reputational uncertainty? Echoing the sentiment of my predecessor, Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA, this may sound clichéd, but it’s been proven to be immensely effective: advise clients to be as transparent as possible.
We must help businesses focus on building and, in some cases, rebuilding trust, with the public, while they simultaneously fortify their financial standing after two year of bleak economic returns.
That belief is reflected in this year’s Trust Barometer, with 65 percent of respondents saying that trustworthiness is one of the top-three factors toward enhancing corporate reputation.
We should help executives find new and innovative ways to better express how they manage their business. We have to be the eyes and ears — and yes, the conscience — for external and internal reputational opportunities and threats for the executives we represent and counsel. They turn to us to understand the sentiment of their key audiences, whether that be customers, stakeholders, the public at large or their employees.
Returning to the reputational threat of WikiLeaks, much concern has been raised within the global business community over a group that has no physical location, little trust from the public and whose reputation is based on an enigmatic personality that New York Times executive editor Bill Keller recently described as “having his own agenda” and “openly contemptuous of the American government.” Hardly a character one would associate with inspiring worldwide admiration and respect.
Yet, in a way, Assange and his cohorts at WikiLeaks have attained all of that, and more. Of course, he’s also considered a pseudo-enemy of the state in many countries, including our own, and his actions appear to be getting more sinister and bizarre by the day.
But viewing WikiLeaks as purely an enemy threat to corporations would be a mistake. Instead, it should be seen as an opportunity; a global call-to-action for CEOs to transparently present their full and honest side of the story. This is true at nearly every point in history, but certainly no more relevant than in the current climate of public skepticism. 
That brings me to my second point: we’re at a precipice for ethical standards that meet today’s modern business, marketing and communications challenges. As I noted earlier, the past five years have been a remarkable time for marketers, communicators and public relations professionals. Technological advancements have infused a new and refreshing vibrancy into our profession, making public relations more relevant to consumers and the public, and equally valuable to the business community.
But that increased value comes with great responsibility.

Technology is moving so rapidly that it’s becoming increasingly apparent the need to establish modern ethical standards for today’s modern public relations and marketing practices. As WikiLeaks and other new threats to corporate reputation shows us, the old marketing playbook has been completely thrown out the window. We’re now left to rewrite the rules of engagement. Hopefully, for the better.
While public relations professionals will always be a shining light for innovative digital communications and social media practices, we also must remain cautious and vigilant in our understanding of the implications of the new channels and technologies we use. The onus is on each of us to ensure that the same stringent ethical standards and best practices guiding traditional practices are infused in work that engages new technologies and techniques.
The coming year, I have to believe, will finally see us finding that happy middle ground between real-world marketing realities and instilling modern ethical standards for modern marketing practices.

Trends to Watch in Public Relations

With that all said, I think it is pertinent for us to explore some of the emerging trends.
With domestic and global spending on public relations rising rapidly, and increased reputation challenges requiring ever more sophisticated public relations counsel and strategy, many of the major trends I believe we will see in the months and years ahead will focus on the new realities and challenges of reputation management in the digital age.
Let’s face it: anyone who is online, who is active and engaged, has some type of reputation at stake. That’s the reality of the democratized Web, and it’s the same reality businesses now face.
I remember just a couple of years ago when Google launched what was then a revolutionary concept of allowing people to post comments about a company in the margins of its website. I also remember how freaked out some CEOs got over this.
“You mean anyone can comment about our company … on our own website?!”
Yes, they can.
And while Google’s Web page comments idea never really took off, many other business-rating and commenting social networks have. From Yelp to Foursquare to Facebook Places and many, many others, there are now more ways in which brands can directly connect with current and potential customers and stakeholders than ever before.
But equally important is to keep in mind that each of these touchpoints brings yet another layer of reputational challenges to companies that do not take the platforms seriously, that do not respect their customers enough to realize the immense power people now hold over brands or do not take the time to fully understand what it is they are getting themselves into.
In short, much of our future work in public relations will involve deep, strategic, intensive counsel to clients and employers. We must be more than simply there to provide media counsel. We must step up and put ourselves on the line to help others see the consumer and market trends we know to be emerging and guide others toward a strategic and successful path.
That’s no easy task. It requires us to take on some risk. But it’s vital we do so to continue achieving strong gains in public relations’ value.
I’m confident we are up for this task.
I’m also reminded of a fascinating study I read recently in the Harvard Business Review. In it, Stanford marketing professor Zakary Tormala researched whether experts that express a certain degree of uncertainty in their communications can actually increase their influence over others.
Imagine that: your CEO opens an interview by answering a key question by simply saying: “I don’t know.”
In a way, it’s mind-boggling to think about. It goes against everything we have been taught and everything we counsel others on for how to be successful communicators.
And yet, it’s not all that bizarre of a concept, when you think about it. And that brings me to the final trend I want to discuss today: the persuasive power of uncertainty.
Certainty is a funny thing, at least when it comes to CEO influence. Have too much of it, and executives risk being perceived as all-knowing rulers, largely immune to the interests and concerns of their underlings. Too little, and a CEO risking losing the confidence of his most trusted employees; those who help shepherd his or her ideas along the conveyor belt of managerial instructions.
But what lies in between? Is there a happy medium where a good dose of executive confidence meets an equally humble level of uncertainty? Can CEOs express doubt in their communications without losing employees’ confidence?
Tormala’s research raises another intriguing question: Whether humility, and the subtle use by CEOs of an unexpected level of uncertainty in their communications, will lead to an era of greater influence and authenticity for executives?
Perhaps. Like many aspects of management, however, far more variables are in play when considering what makes for compelling, influential and credible CEOs.
I would argue that one of the key ingredients for increasing CEO influence is to actually tone down the prevailing use of overly-confident rhetoric and replace it with more humble assessments of where a business stands and how it hopes to grow. 
If we’re looking for a way to bridge the gap between rising levels of public skepticism in business, corporate America and executives, along with a drastic decrease in Americans’ trust in business, we should look no further than the persuasive power of uncertainty.
Transparency and honesty go a long way in building trust.
Reflecting on where our profession has come over the past few years, and the remarkable future I truly believe it holds, it’s easy for me to stand up here and tell you that the state of public relations is vibrant.
Advanced technology, augmented by greater demand for ethical and strategic communications in an era of corporate transparency, have all come together to create a moment in time in which public relations can and should own the conversation. There is an incredibly exciting and innovative path forward for public relations, and you can be sure PRSA will be at the forefront, ensuring our members and the broader profession are well primed on their journey along that path.
That’s the new frontier for the state of public relations. Let’s go for it!
Thank you. I welcome your questions.
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