When I wrote my first essay in the 2017 Relevance Report, I discussed issues of race and fear of demographic shifts. I also predicted these issues would continue to shape the direction of America’s political, social and ethical foundation — while greatly impacting the public relations industry. Our country’s conversation in 2017 has been consumed with these issues. The racially charged political environment and the seismic events that took place in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, propelled America’s leading CEOs to put multicultural America first by taking a principled stand against racism and bigotry, and by resigning from President Trump’s business advisory board.
That historic move by many of our nation’s top corporate executives at Merck, Intel, Wal-Mart, Apple, Disney, Under Armour, Starbucks, Salesforce, Google, Facebook, Uber and AT&T has led to a broader conversation and a newly focused way of doing business. These executives’ bold and potentially risky responses in the face of our country’s racial issues have redefined our roles as public relations professionals.
For years, PR professionals have struggled with a plethora of changing public attitudes toward business, social issues and news in our country. This struggle has involved separating facts from fiction and has often required us to disassociate our personal, political and social beliefs from influencing our representation of clients. We’ve had to sort through a daily deluge of alternatively spun national and global information from media outlets and spokespeople laden with opposing views and political objectives. We’ve found ourselves walking a very fine line trying to distinguish between “news” and “views,” while balancing social responsibility and representing our clients’ best interests and bottom lines.
But one thing has been made very clear: Corporations are not going to sit idly by while America becomes dangerously assaulted by racial division and fake news. America’s CEOs have spoken loudly, clearly and with one voice on behalf of their diverse customers, employees, investors, shareholders and other stakeholders. “Our country’s strength stems from its diversity,” said Kenneth Frazer, CEO of Merck. “You must define your core purpose for being,” former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz added. “We stand in the interest of something greater than just making money.”
Further muddying the discourse about what constitutes “real news,” is the emergence of an assortment of self-appointed, non-journalistic “influencers” who share their opinions with an undiscerning public. The daily media mix now includes anyone with a computer, internet access and the will to voice unverified and unedited “alternative facts” throughout the world.
These independent “fake-news” journalists are in direct competition with major news outlets. Questionable information greatly impacts the quality of news we receive, key messages we develop, and the perceptions of our clients and their audiences. The receptivity of those key messages is often driven, or impeded, by the political climate of the day, and by the voices of our political leaders.
PR professionals’ new responsibility is to become a vigilant “Diplomatic Corps.” To monitor our national leaders’ decisions on public policies and programs that affect our companies, clients and our shareholders. We must project a clear objective voice in the face of social unrest and controversy. We must not turn a blind eye to social injustice, the perversion of truth, or any relentless attack on our Constitutional rights and governmental institutions designed to serve all Americans. We must work across political divides to help find solutions if we are to resolve the critical issues facing our great nation. Our new role includes:
- Counseling our clients to address the needs and concerns of a multicultural America.
- Identifying government policy gaps and seeking out foundations, organizations and government agencies willing to invest and uplift communities in need.
- Seeking and encouraging public-private partnerships to provide educational and employment opportunities in underserved communities to fill voids vacated by government programs, so that the poor and under-privileged are not left behind.
- Serving as news interpreters and decipherers of real and fake news.
- Creating messages that are humanized, socially responsible and competitively appealing.
- Acknowledging and giving credit to deserving corporations, who purposefully carry the mantle of social responsibility.
In 2017, Corporate America surprised us all. Some of the world’s most successful brands reminded us through their words and actions of the importance of sharing a common commitment to human decency, inclusiveness and richness of our diverse nation. As a “Diplomatic Corps” of PR professionals, it is our responsibility to support our corporate clients in putting America’s people first. In so doing, we will make our nation, and our valued global relationships, as great as they can be. And that’s the real news.
To download a full copy of the Relevance Report, click here.