IBM's Jon Iwata gives Kenneth Owler Smith Symposium audience a preview of the future of public relations

By Lara Levin
Student Writer

For the 20th year, the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and the Public Relations Society of America Los Angeles (PRSA-LA) jointly presented the Kenneth Owler Smith Symposium, an event that celebrates its namesake as well as examining the field of public relations to which he greatly contributed (full video here).

With the future very much in mind, the topic at hand was “Looking Ahead of the Curve: PR/Communications in 2020” with the conversation led by keynote speaker Jon Iwata that Jerry Swerling, Director of PR Studies and the USC Annenberg Strategic PR Center, described as a man “whose name invariably comes up when you ask knowledgeable professionals to name the smartest, most forward-thinking people in the business.”

As noted by Dean Ernest J. Wilson III, the event consistently serves as “a wonderful opportunity for (students) to hear words of wisdom from outstanding leaders” in the field of public relations, while also offering insight for Annenberg to better prepare the next generation of PR practitioners.

Iwata, senior vice president of Marketing and Communications at IBM, has long been regarded as an innovator and leader, successfully breathing life and relevancy into one of the world’s most valuable brands.  And as a member of the IBM communications team for over 25 years, his experience in navigating times of great change shaped his insights about the future of public relations.

“When you think about the PR profession — what  it’ll look like 10 years from now – start not with PR but with the world at large; not with the decade, but the century,” said Iwata, adding that a century from now, the world will look back on the early 20th century as a time when “civilization took a great leap forward,” marked by “changes in what people know, changes in what people expect and ultimately changes in behavior.”

Though attempting to analyze such a period of change while simultaneously experiencing it continues to prove difficult, Iwata identified new disciplines in the corporate function, emerging from an environment characterized by transparency and readily available information.  At the core of these emergent disciplines is a stress on behavior management—a sense of corporate integrity permeated down to and communicated directly from the individual employee.

“Lincoln said character is like a tree, reputation is like its shadow,” Iwata said. “Many believe their job is to manipulate the shadow rather than tend to the health of the tree.  In this world of transparency and democratized media, it is increasingly difficult for organizations and individuals to lead double lives.  There can be no image management without behavior management.

“People care about the corporation behind the soft drink, or bank account, or computer – they do not divorce their opinions of that company from the company’s products and services.”

Iwata went on to suggest that the behavior and subsequent image of a company goes far beyond the surface, indicating a need for the instillment of unique corporate values among all employees, as “they only matter if lived and applied consistently by everyone in the company.”

According to Iwata, it is through the consistent maintenance of and adherence to a brand’s values and promise that they are able to succeed in another emerging discipline—that of building constituencies.  The idea of merely reaching an audience and achieving message penetration is not enough.  “Pumping out information only adds to the nosie and compounds the challenge of being heard… Value will come from offering perspective and useful information and providing a contribution to our audience’s knowledge.”

Citing Apple as a company that does this well, Iwata suggested, “They don’t just advertise, they teach.  They don’t just sell, they create learning experiences in their stores.  They want you to learn everything their product can do, so then you will teach others… In the process they recruit new and loyal customers that become advocates and evangelists.” 

Crafting and disseminating a valuable message and building this constituency is no longer, however, the task of solely communications professionals.  Iwata described a third and final major shift as the development of the eminence of a company’s workforce—training employees to act and communicate as experts who produce valuable information for the public and extend the power of the brand.

“2010 is the year that corps grapple with and ultimately accept that their employees are engaging with social media… But simply having your people on the net is not the differentiator.  It’s what they do once they get there.”

In a panel that followed Iwata’s provocative address, Diane Dixon, senior vice president of Communications and Corporate Affairs at Avery Dennison, found Iwata’s suggestions about employee empowerment to be among the most insightful and significant.

“The words ‘employees are your most important asset’ are not empty words,” noted Dixon.

Daryl McCullough, CEO at Paine PR, found Iwata’s suggestions to be universally applicable, as they “can be attached to any company that wants to do good and do good work.”

Representing the questioning mind of academia on the panel, communication professor Jonathan Taplin saw a potential danger in the inundation of information as individuals may consume only that with which they are familiar. 

“We’re getting ourselves in information stovepipes, to hear only what we want to hear.

More and more we’re going to seek these filters, and they may stop us from the random chance encounter from something we didn’t know about.”

While this danger is quite possibly an imminent reality, Iwata maintained that it is the charge of organizations to adapt to these shifting models and innovate their practices for the health of their own corporations and for the public good.  The one thing everyone must do now: “Embrace change.  One hundred years from now, people will notice.”

Full video