Golin CEO Fred Cook will lead USC Annenberg's Strategic Public Relations Center.
Golin / Logan Futej

Five Minutes With Fred Cook: On the new Relevance Report and the future of PR

Inside the classrooms at USC Annenberg, students are the ones typically tasked with answering the hard hitting questions. "Five Minutes with..." turns the table on faculty and staff to ask them the hard questions.

Since last year, Fred Cook has been the director of the USC Center for Public Relations (CPR) and a Professor of Professional Practice at USC Annenberg. As the director of CPR, he connects businesses, agencies, academics and students to advance the study and practice of public relations through research, education and innovation. He’s also the CEO of Golin, one of the world’s largest public relations firms, with 50 offices around the globe.

On December 1, CPR launched its new USC Annenberg Relevance Report and hosted a networking event. The report is a group of articles written by members of the CPR advisory board.

Cook shared a few thoughts with us about the new USC Annenberg Relevance Report and where the Center for Public Relations is headed next year.

Tell us about the release of the new USC Annenberg Relevance Report. Who was involved and how did the idea for the report form?

The Relevance Report is a compilation of ideas about what will be relevant to communicators in 2017. It represents the best thinking from agency, corporate and academic leaders, all of whom are associated with the Annenberg School. In total, there are about 30 brief articles about interesting topics ranging from China to Cuba and silent movies to virtual reality.  Many of the pieces were authored by members of the advisory board of the USC Center for Public Relations, which includes leaders for companies like Starbucks, United Airlines, AECOM and Chevron. We also have contributions from agency leaders at Weber Shandwick, Shift, Ketchum, MSL and Golin. There are also a series of articles from members of the Annenberg faculty, including Dean Ernest J. Wilson III.  Not to mention, a couple of students in the graduate Public Relations program. We think the information in the report will be very valuable for anyone studying or working in public relations. It is also an impressive showcase for the type of talent we have at Annenberg. My hope is a lot of people will read it and use it in their companies and classes. If we get a good response we will expand it in 2018 to include more topics and experts.

What are some key findings from the report you can share with us?

The report clearly demonstrates that we are part of a very dynamic global profession that is constantly changing due to new technology, new media and new demographics. Based on our contributors, Virtual Reality seems to be the hot new communications technology. They explain several new VR applications that have the potential to revolutionize how we tell stories and sell products. Content is also center stage in most companies, who are not only sharing existing content but creating relevant new content that engages their customers and builds their brand. Social media continues to increase in power at the expense of traditional media especially with younger audiences who are increasingly cutting the cord and changing the rules. We all need to stay on top of these changes to be effective in our jobs and relevant in our careers.  

The report also underscores the critical role that communications plays in our society. The recent election was a graphic example of the political and cultural divisions we are facing in the U.S. and abroad. As communications experts, we have the ability and the responsibility to help bridge some of these dangerous divides. This should be part of the purpose of our profession.

How do you see the public relations industry changing in the coming years?

The public relations industry has reached an important inflection point. Our profession is becoming more complex, more demanding and more strategic. Several of the pieces discuss how the role of the PR professional is changing from gatekeeper to facilitator. Some talk about the new skills we all will need to be successful in the future. Others talk about the new technologies we will need to understand.

The bottom line is we all have the opportunity to play an increasingly important role within our organizations and our society. But to leverage that opportunity, we need to think more creatively, act more boldly and compete more aggressively. We have always been known for playing nice in the sandbox. Now we have the chance to own it. That is our challenge and I feel confident we can meet it. It’s a great time to be in PR.

You have worked in the public relations industry for 30 years. How does this report relate to your work?

I have seen lot of change in the past 30 years. The job we do today is much more sophisticated and much more important.  Plus the scope of what we do for our companies and our clients has grown exponentially. The Relevance Report reinforces the strategic nature of our work and rapid pace of change in our industry. I have always believed we are in the idea business. That is what we sell to our bosses and our clients. If we are going to deliver good ideas, we have to invest in creativity and creative people.

My experience in business, and now in academia, tells me the future of our business is totally dependent upon attracting diverse, creative leaders.  It’s people who are passionate about ideas and excited about where they can take them. We have to do a better job of convincing young people that PR is a really cool career that allows you to do truly exciting work. Then we must give them the skills and the bravery to fulfill the promise of the profession.

What do you have planned in the spring for CPR?

At CPR, we are always exploring new ideas that will help shape the future of the communications industry. We are also looking for partners who share our desire to break new ground. We are currently working on a global study that will analyze the value and reputation of the PR industry through the eyes of seasoned communications professionals and students who are planning on entering the field. I think the results are going to be very interesting. We plan to unveil them at an event on March 30. So mark your calendars!