On December 1, 2016, a group of public relations visionaries came together at Wallis Annenberg Hall to discuss the single greatest threat facing their profession: irrelevance.
"Things are changing really fast," said Fred Cook, director of the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations (CPR) and CEO of Golin. "If we're not changing as fast or faster than everything around us, we are going to be irrelevant."
Cook offered that warning as he moderated a panel discussion at an event marking the inaugural release of the center's Relevance Report. Curated by CPR, the unique collection includes essays from communication leaders and academic experts on the issues, ideas and innovations that will shape the communications industry in 2017. Contributers include USC Annenberg faculy members Gabriel Kahn, Dr. Stacy Smith, Burghardt Tenderich, Jay Wang, Robert Hernandez, Robert Kozinets and Dean Ernest J. Wilson III, and representatives from Nintendo, Chevron, eBay, United Airlines, among other organizations from a variety of fields.
The wide-ranging discussion touched on news media, corporate brands, technology and diversity. The panel included Heather Rim, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, AECOM; Don Spetner, Senior Corporate Advisor, Weber Shnadwick; Bill Imada, Chairman and Chief Connectivity Officer, IW Group, Inc.; Michael Stewart, VP, Ketchum; and Julia Wilson, CEO, Wilson Global Communications.
Videos featuring contributors to the report, including Bernadette Anat, Producer of Teens & Emerging Trends, Instagram; Corey duBrowa, Senior VP of Global Communications, Starbucks; and Deanne Yamamoto, Managing Director, Golin, were shown during the event and became talking points of the discussion.
The event was introduced by Dean Ernest J. Wilson III, who spoke via Skype from San Francisco where Associate Director of CPR Burghardt Tenderich moderated a similar discussion featuring Stephanie Pulido (M.A. Strategic Public Relations '17), Jessica de los Santos of Google, Alex Cohen of Apptus, Julie Sugishita of Oracle, and Kaveh Rostampor from Meltwater, which sponsored the events along with Humana and Golin.
Below are excerpts from the discussion at Wallis Annenberg Hall:
On the decreased reliance on "gatekeepers" who make decisions
[In the past] the prevalent theory was this notion of gatekeepers who decided what was news and what wasn't [within an organization]. It's a laughable notion that there are no gatekeepers anymore. But it has created tremendous opportunities because now you have the ability to go directly to your audiences. A lot of organizations and corporations are creating their own content and their own distribution channels. That's exciting. But there's a dark side to this lack of gatekeepers. We saw it most recently in this election cycle with fake news. It's getting increasingly difficult to determine what's authentic, what's not, what's real, what's fact, and what's not.
You used to have your internal communication team who were charged with putting the news together that would live on the internet and the newsletters. Now our employees are the ones who are generating the news. They don't expect to see anything different inside the walls of our organization than they experience outside through all of their social channels that they interact with. Internally we've seen a massive shift. People that have their specific role—all of that has dissolved. We've shifted largely from creators to enablers of communication, and the story that our employees are telling is not confined within the walls.
I think the new gatekeepers for corporate reputation are all the stakeholders. So you're talking about all the employees and the customers—all of those people are the ones that are formulating the viewpoint of what a corporation does and what the reputation is.
On using social media to bring people closer IRL (in real life)
Bernadette Anat (via video):
Last year we were saying that 2016 was this crazy moral garbage fire where all the social media was asking to post more and share more. I think in 2017 social media will ask you to come closer. Ephemeral and live video will bring young teen fandom closer to their favorite stars than ever. Young people will have a renewed sense of responsibility for the world. Taking on the responsibility for the social good. They're going to want to take the communities that they've created online and bring them to life IRL: in real life.
I'm hoping that the young people, as they think about making their social good outreach actionable, not just gather in places and talk about it, but actually do good in the world. I think that's where their hearts are at, and that's where the direction seems to be going: towards doing more good in the world and bringing more people together.
You're going to get greater community around likemindedness, unfortunately. People on social networks will continue to gravitate more toward people that have the same viewpoints as them, and have even less discourse with people who have alternative views. Though I think there's some truth to what she's saying, and I think people will gather online and go out in the community and do things together. But I'm not quite sure if it's gonna be the case where people who think differently interact.
People are starting to "defriend" people who they don't agree with. What needs to happen is have more conferences like this, where people come together and are able to see and speak to one another face to face, rather than on social media. Social media is important, but there should be a tool to get people to come together with different viewpoints and have a real conversation.
It's a really interesting dilemma that Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are going to have to deal with. What is their responsibility? Facebook in particular is the world's largest media network by far. Their philosophy has been hands-off, we're not in the business of gatekeeping or telling you what can or can't go on. But they have a responsibility, and maybe Facebook can force you to look at feeds from people with different ideologies, just so you get out of your bubble. Which of course they can't, but I think there's a real responsibility there.
On corporate reputation and the need for permission from stakeholders
Corporations trying to manage their reputation—how do you go about doing that? The old way was to talk and deliver their message and people would say, okay I understand that. But now reputation is really being dictated by all of the stakeholders that are involved, from customers to employees to different governmental organizations. They're really taking a larger role in corporate reputation, because of social media. We're calling it reputation by permission. What are you doing to make sure you're understanding all of the viewpoints of your stakeholders?
The job of the communications person is going to be increasingly more difficult, because you never know what's going to erupt, and who's going to grab a hold of what you've done and broadcast it. The good news is, there's never been a good time to be in this business. The demand is going to increase, it's also gonna get more difficult. But that means it's going to pay better too.
On consumer brands taking a stand on issues
Customers want to know where the company stands, what positions they're taking, whether it's in the political arena or in their local communities. A lot of people are watching major corporations to see what their views are on immigration, different political appointees. If they're taking a position that doesn't agree with where they stand, they may or may not buy your product.
Consumer brands are being more and more forced to take a stand. When Kelloggs dropped their advertising on Breitbart, they took a stand. They caught a lot of heat for it, but they made a decision that's consistent with their brand.
People are making decisions based on brand, and more and more, a consumer wants to align themselves with a brand that aligns with their core values.
On the role of "influencers"
The main client I work with is Hyundai, and influencers have really changed the way we launch vehicles. Back then you would hold a traditional media launch, you'd have your magazines come out, they drive the car and write a review. Now we are creating entire events that are strictly for influencers. It's really something that any consumer products needs to embrace. They are getting hundreds of thousands of followers, and people that are passionately following these influencers; they really do have an impact when it comes to purchase decisions.
I think it's a slippery slope, because at what point are influencers really truly advertisers? The whole idea originally was that it was authentic and real, the mommy blogger talking from her kitchen how cool a product was. Now it's someone sponsored by XYZ company. At what point do you begin to question, is this really the true authentic voice, or was someone paid to have this ranking higher than another?
There's still a lot of debate and discussion about who should own influencer relations, between PR or traditional advertising. There is a case to be made of why PR should own it. Advertisers traditionally go to a model where they just pay for something or throw their logo on it. PR, from the very beginning, understands better what storytelling is and how you work with a medium to communicate to the audience. When influencer relations are done right, the brand gives an influencer the ability to create a story that is authentic to their audience.
It's interesting because you can't even tell the difference these days, between PR agencies and the advertising agencies. PR agencies are now purchasing time from key influencers, so nowadays the lines are blurred so much. I'm a little worried because when mommy bloggers first came onto the scene, everyone paid attention to them and looked to them for the authenticity. Now the mommy bloggers, if they're not being paid, they are criticized and being told, "you should be getting paid!"
On what the communications industry should avoid
I want people to realize that the world no longer revolves around the United States of America, and we need to start thinking a little more globally. I was at another panel where they were talking about the importance of Snapchat. And I said WeChat is significantly more important in the world than Snapchat is today. And everyone in the room was like "what's WeChat?"
Another thing I want to get us away from is saying things that stop people in their tracks, especially young people. I'm trying to get corporate people and PR people to stop saying things like "you should think outside the box." I actually believe the opposite is true. You think in the box first, fix what we need to fix, then step out. Saying things like "let's not reinvent the wheel." We tell that because we don't want to hear their viewpoints. Instead, we should be encouraging people to reinvent wheels over and over again. We always come up with new innovations when we think of reinventing something. The worst is when we say "we gotta walk the walk and talk the talk." I've heard this in China: why do Americans walk and talk? Why can't Americans just walk and shut up?"
On the overuse and misuse of the concept of "diversity inclusion"
We have to remember that diversity includes white people. Once we do that, I think we're going to have a sea change. I believe that the terminology "diversity inclusion" is old and tired, and people are tired of hearing it. People are also tired of hearing, "you have to reflect the diversity of the communities you work in." Instead, what's missing is engagement. You can have diversity at a meeting, but if they're not engaged, you have neither diversity or inclusion. I really want people to say, do we have representation and views? Different perspectives can come from anybody, including white people. I think "diversity and inclusion" has become a euphemism for people of color, and I want to change that discussion.
These words are symbolic of the real action that needs to take place. It's not the words that are bing used, but the actual inclusion, actual pluralism of ideas that different people bring to the table. And that includes white people. The reality is that our demographics are changing, and we need a diverse set of ideas and thoughts and input, and that includes brown people, black people, red people yellow people white people—everybody. And the public relations industry has a role to play. We need to start promoting more positive images of people of color. There have been so many negative images and stereotypes out there about people of color—we have to take a lead and start showing more positive images of people of color, and start debunking those negative images.
On including elderly people in discussions about diversity
We did some research with Humana and Stacy Smith of the School of Journalism. We examined 100 popular films of last year to see how senior citizens are portrayed. It was striking how few seniors were in the movies, but even more striking was how ridiculed they were. I don't think anybody had realized, that when people talk about diversity and inclusion they don't include seniors in that commentary whatsoever. You can say anything about a senior, and people think it's ok, and even funny. What Humana believes is that characterization of seniors actually impacts the way they feel about themselves, and ultimately their health. If they're not optimistic about being older, then their health suffers. The words we use to describe people actually have impact on the way they live.
I have to say that older adults are doing quite well. People don't say 30 is the new 20. Or 50 is the new 40. People are now saying 50 is the new 50. Older adults are realizing that they could just keep living. Their life actually rebegins when they get to 50. I'm actually seeing a different trend with older adults. Younger people are starting to recognize that older adults actually have values that they're interested in. In the future there's going to be a lot more engagement between millennials and Gen Z and boomers.
Closing remarks from Fred Cook
It's incumbent on us to understand technology. It's incumbent on us to have new ideas, it's incumbent to understand virtual reality. If we don't do that, if we're simply media relations people who are pitching stories to media outlets that are disappearing, we're likely to disappear too. We have an enormous opportunity as a profession, but if we don't take advantage of it, it could be really bad. That's why we have schools to teach the people that are going lead the industry tomorrow, to be brave and to be bold and be excited about what we're doing. As long as we have people coming to the industry with that kind of talent, we're going to be great.