A RESET of our profession? Takeaways from Global PR directors of General Electric, Pfizer, Mastercard, Kodak, Bausch and Lomb, Swiss RE, Viacom

The day after Pfizer announced it would ensure free medicines to laid-off and non insured workers for one year, Ray Kerins, head of global pr for the big pharma company (‘we are 50 bl. dollar start up company’ he says…) told an attentive audience of colleagues representing agencies from all over the world, that the idea had not come from top management nor from him, but directly from employees who gathered around internal social networks.

The occasion was the annual Iprex meeting and Ray spoke on Friday May 15 in New York in the context of a lunch debate also featuring other global public relations directors: Harvey Greisman of Mastercard, Gary Sheffer of General Electric, Barbara Pierce of Kodak, Karl Folta of Viacom, Michael Mcdougal of Bausch and Lomb and Stephen Dishurst of Swiss RE.

Here are my major takeaways from that meeting:

°the world is resetting and we should reset our profession, which has become inherently global in its nature;

°employees are today our topical and priority stakeholder; followed by government and then by customers;

°good governance and ethical performance are today the top drivers of our reputation;

°the forgiveness cycle for corporate mistakes driven by the accelerating information cycle is shrinking;

°following the collapses of London and New York, Washington DC has now become the financial capital of the world;

°social media is an increasingly important tactical tool (about 75% of the international audience of agency professionals raised their hand when asked if they twittered) and public relations directors cannot afford to remain on the sidelines.
Yet they very much need to be aware of the disintermediation process affecting all traditional professions and categories which, in itself is an effect of the digitalization of society, and make damn sure these are always specifically looked after as such…. also on social media;

°our direct relationships with Ceo’s have greatly intensified since the crisis began (when they see us they expect to receive bad news; they ask us to give them an independent read of employee, shareholder, public policy maker and customer expectations, and not only of the media (social and mainstream, no distinction..);

°the amount of time we spend on reacting is outrageous! We must get out of this mode and we expect agencies and consultants to help us be proactive.

Interesting thoughts…for your perusal.

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5 Replies to “A RESET of our profession? Takeaways from Global PR directors of General Electric, Pfizer, Mastercard, Kodak, Bausch and Lomb, Swiss RE, Viacom

  1. I really don’t see the tactical use of Twitter (whatever that might mean) by PR practitioners (even at a senior level) as much indication of engagement in social media. What real value is this to their organisations or the publics affected by its decisions? Are they using Twitter because it is a relevant means of commuinications or simply fashionable?

    Likewise, I find it concerning that customers are viewed as the third “priority” by senior PR professionals. Yes, employees and government can affect the organisation’s ability to achieve its aims, but lack of understanding of the importance of customers and PR’s role in satisfying their legitimate needs seems a weakness of PR in the current climate. Is this more evidence of PR not recognising the hard financial realities of business survival?

    Linked to this, is the general public really prioritising “good governance and ethical performance” over the basics of business (or organisational competence) at this time?

    I recently saw some research by a dissertation student that was conducted with members of the public regarding corporate reputation (rather than corporate leaders or other “elite” audiences who are surveyed for many of the reputational indices). These real people were much more interested in the quality of products and pricing as a measure of reputation.

    It often seems that PR people fail to grasp the essential need of organisations do get things right at the level that genuinely matters to the public – especially customers.

    Like the Telegraph piece indicates, it seems we’ve not moved far from the views of Bernays and Lippman who saw the general public as being in need of an “elite” to help them communicate.

    Why do PR practitioners often seem reluctant to engage with the financial realities of their organisations?

  2. David,
    I dined last night in New York with a senior colleague, about to take a relevant position at the head of one of our most cherished and respected professional and academic institutions, and he had just emerged from a focus group with directors of communication of major corporations and ceo’s of major agencies.
    Some are the same individuals who were also at the Iprex discussion refrred to in this post.

    I queried him with some of the arguments you raise in your comment and this was his reply:

    ‘You are correct. Social media has reached and well surpassed the tactical phase and has now become an essential strategic asset for any organizational public relator worth his salt. This was well recognised by my interlocutors today…
    Yet, they hesitate to publicly aknowledge this because they are highly ‘uncomfortable’ with this notion. It seems to me that the elaboration and conceptualization of this ‘discontinuity’ has yet to sound rationally convincing and they need to deliver this argument to their Ceo’s and the only argument they feel comfortable in using is that ‘think of all the risks of not getting involved…’.

    I liked this response because it lays on each of us the responsibility of elaborating arguments and concepts which could help them approach the argument with their Ceo’s on another level, such as: ‘think of all the opportunities in getting involved…’.

    As for your quote -adding motherhood and apple pie to the analysis, namely ‘governance and ethical performance’ as a key driver is rather like including breathing- unquote, I do not agree with you.
    I would certainly leave out the ‘ethical performance’ part which is lip service, but would very much focus on the governance issue:
    a concept which has yet to be accepted by mainstream business, social and public sector management in its implications on stakeholder relationships practice, which is
    -I insist if I may- the new frontier of what we once called public relations.

  3. Social media, online public relations and internet mediated value should really top this list.

    At a time when publics have become self selecting, it seems narrow to imagine that any manager should be so well informed to be able to identify ’employees’ or other 20th century marketing construct as a key public. The truth is more about context than label.

    Adding motherhood and apple pie to the analysis, namely ‘governance and ethical performance’ as a key driver is rather like including breathing. Badly governed and unethical organisations are the new walking dead. Did Enron teach the PR industry nothing?

    The response cycle is indeed fast and at a strategic, not tactical level. I recently saw it at first hand and its very fast when an organisation is involved in a promotion or enhanced interactive state.

    The death of London and New York as financial capitals is a little overstated. Both have overcome mass nationalisation of business sectors in the past. Washington (and Downing Street, for that matter) is not well equipped to manage big corporations – both have an appalling track record.

    Tactical use of social media and internet relationship management will fail. Yochai Benkler (and people like Shirky, Lessing and others) makes it quite clear that ubiquitous communication has much more profound implications. It is time the PR industry looked beyond its the printed paper wall garden.

    Online interactions are driving the corporate agenda. Only corporations don’t know this (unless they are in the music film or publishing industries).

    What a disappointing meeting.

  4. Pfizer’s view of itself as a “50 bl. dollar start up company” is ironic. Its merger with Wyeth is motivated precisely by Pfizer’s failure to function like a start up company. In reality, it has had to buy the pipe-lines and research of smaller rivals to secure the company’s future.

    Moreover, scientific progress in the small molecule-sphere is very much led by small companies that function best when they are not owned by big pharma. Of course small and big pharma need each other, but that’s another story.

    Pharmaceuticals, particularly biopharmaceuticals, will be one the major growth industries for the next 100 years. The jury is out, however, concerning whether Pfizer can solve its own lack of internal pipe-line dynamics by buying up its rivals.

    Meanwhile, Pfizer’s survival strategy and tactics are at their core driven by the need to preserve long term shareholder value.

    It strikes me that Pfizer’s understandable strategy of capitalist cost-cutting and pipe-line diversification via M&As is being obscured in the PR outreach. Though the business media, rivals and investors see things clearly. And I have no doubt that employees do as well, particularly when they worry about the future of their livelihoods.

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