Telling it straight: Honesty

Telling it straight: Honesty
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In the second instalment of a new series that sees Ogilvy put the spotlight on PR, Kieran Moore looks at how the corporate speak of yesterday doesn’t cut it anymore. Clients are ready for PR to be honest.

PR: what do we do?

There’s a PR guru in the US called Dr Glen M Broom who recently said that over the past two decades the role of the PR professional had radically changed from being largely focused on communications to one of chief relationship officer.

I’m not sure about the title – chief relationship officer sounds a bit weird – but his three stage evolution makes sense.

Bloom says the old model – which was based on traditional journalism – used to be: ‘How do we say it?’ The model then moved to a more strategic role where the question was ‘What do we say?’ and has now evolved to an even more strategic position alongside CEOs and senior management and answering the question: ‘What do we do?’

A case in point. Just last week a worried organisation rang because the company’s actions over a certain incident resulted in the brand’s behaviour – and through that its values – being called into question on commercial breakfast radio.

The organisation was suggesting a convoluted tale that sought to diminish responsibility. We said no, we will tell the truth. So we explained to the radio station that it was an oversight, that measures will be put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again and that we unreservedly apologised. That message was broadcast – end of story and the death of a mini crisis.

And the point of the story? Years ago we were merely seen as the conduit carrying the client’s wishes; today we initiate, develop and carry out both the strategy and the message.

Like most of the changes which have hit all areas of the communications industry, the prime reason behind the status update can be sheeted home to social media, via the internet.

Business has largely been spooked by social media, which has crept uninvited into just about every facet of a company’s operations. Marketing, recruitment, crisis management, customer complaints and interactions, sales – you name it and social media has stuck its inquisitive nose in, and all without knocking before entering.

For a while managers preferred to look away, hoping the invader might beat a graceful retreat. Instead social media became all pervasive and suddenly the old top down system of autocratic rule was no longer effective because – horror of horrors – everyone not only had a say, but they were actually saying it. And, worst of all, people were listening.

However, when it’s all boiled down, social media is all about communication and that’s exactly the sort expertise that PR has always had.

Consequently the gradual shift from how do we say it to what do we do has come with an appreciation that PR has something worthwhile to say about the big issues that organisations face. We’ve been invited to sit at the top table to counsel and advise, with many of those issues involving reputation management.

Once again, the ability of social media to harm or enhance corporate reputation has largely been the trigger.

Countless studies have shown that intangible assets like reputation are among the cornerstones to success. Reputation, however, has to be real and sound real because social media will call you out if you are faking it, or even if you sound like you are faking it.

Corporate-speak is out so any executive who talks about “going forward” while “stepping up to the plate” will be swiftly designated as a phoney, along with his organisation.

We need to believe in both the message and the messenger. Remember back in September 2007 when Kevin Rudd was Leader of the Opposition and at a state lunch in Australia he addressed China's President Hu Jintao in Mandarin? We all thought that was pretty good because it confirmed our opinion of Rudd as a smart guy who could match it with the best on the world stage.

Remember also the time almost two years later when then Prime Minister Rudd said “fair shake of the sauce bottle” three times during the one day? We marked him down severely for that because it sounded nothing like the Kevin Rudd that we thought we knew.

Companies also need to be aware of what the public really think of them and to do that its handy to have someone from outside telling the truth. On too many occasions organisations look at their sales figures, or their profit margins and fool themselves that the public must love them (yes, big banks, we’re talking to you).

That’s another of PR’s roles these days, acting as a trusted advisor who is able to tell the unvarnished truth to clients. If you don’t know your actual reputation then you can’t properly manage your reputation because everything you do has to take into account your current standing in the eyes of others.

Companies today need to be honest, be authentic and understand exactly how their reputation stands. It might sound easy, but if you get any part of it wrong then your customers and other stakeholders are only too happy to tell you.

Kieran Moore is CEO at Ogilvy Public Relations, Australia. 

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