Lessons from PRSA International Conference

This year’s PRSA International Conference: Powering PRogress really packed a punch! While it’s hard to distill every little bit of wisdom from the four-day conference (just look at the #prsa_ic Twitter hashtag!), here are some points that stuck out to us:

1) Global Mindset in PR. Mahmoud Arafa, president and creative director of Designframe USA, touched on the trickier subtleties of creating messages in different countries. If you thought it was tough reaching fragmented audiences across several media in the U.S., take heart in that Western messaging at least means being straightforward, addressing a problem and providing useful information. On the other hand, Saudi Arabian messaging must speak to separate classes, drawing on mandates from the Koran and rural imagery for lower classes while playing to the legacy and leadership of Saudi and English royal families with lavish presentations of information, all while staying within the budget. Phew!

Arafa stressed the importance of your target audience’s belief in the product or service and making it strong enough to move them to action. Simple, logical persuasion always wins this battle, no matter the class or country of the audience, but cultural connections must be weaved into this logic to make it relevant.

2) Rubbing Elbows with Internationals. Nothing provides a more unique experience than networking with PR professionals from other nations, like a Singapore woman who shared how PR is evolving as a profession there. She was particularly interested in social media because it hasn’t “hit” in the same way there yet, but she thinks it’s coming. In the US, it’s already hard to imagine our jobs without it!

Crisis communications also drew in practitioners from all over as attendees shared tips at the Travel & Tourism Section Council dinner at Lebanese Taverna, like the implications of a potential plane crash with insights from a Hong Kong airline and Florida airport. On the lighter side, we heard more about sports coverage perspective from Canada and how we’re all facing dwindling media markets that call for more creative strategies.

3) Social Media Still Here and Still Growing. Just about everyone tweeted during the event, and if they didn’t, it was probably only the sometimes-spotty wi-fi stopping them. Not only were there several social media seminars, but there was an entire track devoted to it. It’s safe to say that this strategy isn’t going anywhere, and the PR community is clearing claiming social media under its domain because of the potential for relationships.

So what’s the latest? Author of new industry book “Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform How You Lead” Charlene Li pinned transparency through social media as the wave of future. It’s not about handling each interaction perfectly or even toeing company line, but involving people. Sometimes it can’t always work out the way customers want, but just explain why you had to arrive at that decision and customers will appreciate honesty far more than false promises.

The biggest lesson about social media was a bit of a shocker. Expecting to learn all these complex new trends, we instead heard that the message was very much “Get Back to Basics,” a comforting thought for any firm trying to hone several new social media avenues at once.

Even the conference itself had a great smartphone application that helped organize a complicated schedule with dozens upon dozens of seminars and networking opportunities with daily alerts reminding attendees, in addition to a TweetUp and chances to register for 2011’s conference for free!

4) Case for Cause Marketing. Scott Beaudoin, senior vice president and North American director of cause marketing and corporate social responsibility at MS&L Worldwide and Michelle Vaeth, external relations manager and global oral care at Procter & Gamble partnered for an amazing cause marketing seminar. It was all about aligning purpose and profit, and sharing that genuine connection in an emotional way, like with P&G “Live, Learn and Thrive” spots.

No longer can companies simply cut a check for a nonprofit and call it a commitment. Thanks to increasingly savvy consumers who demand corporate social responsibility, organizations must find new ways to “align their brand DNA” with salient social issues and empower grassroots movements to create a global impact.

There were some overarching pearls of wisdom from the conference as well. Several speakers reminded us we are the storytellers, and that PR needs to fight for a seat at the decision-making table by commissioning research and speaking in business metrics. We still need to stand by the intangibles that PR provides, though. As Charlene Li quoted from American Express CMO John Hayes, “We tend to overvalue the things we can measure and undervalue the things we cannot.” Equipped with new ideas and best practices, it’s time to convince our employers, clients and audiences of the value of public relations.


From Climate Change to Corn Sugar: Implementation By and Implications For PR

How do you change the momentum of an issue? Reframe it or rename it. In the past twenty years, we’ve seen our share of relabeling real life issues: global warming became “climate change”, estate tax transformed into “death tax” (both thanks to this guy) and now high fructose corn syrup has become “corn sugar.”  But what does this actually mean from a public relations perspective?

In the case of climate change, the result is a more accurate term: “climate change” reflects both the increases AND decreases in temperature caused by greenhouse gases and other environmental factors, even though some of the urgency disappears. “Death tax” is blatantly political, but it has still been absorbed in the media and consequently, public discourse. And “corn sugar” settles into a third category: corporate speak. The one that strikes fear into the hearts of true PR professionals, who choose to persuade the public with facts rather than repackaging.

But the Corn Refiners Association’s new campaign for high fructose corn syrup doesn’t stop at dressing it up as corn sugar. They make their target audience seem silly for not wanting to consume it (and like terrible boyfriends, coincidentally). And after the recent push toward healthier, “slower” food, we could see why. As our Twitter follower @GreatNorthern says, “Good move on corn’s part. High fructose corn syrup was becoming a swear word.”

But should the Corn Refiners Association have full license to “rebrand” its product, especially when it plays a direct role in the public’s perception of healthy foods? The FDA thinks so, as it approved the entry of “corn sugar” into the conversation circulated by national advertising and the rehashing of it on mommy blogs, by community organizations, at the water cooler and everywhere else that YouTube goes. Some may argue that if the public wants the facts on food, they won’t take any commercial’s word for it. But in today’s world, how many Americans trust the advice of their favorite blogger over that of their doctor or dietician, and how many of those bloggers receive kickbacks from various corporations? We hope this issue will start a discussion on public relations’ role in the world of Web 2.0 and the short-sighted tendency to “reword” hot button issues rather than focusing on long-term, two-way communication.