Reputation, though intangible and illusive, is one of the most important and impactful qualities that a brand can build and protect. In “Rethinking Reputation: How PR Trumps Marketing and Advertising in the New Media World,” Fraser P. Seitel and John Doorley use case studies to explore some of the dos and don’ts of reputation management, as well as explain why public relations is the most effective tool for individuals and organizations to utilize.
What sets public relations apart from its other communications counterparts like marketing and advertising is its ability to garner earned media, which provides an inherent credibility that the other two lack. Though owned and paid media allow for complete control of the brand message, the risk in relinquishing some of that control with earned media pays off in credibility, since when a respected source says something positive about a brand, it is exponentially more valuable than when that brand says it about themselves.
The relationship between public relations practitioners and journalists has been a cornerstone in the PR profession essentially since its inception. Despite the countless new communications avenues that continue to arise with advancements in technology, for the future of the profession, it is crucial that those relationships are properly maintained. From the practitioner’s end, this means identifying media contacts who can meet their own goals through assisting yours, as well as providing those contacts with the information and context they need to tell your story accurately and effectively.
Even though the nature of reputation prohibits communicators from being in complete control of the narrative surrounding their brand, this does not mean they are free from accountability for that reputation. Public relations practitioners are tasked with the role of creating moments that authentically reflect the brand’s purpose and will also spark interest for earned media. Whether on the heels of campaigns, events or other initiatives, earned media can be viewed as a parallel channel that amplifies internal efforts with a voice of increased credibility.
The gold standard toward which PR professionals should strive is for public perception and conversation to mirror the way a brand sees itself. This relies on outside perspectives, like those of journalists, to participate in conversations, but it also requires practitioners to communicate honestly and openly, giving publics a look into the brand’s reality through the objective eyes of earned media. “Rethinking Reputation” makes the argument for public relations professionals to use credibility to their advantage, and while a lot has changed in the last decade of the communications industry, the necessity and power of earned media has never wavered.
Last week, the New York Times referred to PwC senior partner Tim Ryan as a "white, male, Irish-Catholic millionaire." Hardly a title expected to match a leader in corporate diversity, equity and inclusion, but nonetheless, Ryan has proven himself and professional services network PwC to be committed to authentic allyship and setting standards to be followed by corporate organizations everywhere.
If Tim Ryan's leadership journey had to be broken down to one word, it would be listening. Following a number of fatal shootings around the country in 2016, Ryan received an email from a Black employee wondering why there had been no recognition of the events at work. Rather than simply acknowledging this employee's concerns in a memo, Ryan responded by clearing the whole company's schedules for a day to prioritize a firm-wide conversation about race. Despite being vehemently discouraged by other executives, Ryan proceeded, strong in his beliefs of the importance of transparency. Following the conversation, another Black employee approached Ryan, reminding him of his responsibility to push other companies to diversify alongside PwC. Following through on this idea is likely what will define Tim Ryan's legacy as a leader, within and outside of PwC.
Ryan credited much of his leadership style to lessons his mother instilled in him: "You've got to respect people. You've got to listen. The best leaders are the ones who listen and process, and listen and process." It is this level of consideration for his colleagues and the issues that mater to them that led to an undeniably powerful transition that started at PwC but would soon extend far outward. 2017 marked the start of CEO Action for Diversity, a group of organizations, led by Ryan, committed to diversifying their work forces and sharing the practices that got them there. Today, the program includes more than 1,600 CEOs worldwide, fostering an ongoing conversation about corporate diversity and inclusion that is all the more relevant four years after its launch.
In 2020, with the world shaken by an unprecedented pandemic and a social justice revolution, Tim Ryan recognized the necessity for leading by example, and PwC released a Diversity & Inclusion Transparency Report. A testament to continued progress, Ryan explained what he really wanted to communicate with the report: "Look at us. We're not perfect. But here are the steps we're taking to get better." Just because PwC has been forthcoming and admirably honest about their relationship to corporate diversity does not mean their journey is done. Creating and publicizing the larger goals that inform the company's mission comes back to Ryan's philosophy on listening and processing, being in tune with stakeholders and culture at large.
In his interview with the Times, Ryan touched on the response he got from many white male colleagues as diversity initiatives were implemented. Several of them felt cheated or that their work was devalued as others were lifted. To this, Tim Ryan poignantly responded, "You may not be the lead partner, but how about helping the person get the role? What would you rather be remembered for? What do you want to be inspired by?" As communications professionals and leaders, these are the most important conversations to be having. In prioritizing diversity, transparency and listening, we can build and encourage environments that are not only successful in business but in culture as well, enthusiastically assuming the role of advocate and ally.
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"Business has a responsibility to give back to the community," said Ben Cohen when he and Jerry Greenfield founded the ice cream empire that is now Ben & Jerry's. Grand Poobah of PR Sean Greenwood knows how integral community involvement is to Ben & Jerry's as a company, and its latest partnership with the Advancement Project is yet another example of its fine-tuned recipe for corporate social activism.
In a presentation organized by Syracuse University's chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America, Greenwood and digital campaigns strategist for the Advancement Project Cedric Brown dove deep into the planning and results of Justice ReMix'd, a limited-batch flavor created to foster awareness and education regarding racial justice issues. During the program, entitled The Sweet Taste of Justice: The Advancement Project's and Ben & Jerry's Quest for a Just Democracy, the two discussed the function of public relations in a values-driven business.
By weighting their social mission with the same importance as their product and economic missions, Ben & Jerry's not only communicates its commitment to making the world a better place, but it also allows the company to develop thoughtful and impactful campaigns that feel authentic to the brand, the cause and the consumer. And of course, for Ben & Jerry's, this happens through ice cream. To the untrained eye, Justice ReMix'd is just swirls of chocolate and cinnamon ice cream with bites of cinnamon bun dough and spicy brownies. Those ingredients were not just picked because they are delicious, but because they illustrate the mission of the Advancement Project. The chocolate and cinnamon ice creams represent people of all different races, while the spicy fudge brownies stand for "the fight that we all need to have to fight for our rights," according to Cedric Brown. The attention to detail here showcases the passion of both organizations while creating a tasty product that will serve as a starting point for conversation and education.
Ben & Jerry's certainly has the option to partner with larger organizations that would bring them more media attention. According to Greenwood, however, the brand cares most about amplifying messages that are pertinent and powerful, regardless of the reach of the organization it partners with. In the case of the Advancement Project, Ben & Jerry's provides it with an invaluable opportunity to increase engagement and educate lots of interested citizens. The Justice ReMix'd campaign received over 300 million impressions, bringing tons of new eyes to the causes championed by the Advancement Project. And a little support from an outspoken, passionate person in Hollywood like Jesse Williams certainly never hurt.
Something as simple as an ice cream truck can engage people enough to start a greater conversation, and Ben & Jerry's has found a formula for providing that foundation for several organizations, the Advancement Project included. As talk of Generation Z becoming the most conscious shoppers grows, it is companies with a reputation for doing good for the right reasons that will thrive. Greenwood explained that from Ben & Jerry's perspective, "Instead of running away from controversy, we get comfortable running into it." Standing up for what is right is not something new to Ben & Jerry's, but it looks like they could see an even greater payoff with some love from Gen Z. Because who doesn't want a sweet taste of justice?
“Diversity” is no longer just a buzzword. According to Andy Checo of Havas Formula and Sabrina Macias of DraftKings, diversity only works if it’s authentic, coming from a place of care and curiosity, not just checking demographic boxes. In a panel hosted by the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications entitled “An Industry Evolution: Public Relations in a Diverse and Inclusive Landscape,” Checo and Macias outlined what they expect and hope to see in the future of public relations as an industry. Intertwined with anecdotes and advice, here are the key messages they shared with the next generation of public relations practitioners:
1. Gen Z is raising diversity from a conversation to an integral business practice.
Defining themselves by their work ethic and accomplishments, the open minds of Gen Z are demanding diversity and inclusion of their employers. As the president of the Hispanic Public Relations Association, Checo stressed that the future of diversity will be focused on filling rooms with people from as many different walks of life as possible, bringing together groups of communicators that are skilled in speaking to various types of audiences.
2. Brands say something when they don’t say anything.
Consumers respect a brand that is willing to take a strong stance on a pertinent cultural issue, as long as it is authentic to the mission of the company. Sometimes, staying too quiet makes a brand look out-of-touch or even apathetic. Public relations professionals should evaluate what their audience is looking for and what issues resonate with both parties.
3. The lines are blurring between paid, earned and shared media.
As influencer marketing has blown up, it is not as easy to classify media. That being said, paid partnerships represent some of the most effective campaigns of the last few years. With the rise of sponsored posts and advertorials, it is up to practitioners to find a balance that still feels honest to consumers.
4. Thoughtfulness and empathy should not be ignored.
PR and writing skills can be taught, but passion and eagerness cannot. Practitioners have to dig deeper to really connect with the audiences they are trying to reach, not just talk at them. Macias shared that she feels a responsibility to push the PR industry to be more nuanced, taking the time to evaluate what culture means to different people.
5. Storytelling is king.
Before any other title, PR practitioners are storytellers. They should assume that role with strength, when it comes to communicating with both clients and key publics. Every brand has a story, and it’s public relations that keeps that story relevant and engaging.
In order to create environments that encourage inclusion, Checo and Macias hope that education will foster a pipeline that turns diverse students into diverse public relations practitioners. As the future of the PR industry, it is the students of Newhouse and beyond that will hopefully make their vision a reality. It is through conversations with leaders like those offered by Newhouse Speaks that students can discover issues in their industry that they are passionate about and can be successful in making real change.