What Does the 'New Washington' Mean for PR Pros?
Note: This blog post first appeared as a guest column in the January edition of Public Relations Tactics, published by the Public Relations Society of America.
In the months since the earthquake that was Election Day 2016, conversations about the proper role of public relations in this new era of “populism” have continued. Does the country’s new mood mean that typical outreach efforts are no longer valid? Does growing skepticism about the media mean news coverage is no longer valuable? Do the election results mean that “PR” as we know it is now irrelevant or must change dramatically? The answers depend on how you define “public relations.” If you see it as merely another phrase for media relations, well, then, yes, drastic change might be in order. Distrust of the media is growing from both supporters and opponents of the new administration. How we approach media relations must change with the times. But public relations is about much more than just media relations. Public relations is also about strategy, messaging and partnerships. As counselors, we may practice one, some, or all of these disciplines to help clients advance their reputations, communicate their perspectives and engage with key audiences. Working with clients, we often have to juggle competing priorities and consider multiple points of view. That will be even more challenging for PR pros in this new reality.
As we consider how our profession must adapt to the changing mood of the electorate (and therefore of the consumer), here are three principles for your clients to consider:
Authenticity is more important than ever. Organizations and brands trying to claim leadership on issues or opportunities that aren’t true to their identities will be challenged in a more robust, populist environment. If you’re trying to “pivot” or adapt, then you must be careful to resist the temptation to do a 180 just because it seems that such a move will be well received. Remain who you are. Don’t try to pretend you’re someone else.
Who delivers your message is still just as important as the message itself. While some may see the election results as a mandate for a return to a less-diverse society, the opposite is true. At a time of national discord, unity is more important. Resist the temptation to minimize the diversity of your audience, the ways in which your products help a variety of people or the representatives who speak for you to the public. Don’t take the election results as a sign that diversity and inclusion are no longer relevant.
Collaboration is king. At a time of increasing mistrust and growing doubt about institutions of all kinds, partnerships are everything. Consumers, like voters, want to know that the brands they trust, the organizations they follow and the companies they work for are not isolated and alone. John Donne was right: No man is an island. And no organization is, either. Continue working with others — particularly if they represent audiences different from yours or have a different point of view. If you don’t have a partnership program in place, then consider developing one that will help expand your influence and demonstrate your relevance in a changing society.
Communicating through sudden change requires a deft touch. It can be tempting to see such situations as indicators that everything you’ve done before must now be abandoned in response to dramatic societal shifts. If that approach wasn’t right before, then it isn’t right now. Your true north is still your true north. Yes, change has come and you must adapt, but effective change is about understanding how best to adjust. Put another way, communicating in a time of change is what we counselors do best: understanding what is relevant to the context of the times and forging communications initiatives that match that reality. As always, it’s about leadership and trust and knowing how, when and why to communicate most effectively.