PRSA Conference Day Two Wrap-Up: Proud Moments from an Inspiring if Uneven Day

Great material again today on Day Two, at the PRSA International Conference, at least for this observer.

Events

The General Session started things off today…a touch disappointing in that the place wasn’t even half full, compared to yesterday’s packed house. I understand (as I wasn’t there, poor me) that it may be blamed on Sunday night’s highly convivial, good eatin’ and good drinkin’ Opening Night Reception at the top floor City View at Metreon. 

The Gold Anvil was presented to a top industry leader from Ketchum, Ray Kotcher. Well deserved, Ray, for significantly advancing the profession. Ray made some good points in his eloquent acceptance, telling all of us that what has and will remain consistent in this sea change of communications we are encountering is the “power of the idea is what matters” and that “our work must be trustworthy.” He encouraged, “Do it the right way for the common good of our field.” I love this stuff; it goes to the heart of why so many of us are practicing and how we want to be perceived in the doing.

Consumer Behavior Expert and University of Western Ontario Business Professor June Cotte gave the first keynote providing some of the implications of her recent study “When Will Consumers Pay to be Good?” Does ethical corporate behavior pay off on-shelf and, if so, how much? Well, there is not enough empirical data to declare it so. Consumers seem willing to change their behavior, but a host of elements and priorities (time, confusion, existing market prejudices, entrenched buying habits, etc.) are causing a gap between that and their willingness to pay the premium that ethical products often bring. For some products, such as coffee, the gap is less. But Prof. Cotte found it eye-opening that while consumers may be hesitant to carte blanche reward the good guys, they are less so about their willingness to punish the not-so-nice with interest in purchasing only at rock bottom pricing. Another revelation of her studies, however, is that consumers will reward the not-so-nice if they appear to have a change of heart with the introduction of a quality ethical product. If the story is communicated effectively, she told the storyteller audience, consumers will demonstrate their appreciation in the marketplace.

Co-Keynoter Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora, was the subject of an onstage interview by USA Today technology columnist Jefferson Graham. The key to finally succeeding after “coming back from the dead half a dozen times,” he said was through painstaking word-of-mouth, beginning with “town hall” meetings he held throughout the country. The first few were filled with two-to-three people, but he persisted, and you can imagine what the town meetings became later on as word grew about this exciting custom radio concept. Tim fervently believes in person-to-person connections, telling the audience that he answered all emails himself until it became too unmanageable, but that even today Pandora responds to every email. He said that consumers are looking for humanity in the social media space.

People are talking

Some good points of discussion today with several different professionals. One young, articulate woman, a 10-year veteran in an elevated position at a great consumer-facing company, said that she was having a hard time knowing how to pick breakout sessions. Some seminars she chose were fairly basic, good for the multitude of students at the Conference but almost vacuous for the more seasoned members in attendance. She hoped that PRSA would better segment the Conferences in the future.

I spoke about this with Christina Rafsdale, senior communications & marketing specialist for Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, after she happened to mention, independently, that she was really pleased to see all the PRSSA student members in attendance. Christina agreed that the seminars were often a “shot-in-the-dark” and commiserated with my previous source in that, often, excellent and substantive courses are overlooked due to being in an out-of-the-way room or because the write-up in the brochure did not do the course justice. She also said, allegorically, that sometimes the best courses are overlooked because, while they may be wonderful servings of fresh, wholesome vegetables, most people are running for the candy jar. However, Christina had a brilliant solution. Why not, PRSA, provide an abstract for the courses, available online, with URLs provided in advance brochures for attendees?

Christina, actually, was a great source of ideas and comments that resonated with me, and I was happy to have met her. One of her thoughts is that PRSA should play a role in calming the breadth and depth of “uncivil discourse” we all encounter, seemingly, everyday, whether it’s about politics, religion, business or community affairs. “This PRSA Conference is a brain trust, essentially, and our highest and best use is to serve the public interest.” I said it before, I love this stuff.

All stars

One of the best breakout sessions I attended in the last two days was the panel discussing the “Agency of the Future.” Well, I’m an agency guy, so it is easy to understand my bias. I hope you will forgive, but I do believe the most creative, energetic thinking is coming from the agency side. It has to for us to survive.

This session presented a statement of vision. What will we, as public relations agencies, look like in the future? Rob Flaherty, senior partner, president and CEO of Ketchum (think Al Gore, so smart, but with charisma), talked about “minding the Gap” (the gap theme again) as a new stream of counsel…how public relations counsel can help organizations bridge the gap between promise and delivery. I paraphrase: ‘Do we want to primarily be the authors of apologies for clients or be the providers of solutions to our clients’ reputation dilemmas?’

Fred Cook, Golin Harris CEO and President, spoke about his agency’s reorganization to reflect new communications dynamics: divisions that represent Insights, Ideas, Engagement and (Media) Integration, what clients will need as we move forward in this Brave New World.

Airfoil boss Janet Tyler was equally terrific. She said that the best new agency employees will be general specialists (I get it); that they never look, act or think like another; they understand the power of data; they are connectors and digitally nimble; and that they believe in the power of community. That’s how I am hiring, Janet, but I couldn’t have articulated it so brilliantly. And, finally, “be positively impossible to ignore.”

Tuesday, MSNBC analyst and former Chairman , Republican National Committee Michael Steele: An Expert Look at the 2012 Election. Stay tuned.

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