SPECTRA Day 3: A fitting Comm-finale

Like the classic ending of a fairy tale, we reached Day 3 of #RTSPECTRA Prime as it wrapped up the futurescape of communication quite interestingly. We did not need any cliffhanger moment to perk up attention, at any level. We were totally engrossed in the activities as the global leaders had us all engaged. 

Reflections, Reputation Management & Positivity for 2021

“We believe one should make the audience the protagonist”, said Justin Green, President, Global Alliance as he packed in many key insights for the PR community as we stepped into 2021. His session was titled “Reflections, Reputation Management & Positivity for 2021”. Emerging out of the shadow of COVID-19 that has “turned people’s lives upside down, whether through illness or economic impact”, he was looking forward to reach the day when we would recall it in history! Describing the challenges of dealing with COVID-19 from a communications perspective, he felt that PR and communication professionals have excelled in public campaigns as “the worst of times brought out the best in us and people rallied to deliver life-saving messages”. 

Global Alliance is a diverse, global and multicultural organisation representing professionals across religions, cultures, societies and races and considering the unprecedented times, from the Global Alliance perspective, they have responded in a positive way. “Though we are physically apart, we have never been closer,” he shared and added, “accountability, transparency and sound corporate governance are vitally important to us.” Diversity and inclusion are not challenges or metrics – “they are something to celebrate in our DNA at Global Alliance,” he explained.

Currently, another huge area is how we fight misinformation, fake news, but we should be committed. In this age of social media, where everyone is a publisher. “The social media genie is truly out of the bottle, and we shouldn’t give up on representing the truth”, he stated. If we consider fake news as another disease that spreads rapidly and harms societies, then he would argue that “professional communications upholding high ethical standards are central to the cure”. He suggested that we all commit to doing what we can to fight back and take a stand for truth and accuracy.  Now is the time when people rightly demand transparency and straight dealing; so, any lapses in integrity that come into the public domain, will attract huge adverse attention and will harm all of us, who work in this profession. “I challenge all leaders to make 2021 the year when we ask ourselves the hard questions: How well do our teams mirror the world around us? Are we diverse and inclusive? Do we provide equal opportunities on the basis of talent, merit and hard work? Do we listen to new voices?”

Maintain high standards, keep skills current. He added, in closing, “Together we can change the world – building a new global community. 2021 is a year to think global. Be global, go global.” 

Potential of Reputation Counsel

Patti Temple Rocks, author & founder of Temple Rocks Consulting, spoke on “The Ever-evolving Relationship between Saying & Doing for Business” as she declared that “the world has changed forever with COVID”.  She focused on future challenges for businesses and reputation management in a world gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the first time that the entire world is sharing the same context for a crisis, she said  quoting Winston Churchill – “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. This was inviting businesses to upscale their operations in the arena of reputation management.

There were important lessons here. It is truly a people-first world now, and a leader must protect the people he is expected to lead.  Against the pandemic scenario, companies are responding differently today. Companies that successfully navigated their business challenges were the ones that prioritised their own people, and this will go a long way in building reputation. Today we have lost trust – we don’t trust scientists, the Government, our universities and we certainly do not trust the media. A recent Edelman study on trust and COVID revealed that social media is the most ‘distrusted’. But there is a sense of optimism for it opens up unprecedented opportunities for all of us, as communication professionals – to fill the trust void. The rules have changed for business and it opens up a new era for reputation. Today, the ‘power of the people’ concept reigns supreme for businesses and there is no playbook this time. It went from the new normal to the never normal, as she put it.  It is a ‘power of the people’ world, when anyone and everyone has a voice today. People care about issues, and they care passionately. For businesses to earn trust and loyalty, they need to show that they are listening to consumers. The Gen Z and Y customers are watching and they are ready to reject companies when they lose trust. They are realistic and look for humanity, empathy, authenticity and transparency. Companies must live their values. 

Brands can position themselves as a hero, which is good for reputation she pointed out in a conversation with Puneet Gupta, GM, Corporate Communication, INOX Leisure. This is the best time for communication leaders to bring about change, but how much risk can they take?  She did not see any risk here, the only risk being to push out of the comfort zone.  

Learnings from politics and business

“Detours increase the understanding of the surroundings – learnings from politics and business” was the focus of discussion by Matthias Berninger, Senior Vice President – Public Affairs & Sustainability, Bayer, who shared his learnings from politics and business, backed by a quote from the novelist Anita Desai: “wherever you go becomes part of you”. 

Commenting on the economic and political power shift, he said – “The economic and political power shift that people in South Asia and East Asia experience in today’s world makes it pretty clear that it will shape our lives in the next 10 to 30 years”; he shared two images – one of the truth after the Boxer Rebellion, the other of negotiations of the incoming Trump administration with the Chinese – these best represent what the world is currently facing. “And I think that for businesses to be able to navigate this power shift is going to be absolutely crucial,” he noted.

Emphasising the “Age of the Anthropocene” he pointed out humanity has been overstepping planetary boundaries significantly and that there is no magic formula to help everybody to get rid of economic poverty. “And the driving force is that we, for the first time in human history, have the power to change global conditions, not local or regional, but global conditions. Currently, we are on the track of catapulting humanity out of its climate comfort zone. The consequences for humans around the world will be dire,” he said.

There are fundamental changes in the horizon and Bayer is at the forefront of this development. When Deepa Sridhar, WarnerMedia asked what does 2021 have in store, he answered that 2021 will be the year when we start the decade of delivery, so that the slowdown of 2020 will be reversed.  

The Future of Public Relations

The upheaval of the current times, has shown that mission-driven companies are the future, noted Helena Maus, CEO, Archetype, in conversation with Arun Sudhaman, CEO and editor-in-chief, PRovoke Media on the topic: “The future of Public Relations”. Touching on trends that impacted PR in 2020, she shared that she tried to find gratitude in this crazy year. “My prediction is that the most important companies being created today are mission-driven organisations. It’s a place we would have reached anyway, but COVID-19 has spread that process.” Another trend was that companies were recognising their people as an important constituency. “It’s important for companies to ensure that there’s that level of trust with their employee base.” The third trend she touched upon was the divide between marketing and communications. Are they really two different things? The last trend was a strong movement towards quality and at Archetype they have created high-quality teams.  But will these lessons will stay only short-term and will they persist beyond this year? 

She pointed out that we talk about ‘magnetic brand and in order to be magnetic, companies must take care that they do not upset people. We have seen ‘Delete Uber’ was a big trend, because they were not demonstrating values as a leadership team that people believed in. 

Was there a concern that in the remote working mode, there was too much work and not enough life? Remote work mode was an inevitability and they had built this culture, but have put an emphasis on mental health for it’s important “to give people time to be their honest selves”. About the startup mentality and how important has this been on what clients look for, she elaborated that they have a “concept of freedom within a framework, which ensures that they have standards that are equally high around the world”. Believing that the clients’ success is their success, they have strong teams around the world, who have the freedom to execute for clients in an impactful way. 

When asked how important was it to come up with a new identity, she answered that they were thoughtful about the cultural reason and also the ambition that they have as a team. The name is international and they wanted to live up to that name and Archetype is about setting a standard as “the global consultancy of the future.” Her parting shot was – “we were trying to rethink and we have tried to drive the industry forward.”

Personal branding: a key to building a formidable reputation  

In a dialogue with Amrit Ahuja, Communications Consultant, Rohit Bansal, Head of Communications at Reliance Industries talked about – “Personal branding: a key to building a formidable reputation”. He felt he was fortunate taking up a job with Mr Mukesh Ambani – the need was there in 2014 and he felt he was at the right place at the right time.  About building personal brands for the young Ambanis, he said, “We simply have to be good storytellers and narrators to capture the wonderful things being done at Reliance and what are the new ideas to be discussed with the influencer crowd in traditional and new age media.” They do what everyone does but have been more fortunate than other organisations. It’s all about putting the story out in influential way through mainstream media and social media. 

Amrit pointed out that in the last ten months Reliance has done commendable work, and Rohit stressed the fact that Reliance was one of the first companies to start WFH, even before the official announcement, in an informal way. Online platforms were used to hold team meetings; the company was involved in retail, telecom, hydrocarbon and philanthropy – that was the challenge they faced. “We wanted to evolve and give a sense of purpose,” and described how they set up the first COVID hospital within 13 days, among a commendable list of CSR activities that they had spurred into action. 

What will PR look like in 2025? It will be just as important, and will be much more digital observed Rohit and added that brands will have to be more responsible and must move faster. 

It’s hard not to be inspired by someone who’s passionate about what they’re doing. Just as it is the case with Rohit. He is inspired by the leader he works for, who understands communication and that’s where the role of communications in Reliance is helpful for it emanates from Mr Mukesh Ambani, as he put it. And, he shared some tips – gather knowledge outside your comfort zone and develop different skill sets and points of view – for these will go a long way. 

Evolution of Storytelling 

Admitting that he got into PR by accident was Rick Murray, Managing Partner, SHIFT Communications as he spoke about “Evolution of Storytelling in the Digital World”. He revealed insights on how PR has evolved over the years and is now ‘paid to win, not simply to try’, and also highlighted the challenges and solutions that lay ahead.

As PR went from shaping a story to telling a story, what happened? It was more than a 10-year evolution. Firstly, the world got social, as he emphasised. Recalling the early days of Orkut, Myspace and blogging, which had just 7 million people around the world at the time, he said, “The fascinating thing for us was how a community was building around the world organically, and how we had democratised the right to publish for free. People could engage with others like them, pursue their passions. But this organic nature began to break away with the advent of advertising and pay-per-view.” 

Then the world got mobile. “BlackBerry was the ‘thing’ to have in the early days”, he said. The iPhone came in 2007, and then Android followed. The world discovered mobility. “The world was ‘unchained’ and went from wired to wire-free.” Everything got faster; the phone market took off, “but mobility didn’t match up,” he said. People didn’t have the infrastructure to do more than just text or use really simple apps. The telecoms were then invested in 3G, 4G and now there’s 5G. Things became much faster. Then everything got cheaper and a whole lot more affordable. We’re using a lot of data and “over time, our phone plans were adjusted and we also got better phones. Today, we share amazing amounts of data daily”.

Every day is a new PR (Personal Record). He added that “Every single day now we seek out, consume and share more content than ever before. This is stunning and every day is a new personal record. This has tremendous implications for the PR community.” 

PR has now changed forever, he maintained. The business now approaches storytelling by fusing analytical and creative thinking. Today, people expect personal, relevant messaging. PR’s job is to figure out the hows and whys and to tell the story with data, empathy and passion. “The earlier PR maxim was – ‘We don’t get paid to win, we get paid to try’. This is no longer true, he said. “We do get paid to win today. Data is how we get there, and data is how we get results. Make numbers your friend and you will be on course.” 

2020, was a year of unprecedented times. Global economies and businesses were hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the PR business must be geared to meet the challenges that will spill over into the year 2021. What’s next for PR? The future course of action for the PR profession is like this – “Our clients, whether they thrived during the pandemic or were run out of business, are now asking, ‘Where are we and what do we do next?’ The PR business has not changed in what seems like forever because its core fundamentals remain the same. But the big challenge is how do we break the clutter to reach, engage and inspire your target, who is so important.” He added – “Our job as communicators is to ask smarter questions – to tell the story with passion.”

In a conversation with Atipriya Sarawat, Fiserv he expressed the fact he is “the eternal optimist” when quizzed about negative social media for he felt that there will be places where bad news will be filtered out. And, how do we use social media to drive messages within organisations? Social media has never been more important as we work from home. So, it’s important to use it the right way, he suggested.

Lessons from Edward Bernays, pioneer American publicist 

Shelley Spector, Founder & Director of The Museum of Public Relations waxed eloquent on “Reputation Management Lessons from the Life of Edward Bernays”. One of the biggest challenges that he faced at that time, was no one knew about Public Relations then. For the first 80 years, the people working in PR were the ones coming from newspaper agencies, explained Shelly; it’s not that way anymore and “you have to be diligent for it’s how you could make your client part of that story!”

When Dr Mahul Brahma, mjunction asked her how did the idea come about, she was quick to answer that it was Bernays’ idea, which he expressed when she and her husband met him when he was 101 years old! They took up this and “it was an opportunity handed to us and life has not been the same anymore,” she exclaimed. Besides making history, it was educating the world what PR can do. 

Apart from Bernays (who lived the longest) there was Ivy Lee, who was the first to work out a Press Release to tell a story in NewYork Times, where the first page quoted him. Are there any modern leaders who remind her of Bernays? There is no one who has the attributes that he had, she noted, but perhaps Richard Edelman who created the Trust Barometer could be someone who could fit in. 

About fake news, what would be his reaction? She said, “I think he would say there’s no such thing as ‘fake news’ because news by definition is the truth. We always assumed news organisations would tell you the truth but that has changed.” And, what were some important lessons that we could derive from his lifestyle? Pat came her answer – research, read the news and think about big ideas that will make news. What would be one advice from Bernays and Shelley? Read the news. 

The Creativity Compact

Gail Heimann, Chief Executive Officer, Weber Shandwick, spoke on “The Creativity Compact: Why we must make the ideas that make change happen”. Necessity remains the mother of invention, was the basic outline of her talk. 

She started her talk by explaining how the new ‘compact’ is different from the old concept, which meant – ‘bringing things together’. “Compact is a collective agreement to deploy our human intelligence, insight and imagination to solve business and societal problems,” she noted and added that the world needs this ‘creative compact’ more than ever, now. “We are key drivers of what’s next, as marketing communications leaders”. 

Tough times drive new changes. Taking the viewers to step back in history (677 years) she referred to the ‘Black Death’ plague and its impact on the world. According to historians it probably killed somewhere between 30-60% of the European population but, what’s interesting is what happened after. There was more land for less labour; people’s pay got higher; new automation were invented to support that labour. She pointed out that people realised they can’t work with a poor vision and the eyeglasses were introduced after the plague. Literacy was enhanced, people wanted to learn to read and write, and new, innovative ideas took shape. The bottom-line was – a new world order was born – that “put ideas at the centre, to drive change”. 

We are entering a period of ‘re-enlightenment’, as she put it. We are going through a global reckoning about the state of humankind. It is critical that in the realm of marketing and communications we have the resilience and a cheeky spirit to ignite ideas.  And, as we work from home, we have been highly dependent on platforms like Google Meet, Zoom and Microsoft Teams (and these are examples of products that stood the test of time during the outbreak in 2020!). She highlighted the fact that it was Zoom that was the ‘story of the year’. In the year 2019, Zoom had 10 million users. In the year 2020, it has 300 million users. It has a market cap of $50 billion, which is greater than the world’s top six airlines put together. “Zoom came from a little idea, a great idea, and is now an extraordinary player in an important space that we are fully dependent on,” she said. Then she spoke new products like (that emerged in the pandemic) like – Plex’Eat, a plastic shield for those dining in restaurants invented by Christophe Gernigon, a French designer; and the Aarogya Setu app, an Indian innovation, that “the government jumped in early to track and curb the spread of COVID, which was a terrific idea”. Then she focused on three other Indian examples that were truly innovative –  a restaurant in Chennai called Robot ( that used robots to serve its guests when it opened two years ago) and now those robots to provide masks and hand sanitisers in the restaurant;  then there were two campaigns by Weber Shandwick in India – the “Stay home, stay safe” campaign (with the catchy rap song) for Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Dharavi that helped to check the spread of COVID and Maharashtra State Commission’s campaign against domestic violence.

Cutting to 2021, she saw this as the time for creative enlightenment and shared some thoughts on the same. “Necessity is the mother of invention – this will continue to be true. We need to keep inventing and ideas will continue to shape the world. “I believe 2021 is the start of a great beginning,” she persisted. 

When questioned about brand activism in 2020s by Arun Sudhaman, Provoke Media she assured that this year has seen massive activism and it has been an awakening. Brands are recognising that they have a sense of purpose. We live and work at an intersection of things, she felt and added that PR has indeed, risen to the occasion. And, we need to invest in diverse talent for “we cannot make ideas unless we have diverse talent”.  

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Shree Lahiri on EmailShree Lahiri on LinkedinShree Lahiri on Twitter
Shree Lahiri
Shree is the Senior Editor at Reputation Today and hopes to move from one focus area to another in the editions that will be released this year. Having worked in Corporate Communications teams, she has experience of advertising, public relations, investor and employee communications, after which she moved to the other side – journalism. She enjoys writing and believes the power of the pen is indeed mighty. Covering the entertainment beat and the media business, she has been involved in a wide range of activities that have thrown open storytelling opportunities.

She can be reached at: @shree_la on twitter

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