From the conference’s very first remarks on the importance of ethics, diversity, and inclusion, PRSA ICON 2018 focused on one overarching theme: PR leadership.

As Del Galloway, APR, Fellow PRSA, and winner of this year’s Gold Anvil award explained, “PR is the glue that bridges an organization and its stakeholders.” By extension, PR professionals serve both as internal spokespeople and external liaisons who stand for freedom of press, diversity and inclusion, and a communications code of ethics.

Following remarks from Judith Harrisons, the PRSA Foundation’s SVP of Staffing, on the urgent need to match our industry’s demographics to that of society at large, marketing guru Jonathan Mildenhall delivered the conference’s first keynote on the power of purpose.

Purpose-Driven Brands

Mildenhall inspired the audience with his commitment to bringing personal convictions to everything he does.

He discussed his history—at Coca Cola and Airbnb—of building marketing narratives that express purpose—and working with PR to ensure these narratives reach the right audiences.

“What are your 2 or 3 core values?” he challenged the audience, explaining how much easier it is to make decisions when we’re determined to map our values to everything we do. And then he carried over his argument to brands, making the case that they should behave similarly. Case in point, his experience heading up advertising and marketing at Coke. After spending time sifting through the company’s archives, he reached the conclusion that Coke had earned its place as top global brand by positioning itself as “the antidote to modern day woes.” Over the years, they tackled not only thirst (of course), but isolation, depression, sexism, and racism. He showed this example:

After finding this powerful example of the brand challenging racism dating back to 1969, he was inspired to lead his team in doing the same in another part of the world. The result was the small world machine:

He summed up by reminding us of the benefits of being a purpose-driven brand. These campaigns drive performance, ensure the right kind of growth, and create personal connection—everything modern PR pros are looking for as they build bridges to journalists, influencers, and the brand’s audience at large.

PR as Torchbearer for Truth, Trust, and Civility

And that was just the beginning. The stakes kept getting higher!

Political commentator, professor, author, and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich broadened the scope of discussion even further to encompass PR’s role in setting the tone for our national discourse. He started by asking: Why are we continually surrounded by vitriol, incivility, conflict, and disrespect?

His opening premise—to a room full of communicators—was that as a nation, we simply aren’t truly communicating. But he didn’t leave us grappling with a conundrum, he methodically broke down its historical and cultural origins, in what amounted to a 60-minute-long a-ha moment.

If you haven’t read any of his books or seen his documentary Saving Capitalism on Netflix, do so, as this recap won’t do his ideas justice.

He boiled down our current sad state of affairs by shining a light on 3 factors:

1. Tribal geography—Most of us live in places where everyone shares similar views. We’re in a bubble where we don’t have to face disagreements firsthand. In a world where companies are increasingly making their core values a part of their communications campaigns, is PR ready to bridge gaps and bring audiences together, rather than polarize them?

2. Stagnant wages—Turns out, per Reich, that wages have not grown for the past 40 years, as adjusted for inflation, despite the fact that the economy has doubled in size. As a whole, we’ve been compensating for our stagnant earning power in three ways: first, women joined the paid workforce to increase household income; second, we started working longer hours; and third, we dipped into home equity for extra cash. But these backup strategies have run their course, and we can’t keep pretending that our standard of living is going up. What we’ve got left is anger, and a feeling—beyond questions of diversity and inclusion—that this isn’t our country and “somebody else is pulling the strings.” As communicators, are we attuned to this frustrations when constructing a brand voice and message?

3. The media—Reich points to a lack of civility and an emphasis on anger-based modes of discourse by the professional media. This is where PR’s role becomes most obvious.

Reich made it clear that we’ve got the power to influence, even guide, the tone of the national conversation. We are in a position to explain to our bosses and clients that civility—simply being respectful—is critically important and is good for brands as well as communities.

He summed up his talk, reminding everyone that “trust is your most precious commodity” and that PR is here to ensure that brands promote truth and civility as hallmarks of a great society.

Being Bold

Throughout conference sessions, speakers dove deeper into the day-to-day of brand communications. But the stakes had been clearly laid out. Whether looking at measurement, crisis, media relations, or influencer partnerships, the through line remained: it’s up to PR professionals to lead the way in crafting the message, helming its delivery, and aligning it to value.

Examples included:

Adam Tiouririne’s talk on earning public forgiveness by taking responsibility and communicating effectively when crisis hits.

Catharine Paine’s excellent presentation on making sure you measure what matters. What does this mean? Getting out of the PR bubble (more coverage, more impressions) and building consensus with stakeholders on how PR moves the needle. Then finding the best way to identify PR’s true impact.

Tips from Mary Elizabeth Germaine from Ketchum on working with influencers to maintain integrity and build trust.

As well as the inspiring session by CEO Aria Finger on activating brand values and connecting with young audiences.

Our key theme of PR leadership was driven home by Ann Handley whose final keynote was a playful take on empowering communicators (if you haven’t read her book or seen her speak, both are a must!). She encapsulated 3 days of deep thinking on the role of communication in our lives and our imperative as communicators.

A big thanks to PRSA for another great conference. See you in San Diego next year!