MIAMI—Corporate character, rather than reputation, is at the center of the new model of communications, and public relations professionals need to learn to think of themselves as the curators of their companies’ character, according to Jon Iwata, senior vice president of marketing and communications for IBM Corporation, addressing the Global Public Relations Summit in Miami.
“Models do matter,” said Iwata, citing previous models such as those outlined in Edward L Bernays’ “Propaganda” or the “Marketing Funnel” that has informed the marketing profession for more than 100 years. “Whether you went to school to study or PR or marketing and whether you have been ‘practicing without a license,’ we all use mental models.”
But those earlier models are inadequate for the new world being shaped by forces such as social media and by the ability of companies and their communicators to tap into “big data.” And Iwata began by questioning whether the public relations profession is “taking full advantage of the data that are already being generated about markets, about customers, about issues?”
The new model, entitled “Building Belief: A New Model for Activating Corporate Character and Authentic Advocacy,” was developed under the aegis of the Arthur W Page Society, an organization of chief communications officers where Iwata serves as chair of the executive committee, and unveiled earlier this year.
The model focuses on “corporate character” as opposed to reputation management, a distinction Iwata sees as critical, quoting Abraham Lincoln: “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
Iwata suggests that, “We need to spend more time on the tree and less on the shadow.”
That requires communicators to look beyond raising awareness to driving belief and changing behaviors.
“It’s no longer about raising awareness in a world that is saturated with awareness. It’s about making people believe. Belief is much more difficult, but it unlocks the behavior we are seeking.” That’s one reason, Iwata suggested, for the emphasis on behavioral science during several sessions over the three days of the Global PR Summit.
“If the question is how to generate awareness,” he said. “We know how to do that. If the question is what causes someone to know something, we know that. If the question is what causes someone to understand an issue or a question, we know that. But when the question is what it takes to create belief, that’s a different matter.”
Page research, he says, identifies three drivers of believe: when people hear a message from people they trust, when they evidence and facts, and when they have personal experience with a product, service, or organization.
“When you think about traditional PR—events, speeches, press—how much of that really relates to those three elements of belief?” Iwata asked. “You can use those techniques in that way, but how often do we do that?”
The next step in the new model, he says, is translating belief into action: “You can build agency by driving three things,” Iwata says. The Page research shows that people say they need to know what to do and how; they need role models—people like themselves—to emulate; and they need the skills, tools and resources to change.
Then people need to have the confidence to build on those actions, to develop ongoing behavior patterns. And finally, they need to translate that behavior into creating advocacy on behalf of shared agenda.
The challenge for communicators is to become collaborators, driving collaboration across the C-suite; systems designers, developing not only systems of marketing and communications, and systems to relate those things to the company’s operations and management systems; masters of data analytics, to understand customers, employees, investors, citizens and other stakeholders as individuals rather than audiences or segments; and publishers and developers.
That last point is another that has become a theme of the Summit.
Says Iwata, “We have to be publishers and developers, so that we are not relying on intermediaries to get a story told and develop a relationship with decision makers. And we have to be curators of corporate character. I don’t consider myself the brand steward but I do consider myself one of many who tend to the character of IBM.”