MIAMI—In a changing world, companies need to eliminate the barriers between previously separate disciplines—including marketing, public relations and public affairs—in order to wield influence on public policy issues, according to James Cicconi, senior executive vice president-external and legislative affairs, AT&T, kicking off the second Global Public Relations Summit in Miami.
“The world is globalizing rapidly,” said Cicconi. “If you are not a global company now, you soon will be. That means you can’t do something in Thailand and not have it impact you in New York. We are only just beginning to realize and deal with that phenomenon. Even though 90 percent of our sales are in the US, our customers’ perceptions are influenced by how we behave all around the world.”
At the same time, the barriers between communications disciplines are coming down, said Ciccone, responding to questions from moderator Andy Weitz, US president and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies. Old-style lobbying, based on who knows who, has been replaced by an integrated campaign approach that basically means, “You try to start an intellectual debate and then you try to win it.”
According to Cicconi, “We are seeing increasing convergence of public policy techniques and political campaign techniques and traditional public relations techniques. If you think back to The Selling of the President in 1968 and the Nixon campaign going to Madison Avenue, that was considered revolutionary at the time. Now we find that all of these things are converging in politics and business.
“You have to have a campaign mindset. You set your objectives. You have the military, the Special Forces, air cover—in our world, these like are advertising and PR and research and focus groups. And you also have external influences that have to do with how you’re viewed: whether you share the values of your customers, whether you are environmentally friendly. If you are viewed as a good guy company, that makes a difference. ”
Weitz cited H+K research, published today, showing that the majority of Americans don’t believe that companies share their values, or live the values they expound publicly.
“Our customers expect this,” said Cicconi. “Large corporations are now rated by the public about the same way they rate Congress, which is worrying. People increasingly want to feel that someone they do business with shares their values and is a good corporate citizen. They have choices and they are not slow to make decisions based on those choices.
”At the same time, you can’t over-program. If it’s not genuine reflection of their character, they will see through it.”
Weitz pointed to the “It Can Wait” campaign, an AT&T initiative designed to educate young people about the dangers of texting and driving, and wondered whether there had been any reluctance in the C-suite, given that it essentially argued for people not to use the company’s services.
“In the C-suite, there are people, and this wasn’t driven by research and data; it was driven by tragedy. There were young kids dying in accidents while they were using our devices and we resolved that we needed to do something about this. We needed to communicate better, and directly, with young kids about this issue.”
Asked how AT&T was able to pull together the required resources from different discipline, many of which might once have operated in their own silos, Cicconi offered straightforward advice.
“The biggest thing is not to let them become silos. Integration is the most important thing. Just about every issue we deal with today cuts across horizontal lines. Structure can’t be so rigid that it impeded communication and cooperation across functions. I can’t do anything in pub policy without support from business groups and corporate communications.”
Another major change, he says, is increased emphasis on measurement and metrics.
“PR was—when I started with AT&T 15 years—considered one of these softer areas. That’s dangerous, because everyone thinks they understand it, everyone has a view. But we are becoming manic about measures like net promoter score. We now have a readout every two weeks on how we are doing.”