The fifth edition of our Global PR Summit — PRovoke16 — was probably the best yet, thanks to a remarkably strong lineup of speakers, convening CEOs, thinkers, marketers, influencers and communicators from across the globe at the St Regis Bal Harbour in Miami.
The event's eclectic nature continues to stand out, perhaps helping to explain why the feedback so far has reached the highest levels in the conference's five-year run. 87% of attendees evaluated PRovoke16 as either excellent or good, thanks to an inspiring range of sessions, led by such names as Frontline executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath, MBAs Across America co-founder Casey Gerald, Verizon president Ronan Dunne, Celebrity Cruises CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, Columbia University professor Hod Lipson and Ms. Foundation for Women CEO Teresa Younger.
As always, there was plenty of food for thought, covering a dizzying array of topics that rarely respected the boundaries of whatever passes for conventional public relations or marketing discussion these days. You can view all of our coverage here, but to make life a little easier, I've distilled the conference's three days into five quotes that help illuminate the themes that resonated most:
(1) "Don’t advertise. Don’t push products. Solve the problem"
The power of purpose is nothing new, but 'Good is the New Cool' author Afdhel Aziz helped to spotlight the urgency around such efforts, at a time when corporate resources dwarf the abilities of government or nonprofits to address social issues. Brands that actually focus on solving real-world problems are more successful and in greater demand, explained Aziz, adding that this represented a "golden opportunity" for their public relations advisors.
Aziz was not the only speaker to exhort PR people to take the lead in persuading companies to make a real difference in the world. In a stirring address, MBAs Across America co-founder Casey Gerald pointed out that companies need to rethink their approach to social issues, noting that concepts such as mutual benefit or short-term loss for long-term gain are not enough to trigger real change. That, he said, requires something which cannot be framed in pure business terms — “these problems cannot be solved unless the people in this room are motivated. We need a social awakening to accomplish true social, corporate good."
(2) "The new frontiers of storytelling"
PBS Frontline executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath got PRovoke16 underway with an appropriately provocative session that investigated how technology is rapidly reshaping her company's storytelling approach. Her comments were later echoed by NBCUniversal Telemundo's Alfredo Richard, who referred to the challenges in reaching 'Generation M' — the mobile, multicultural and millennial subset.
That kind of thinking was evident in numerous sessions, where the impact of external forces are combining to redraw the very notion of public relations and marketing. Columbia University professor Hod Lipson, for example, explored how "creativity is the next frontier for artificial intelligence" thanks to rapid advances in robotics, while a high-powered panel led by Mark Penn discussed the ways in which new political techniques are influencing brand marketing.
Many of these developments, of course, raise some troubling questions about authenticity and transparency, concerns that came to the forefront during entertaining sessions on influencer marketing and on the limits of data to shape narrative and opinion.
(3) "If you stand still, you die"
P&G global healthcare communications director Lee Bansil was in little doubt, during a session that focused on how earned media outperforms paid when it comes to driving influence. It is inertia, said Bansil, that kills brands, requiring them to constantly innovate to meet their consumers wherever they are.
That spirit of restlessness pervaded many of the PRovoke16 discussions, underscoring the agility required of brands in today's realtime communications era. A discussion of agile PR helped frame this challenge perfectly, with the UN Foundation's Zain Habboo explaining why fear remains the biggest barrier to brand agility.
That appears to be a barrier that Chinese companies, at least, are successfully overcoming, given their shift from "followers" to "disruptors." "Traditional perceptions of Chinese companies when it comes to innovation are being utterly upended," noted Huawei's Bill Plummer, despite the perception gap that continues to bedevil their efforts in the West.
Leave it to Lewis founder/CEO Chris Lewis to take a refreshingly contrarian stance, during a session on creativity with Dr Philippa Malmgren — "the answer is not to look at more data and faster, but to be quiet and slow down."
(4) "Brands have to take a stand to stand out"
Easy advice to give, in this case from Celebrity Cruises CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, but much harder to execute, given that standing for something often means standing against something. For Celebrity Cruises, that translated into a brave campaign which challenged the xenophobic state of political discourse in the US. Or, to put it another way, as consultant Todd Wasserman did, "brands exist to alleviate pain or elevate pleasure."
Lutoff-Perlo was not the only CEO calling on delegates to be brave. New Verizon Wireless president Ronan Dunne brought a similar mentality into play while breaking down his public relations philosophy, noting "narrative is the strongest asset you have in any organization."
(5) "It’s really difficult to learn if you are not having fun"
Dunne, in fact, went a step further when he reframed the traditional hierarchy of stakeholders, putting shareholders behind customers and employees. The latter group, he noted, need to be "liberated to get to work and make a difference."
That, unsurprisingly, was a recurring theme throughout the conference — reinforcing the changing nature of employee engagement as organizations begin to better appreciate the value of their people as genuine brand advocates, as capable of subverting ad-blocking as they are of scuppering any pretensions a company might have towards authenticity.
It was a topic that was particularly popular during the Independent PR Firm Forum, where numerous agency leaders discussed their efforts to recruit, motivate and retain the best talent, often in stark terms — especially when comparing themselves to their publicly-held brethren, as Chris Lewis did to significant effect.
But all of these initiatives will count for nothing if companies and agencies do not better reflect the diversity and demographic changes of the world that they serve. "We live in a white, male, patriarchal society and until we address this we can’t do anything else," said Ms. Foundation for Women CEO Teresa Younger during a session that focused on the leadership challenges that women continue to face in the workplace.