|D.J. Jordan and Dustin Siggins co-authored this article.|
"With great power comes great responsibility.” From Uncle Ben’s mouth to Peter Parker’s ears to PR practitioners’ computers, two recent national surveys show the power of earned media and the serious responsibility we bear to serve our clients and the general public.
The first study was Edelman’s June “Brand Trust in 2020” special report. Forty-four percent of respondents said earned media would help them choose a brand, while 51 percent would leave a brand over media coverage. The second survey came from Bospar in July; earned media drove 19 percent of respondents to visit a company’s website after just one mention. After 10 mentions, 85 percent of respondents visited a company’s site.
In a time when a single bad story involving politics, injustice or the pandemic can have real consequences on real people’s lives—or can change an entire industry and launch a social movement—executives need to take the power we bear and use it in ways that improve our companies, our clients and the world.
The area that executives can most influence is within their company. Hiring the right people with the right values sets your company on the path to ethical and long-term growth. A trustworthy team treats clients like friends and each other like family. Together, they’ll help each other become better and maximize the value your firm can bring to a client.
Building the right culture and the right team is solely on the CEO. As described in great detail by former Navy Seals and Iraq War veterans Jocko Willink and Leif Babin in their book “Extreme Ownership,” the buck can’t stop with anyone else. The CEO’s values—open door policy or strict hierarchy? Formality in the workplace or a looser structure? Snide comments about staff or solutions-focused? Discrimination and hypocrisy, or admirable ethics?—will guide every decision the company makes from day one.
You set the policies, the tone and the success of your company long before the first prospect is pitched and the first contract is signed. Once you have the right values and the right team to fit those values, your company is ready to guide clients to getting positive earned media.
A CEO must guide clients. This is doubly difficult because most people and prospects don’t fully understand what PR is. Worse, our respective firms find that many client prospects have been burned by alleged PR experts at least once, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars. These short-term “experts” create long-term problems for the rest of us.
The amorphous nature of PR requires success to start with earning client trust. Pinkston Group does this by promising the “wow” factor to clients. Proven Media Solutions published a “good-faith effort” pledge so clients know what they’re getting for their money. Our firms seek first to show a prospect that they aren’t just getting placement: they’re going to make a real difference for their customers, staff, vendors, investors and other stakeholders. And, in a time of social unrest and extreme discourse, for society at large.
Once the client signs on the dotted line, you must continue to prioritize ethics by putting client goals first. For example, you may want to get the client placed quickly to prove you can produce. However, the client may not be ready for that much exposure, especially if their message isn’t fully developed. Overwhelming a client and causing them to flounder benefits your company in the short run, but costs you thousands of dollars—and them tens of thousands of dollars—in the long run.
On the other side of the coin is moving the client too slowly. We’ve both seen PR “professionals” take advantage of client ignorance by placing them well below their level of influence. It’s a lot easier than aiming high, but it doesn’t serve your client—just you.
The Goldilocks approach is one that brings the client along with your approach. Taking the time to educate a client on your process to accomplish their goals is hard, but it’s the right thing to do. Follow “Never Split the Difference” author and former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss’ win-win negotiation style by guiding your clients to “that’s right” moments where they understand what you’re doing and why. Seek to truly see the world from their point of view, then mirror their language and goals so you both take ownership of the strategy.
The final step in the trust-building process is to have agreed-upon metrics for success. Any so-called PR “expert” can get a client placed. The ethical and success-oriented practitioner will seek placements that meet specific goals to build the client’s brand towards accomplishing long-term goals and aspirations.
In the Bible, Judas sold Jesus Christ out for 30 pieces of silver. Where’s your line in the sand to maintain your values while still growing your business? You must know where yours is to uphold your company’s values, truly serve your clients and make a positive mark in the world.
In a diverse society, it’s hard to only serve clients who fully line up with your values. Senior executives must decide how to incorporate one’s personal and social ethics into getting clients great press and influencing public opinion.
In short, you must ask if telling a great story puts your company on the track to success or makes you a modern-day Judas.
Cancel culture to changing a culture
Every PR agency has the potential to change the world. One of our firms works with a government contractor lender that, yes, wants to grow and make money, but also wants to become the ethical lender of choice for small businesses that are regularly taken advantage of by predatory lenders. The Consumer Technology Association likewise represents a $400 billion industry, but it has also launched a foundation which connects seniors to technology to keep them connected to loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With great power comes great responsibility.” PR executives have to decide how to use their power to lead their company, their clients and the greater society. The line between “cancel culture” and changing a culture is a small one, but it means the world to the world.
D.J. Jordan is a Vice President with The Pinkston Group. Dustin Siggins is CEO of Proven Media Solutions.