A week ago tonight, I shared a memorable evening with five PR leaders who were being recognized for their significant contributions to our profession. They were in New York to be inducted into the PRWeek Hall of Fame. I was there in my role as chair of the Plank Center to accept the award posthumously for Betsy Plank, who would have loved the evening because of the fellowship and important messages conveyed in acceptance remarks of the honorees.
Mike Fernandez, corporate vice president, Cargill, recalled one of his Georgetown professors asserting, “The questions are more important than the answers.” Mike explained, “The point he was making is that without smart, probing questions there is no advancement, no advancement in science, no advancement in the arts, no advancement in civil rights…nor in civil society.”
So Mike posed the following insightful questions:
- Public opinion surveys show that all of our institutions struggle to win public trust. In a world where nothing can be hidden, why don’t we stand up… and encourage our institutions to operate more transparently?
- Former US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan from New York was fond of saying (and I heard him say it in several Senate Budget hearings) “You have a right to your own opinion, but not your own set of facts.” In the contentious world we live in…it is important that we provide context. But how many of us in the name of marketing or serving the interests of our clients or spin, play into something that is less than the facts…because it is easier…and more convenient…to shrink from the debate?
- One of my favorite playwrights George Bernard Shaw wrote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” His observation was that we convey information, but too often we fail to strive for understanding…and too often fail to connect with the intended audience…and thereby fail to achieve our aim… If more of us strived to be understood, as rather than just speak…rather than have a canned, hair trigger response to something said or done…or hold on to some untested doctrine…If rather than that we listened…learned…and strived for real understanding might we live in a better, safer world today?
“While many of our departments and firms have long since turned our backs on the term public relations, now more than ever we need to not just communicate,” Mike said. “We need to relate to publics (collectively and individually), and we must rise with the occasion to change the world and our profession for the better.”
Gary Sheffer, vice president, corporate communications & public affairs, GE, underscored the importance of mentorship in helping develop the next generation of PR leaders. He cited two of his mentees who joined GE a decade ago and now are senior leaders on the PR team–Jessica Giansanti and Megan Parker.
“They are smart, versatile, and strategic and critical thinkers – just think about every characteristic needed to succeed in communications today,” Gary said of Jessica and Megan. “They are, in many ways, the future of communications – tough-minded energizing leaders who also genuinely care about others. A rare combination.”
Gary explained, “The world needs great communicators because great communicators can change the world – just look at important companies like Starbucks, CVS Health, Unilever and Facebook – where communicators are helping align social and business values. As we say at GE, they are helping their companies take on the world’s toughest challenges.
Gary closed by citing the critical importance of recruiting and supporting diverse talent. “Advancing diversity in our profession along many dimensions will be a rich source of innovation, creativity and a variety of values and worldviews that arise from different cultures and life experiences.”
Ginger Hardage, senior vice president of Culture & Communications at Southwest Airlines, explained that she changed her college major many times — from broadcast, to marketing, to business, to public relations, to advertising. Noting these disciplines are blending to form the current make-up of our marvelous profession, Ginger said, “It truly is a career choice that allows you to influence, persuade, and make a difference.”
Praising her team, Ginger said they practice their profession as if the whole company depended upon it. Like other great companies, she note that Southwest CEO Gary Kelly “sets a tone every day that is infused with integrity.”
No surprise to those of us who love to fly Southwest, Ginger urged the PR audience: “Let’s keep shaking it up by turning customers into advocates, by making shareholders raving fans, and doing all of this by always putting our employees first.”
Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO, Ruder Finn, spoke on behalf of her father, David Finn. Now 94, David is one of the visionaries who long ago saw the potential of public relations to help businesses achieve business objectives. His passion for the arts worked its way into many innovative PR programs and sponsorships, including several that I worked on during my time at Sara Lee Corporation.
Joele Frank, managing partner at Joele Frank, Wilkinson Brimmer Katcher, spoke for most people in the room when she admitted how much she loves her profession. And she made it clear that there is nothing she’d rather be doing. She made it clear that when you enjoy what you’re doing, you don’t make plans to retire. Exactly my point of view.