Anyone practicing the art and science of communications today is well aware that key themes such as trust, transparency, creativity and authenticity are more important than ever in storytelling.  So, it was no surprise that this year’s PRWeek Conference centered on “The Value Proposition,” delivering engaging, entertaining, valuable and fresh perspective, even if some of the topics were familiar. I felt I was almost taking a day to renew my license to practice PR, and it made me wonder: Should we be licensed to drive media, stakeholder value, behaviors and reputations?

The Media in Disbelief When People and Brands Still Get It Wrong in a Crisis

A panel with four established members of the media discussed how companies and celebrities respond in desperate times. Andrew Edgecliff-Johnson from Financial Times, Shelly Banjo from Bloomberg’s “Gadfly,” Scott Burton from ESPN, and Nathan Bomey from USA Today all shared shock and awe at various crises that brands still didn’t respond to quickly, with transparency and careful disclosure of key steps in the process to restore confidence. Celebrities are the easiest and most mass-market way to understand best practices to follow in a crisis. The ideas of “insta-transparency” and “insta-apology” were shared. 

And what’s the basic advice of these professionals to PR pros, celebs and companies?

  • Don’t assume the media has hostile motives.
  • Don’t underestimate being human in a crisis.
  • Transparency doesn’t mean you reveal everything you know, or everything at once.
  • Statements don’t need to be perfectly crafted; they do need to come fast and include an apology.

Are you listening, Mr. Lochte? The most damage done to yourself and your “brand” was by your inadequate and inaccurate responses after the initial crisis event.

CEOs Putting the Personal in Personality 

One of my favorite speakers of the day was Dr. Toby Cosgrove, the CEO of the Cleveland Clinic. He shared a great blend of personal and professional stories about growth and change. Some of his themes also paralleled that of interim CEO of Girl Scouts USA, Sylvia Acevedo.

If we have recently experienced the fall of the rock-star CEO, then Toby Cosgrove represented the rise of the human CEO. 

Dr. Cosgrove shared how he transitioned from heart surgeon to chief executive — by trading his medical journals for the Harvard Business Review and listening more. He talked about business expansion to the Middle East and how the Cleveland Clinic’s brand strength is enabling growth, and he shared a very real story about overcommunicating with employees but still failing to reach everyone or get critical news across. Sylvia Acevedo equally inspired us by talking about how a girl who grew up on a dirt road in New Mexico gazing at the stars became a rocket scientist and joined a mission to ensure girls have the courage, confidence and character to succeed. Just as she runs an $800 million cookie business, she never forgets the people and their dreams, which live at the center of the Girl Scouts’ organization and purpose.  

Both were at once a leader of many, deeply knowledgeable about topics and trends beyond their company, and completely human in their approach to telling stories about their respective paths, passions and pitfalls. Maybe talking about failure is the new measure of success.

License to Drive

So while we may not need a formal license to hold our communications roles (today …), we do need to be continuously thoughtful and educated about the counsel we give our clients. Some of us may like the idea of getting a “speeding” ticket for working too fast and helping clients rocket to higher and better reputations. Some of us may like driving and charting into new areas. We all may appreciate and want to test-drive the latest innovations and technologies that can help us do our jobs more creatively and better. But there are some basic rules of the road that we all can’t afford to forget.