Courage first!

Much can be read about the role of qualitative methods in social sciences, marketing and communication. As opposed to the trend for closing the communication world in numbers, they do not define parameters in the form of data, but focus on the comprehension of phenomena

To put it in simple words, we base on the assumption that deepened analyses of a smaller number of cases is better suited to review some problems. What is more important in your perception of a communication expert: motivations or data?

Paul Holmes: I think it takes both to develop a really great campaign. Obviously, there has been a lot of discussion about the importance of data recently, and in the future the ability to gather, analyze and draw insights out of data will be vitally important. At the same time, I think we ignore a more intimate and intuitive approach at our peril: PR people should be closer to the audience than anyone, immersed in the communities—employee, consumer, and more—that support a company or a brand. That means they can use an approach closer to “cultural anthropology” to understand the relationships with those communities.

Sustainable development in many companies changes position from actions “worth to be taken” to the advantage of central commitment. At the same time, the approach changes from philanthropy to systemic solutions – the companies engage proportionally to their income, impact on the environment or impact on the stakeholders, attaching increasing importance to non-financial support. Does the long term success, in the situation of growing expectations, call for the adjustment?

CSR and sustainability initiatives face two kinds of criticism. Social activists are sceptical about motivation and authenticity—and about whether companies will really “walk the walk.” On the other hand, some executives feel that CSR is a distraction from the real purpose of doing business and making money. Because of that, I think it is important to find initiatives that provide clear benefits to everyone. That means measuring both the reputational and business impact of these campaigns—looking at cost savings from waste reduction efforts, for example. And of course it is important to communicate these efforts, not in terms of promises made but in terms of promises kept.

When entering the space between ethics and business, I have no doubts that in many cases engagement in CSR has positive impact on the ecosystem in which companies are operating. it also has a quantifiable value for business, attracts talents, restricts rotation, draws the attention of consumers. But, is CSR really necessary to save the world? Do qualities, for which we admire corporations, really change the world for the better? Is it not that such involvement draws attention of companies away from what they do best and what is most important for them, e.g. production or services?

I would suggest that in the modern world, very few major social issues will be solved by governments alone, nor by NGOs alone. Many corporations have more resources than some countries, and they have expertise—in project management, distribution, marketing, etc.—that are necessary to problem solving. They can play a major role in ensuring progress, as many have done in the US on gay rights, for example—an issue many have come to see as critical to recruiting top talent and ensuring employee engagement.

As for the old Milton Friedman idea that the only business of business is business, I think that is an outdated idea. Companies that seek to flourish in the modern age need to engage with their employees, their consumers, their communities—they need the support of these stakeholders, and to earn it they need to demonstrate that the support is mutual, that they are willing to address issues their stakeholders care about. Some companies—Apple, for example—can survive because their products are great, but most companies need every competitive advantage they can get, and stronger relationships are an undoubted (and relatively inexpensive) advantage.

In the world with unhampered access to information, authenticity seems to be one of the biggest virtues. The first round of presidential elections in Poland has just ended, demonstrating that PR without substance is losing sense. One of the candidates had many of the desirable attributes, with exception of one – he was not a leader. He was an utter election loss. Can anyone be created from grass root in today’s world?

PH: I am not familiar enough with the Polish elections to comment on them, so I will answer more broadly. First of all, the increased importance of authenticity is the biggest change as a result of digital and social media. The absence of authenticity is discovered much more swiftly and punished much more severely today.

But authenticity alone is not enough. Companies (and politicians) need to be able to relate to people in a human way, to demonstrate their leadership through both actions and demeanour. The recent UK election, for example, saw a candidate unable to build a connection with the people. To some extent he was the victim of a mainstream media narrative that positioned him as odd and out-of-touch, but the truth is he never found a way to circumvent the media and connect with people directly.

What is most important today for a communication expert, who wants to be good tomorrow? As you see, I have in mind communication in the perspective of few years to come. Will social media start losing importance, or anyway will they be changing meaningfully? How can the Internet of Things affect a PR campaign? What do you think has been the milestone recently?

PH: I don’t think there is any one thing. The biggest change in our profession, I think, is that there’s no one set of skills. It used to be that the ability to think and write clearly, to tell a good story, were enough to make a good PR person. But today, PR is a team sport: you need people who understand data and analytics, people with big creative ideas, people who understand behavioral and social sciences, people with storytelling skills—using words and pictures, animation and infographics—and people who know how to measure it all.

But if you want to be a successful PR counselor, advising senior management at the highest level, I think there are two personal qualities that will be increasingly important. First courage, because often good PR advice is not what CEOs want to hear; often, it is giving them a reason why they can’t do what they want to do, or why they need to think more about how others will react. And second, empathy, because the ability to understand why people think and feel the way they do is important, and the ability to sympathize with them—even if you don’t agree—is going to be critical.

To conclude, I would like to ask you what was the greatest success and greatest PR crisis in last year?

It’s hard to look past the current crisis at FIFA when it comes to the biggest crises of the last year or so. It’s indicative of the most serious kind of crisis, because it is not about a single accident—a plane falling out of the sky—or a one-off mistake, it’s about the culture of the organization, from the president down.

It’s also one of a series of crises for major sports organizations. Both the NFL and NBA have gone through their own issues. The NFL had a crisis involving a player who was guilty of domestic violence, and handled it badly—failing to understand how the age of transparency makes it difficult to cover things up. The NBA’s response to racist remarks by one of its owners was much better: it’s response was rooted in its core values, and an understanding that swift and decisive action was needed.