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.