Should we change from Public Relations to Purposeful Relations? Asks One Hundred Agency's chief John O'Brien

Much is said about challenges to the PR sector; lack of trust, non-mainstream channels; ill devised PR ‘stunts’ and corporate ‘woke’ campaigns, but there are much bigger factors affecting the world we operate in and by default how PR should be redefined. This ‘VUCA’ world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) is creating challenges, but also opportunities if the industry can both understand them and adapt accordingly.

Global revolution

So how is this manifesting itself? Well, witness the global revolution of children and climate action; or mainstream politics failing to address populism; distrust and legislation around influencers, social media and personal data issues and society seeing the need to reduce carbon, shift from plastics and find alternative energy. Add the #MeToo movement, gender pay issues and diversity battles, then the misunderstanding in PR that purpose is simply about the three ‘Cs’ campaigning, causes and charities and you have three undeniable challenges;

  1. More is bad: For some, PR is simply feeding consumption in some form; promoting an out-of-date philosophy completely at odds with how many consumers, particularly younger ones feel. They see climate change and poverty as a result of a western society based on consumption. If our market model is measured on how much we persuade and shift product, the methodology is increasingly out of step with consumers’ thinking.
  2. Cynicism is rife: People are more cynical about PR and business than ever. Successive scandals mean that people doubt what they see and trust PR companies even less. If we think people should trust our messages because we are the ones who say it, then we are blind to the demand for diligent, detailed information so that they can make informed decisions of their own.
  3. Issues matter: Powered by social media, people now join together to reject the status quo and rally on global issues which they now take personally. If you take the biggest issues of recent years, it renders much of what has been PR and promotional stock-in trade; sex, gender stereotyping, diversity based humour and excess, completely at odds with how people view the world.

With fault lines like these, people look for alternatives to get information and establish trust. But this isn’t just the consumer, it’s the client as well. ‘PR’ should be about working on building an understanding with the client that they need to be more purposeful and to understand what that means. The responsibility of establishing trust between client and audience rests with us. Practitioners can only achieve this if they do so from a perspective that PR by my new definition is a leadership discipline, it impacts on management approaches, corporate culture, values and societal understanding. It is no longer just the story but how the authentic behaviour behind it.

Reboot purpose

We need to reboot what purpose means in PR and help clients to embrace it. It is not a new definition for CSR or simply jumping onto the latest cause for a charity aligned campaign, or a ‘woke wash’. Purpose, as a winning factor in the war for trust is about why the organization exists, as a positive contribution to people and or the planet. This is why Unilever’s purpose is ‘making sustainable living commonplace’, Boots is ‘helping people live a healthy and happy life’ and Lego is all about inspiring creativity. These aren’t campaigns, these are core, leadership and decision defining rationales, it informs how people behave in the business, what shapes its culture and how it influences all its stakeholders.

This is where we as the purpose relationship ‘PR’ practitioners are most capable of achieving the necessary shift in thinking, if we have a closer synergy with the expectations of younger generations and societal thinking. In building core messages and informing decisions, it isn’t just the value in the product or message, but rather, the values in the companies. People demand such values for their custom and loyalty and this is why business must integrate a core purpose and then get help activating it effectively.

Case studies

So let’s just think this through a bit further. Our industry prides itself on changing behaviours, but are we that good at changing our own? Do we for example, actually empower younger colleagues, closer to our customer’s customer, to use their own 'purposeful thinking’?

What is also interesting is where creative thinking comes from and how such work reaches its public. As we start to think of this year’s coming Christmas adverts, let’s remember last year when the food retailer, Iceland released a repackaged animation by Greenpeace, to promote anti-palm-oil usage commitment. The advert was produced at a fraction of mainstream work, but banned by Clearcast, being deemed too ‘political’.

The result was that it went viral via social media, getting 30 million views and became a cause in itself, with others aligning themselves with the advert and its message. It is easy to argue that this achieved more brand exposure than any ‘approved’ mainstream advert on terrestrial TV could have.

Just a few months later another ethical brand, ‘King of Shaves’ launched a new non-plastics range of men’s toiletries #mycodezero.

It aims to raise awareness of the plight of marine life with waste, create a proportion of profits for charity and change people’s behaviour. Almost overnight, the promotional film was banned by Facebook and Instagram for being ‘inappropriate’. As such it found other ways to be pushed out by a growing and engaged set of customers and cause driven ‘like-minded’ who may never have otherwise bothered about ‘King of Shaves’ products.

Be resilient

So where does this leave us? Are you best served not by a media buy, but rather a media ban? I say the answer is to get purposefully resilient which means;

Understand that business needs to understand purpose, "do good and be good with good products", with clients expecting us to engage audience trust better. We can do that by creating a youth first strategy, with older heads simply acting as a safety net, whilst better understanding our own purpose will help clients transform themselves and their behaviours rather than simply transforming those of their customers.

Welcome to the age of purposeful relations.

Written by John O-Brien, EMEA managing partner of Omnicom's integrated agency One Hundred Agency