Themes of Integrity and Ethics Dominate 2018 PRSA International Conference

“Public Relations is the conscience of an organization,” said Del Galloway in his acceptance speech after receiving the Gold Anvil award at the 2018 PRSA International Conference. Mr. Galloway’s comments resonated with me because they perfectly capture PR’s evolution in today’s fragmented media and political landscape.

Managing reputations and influencing public opinion is hard enough in more civil times. But in a world where the prevalence of fake news, uncivil discourse and purposeful misdirection run rampant, the PR practitioner is forced to rethink her tactics.

That’s why I love this notion of PR serving as the conscience of an organization. Public Relations has always owned this role, but now it’s seeing a path forward by leading with it.

And so it wasn’t surprising that “convergence” — the official theme of the conference — quickly gave way to the omnipresent themes of ethics, diversity and purpose-driven marketing.

[Related: Fighting Fake News: Facebook’s Battle for Integrity]

PR takes a stand

PRSA Chair Anthony D’Angelo kicked off the conference by reminding the audience of the organization’s advocacy efforts, specifically referencing its partnership with the Wall Street Journal and 300 newspapers in taking a public stand against fake news.

D’Angelo also talked about his strong response to an LA Times Op-Ed that claimed, “lying to the media is traditionally called PR.” By challenging this claim as insulting, D’Angelo was taking a stance on behalf of the 21,000 members that make up the PRSA — and he was drawing a figurative line in the sand. PR would ground its messaging in data-driven research, rather than lies and half-truths.

Several of the conference’s keynotes and breakout sessions continued this theme. One of my favorites was the keynote by esteemed thought-leader Robert Reich, who used a non-partisan approach to decode what’s driving the anger and incivility in today’s public discourse.

For Reich, one of the primary causes is that our consumption of media through mobile devices and social media has shortened our attention spans and made it more difficult to capture our attention. In this environment, the most effective way to get your message heard is to incorporate anger, violence and controversy.

Within this context, the PR industry has a huge opportunity because it strongly influences both political and corporate communication. Reich sees PR as the torchbearer of truth and civility.

Making a difference

While there’s no question this is a heavy responsibility, the industry seems up to the challenge. From Jonathan Mildenhall’s inspirational keynote about purpose-driven marketing for Coca-Cola and Airbnb to numerous sessions like the one on “Leading with Purpose and Integrity in the ‘Fake News’ Era,” there was a buzz around making a difference that I haven’t quite seen at recent PRSA conferences.

In an environment where communication at every level is under scrutiny, all of this emphasis on integrity makes a lot of sense. Ever a barometer for the shifting winds that drive our public and political discourse, the Public Relations industry has a big year in store.

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