Driving Innovation: The Future Path for the Ingenious CCO

January 2022
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It’s hard to overstate the extent to which the world around us has shifted recently. 

My own 30-plus years of experience in this profession has been something of a mirror of many of these changes — a start in public affairs and crisis issues management work in D.C. to founding an agency in New York to pivoting to found a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) startup called PRophet.

You might say I now have one foot in the tradecraft and another in the software vendor world, which has given me a unique worldview in terms of where I think things in the PR profession are going — and what our function and role as communications practitioners will be going forward.

One thing that perhaps never changes is that many organizations think they’re way more interesting than they really are, and that we as PR people have an obligation to counsel them forthrightly on how best to tell their story, however compelling (or not) it might be. 

But we’ve yet to master answering two fundamental questions any such brand will inevitably bring to us: How do I know if a reporter or any third party with publishing power is going to be interested in my story, and if they are, how do I know whether it’s working?

Plenty of smart organizations and individuals are solving for the latter — the world of sophisticated measurement, KPIs, sell through and impact is vast, the innovation mind-boggling. However, the former is far more complex, all too often neglecting not only the resonance a story is likely to have, but what we can do to make it better. And it’s a question we often abandon far too quickly.

In short, to solve the question of how to maximize resonance for ourselves or on behalf of the brands we champion, we need to view the world in a different way. And three things — humanity, culture and ingenuity — are the legs of this table.

At the center of this challenge is a need to make our communications and role as communicators far more human centered. We have a renewed responsibility to create, protect and lead corporate values and culture from the inside out — going beyond hanging fun signs on walls to considering the ways we manifest those values to an outside world. 

That also means taking a stance on social issues. Of all the aspects of being a communications practitioner that have shifted over the course of my time in the business, this is perhaps what has — quite rightly — changed most. When I started out, “issues” of any kind were a third rail. Now I believe they are the holy grail to customer attention, shareholder value, and employee attraction and retention.

Choosing the right path

Closely linked to social issues is of course the urgent need to move the needle on diversity, which means having a work environment that isn’t just inclusive but facilitates belonging. On this front, while I recognize that hybridized working environments are here to stay, I think that hybrid — rather than fully remote operations — are critical to creating a culture of empathy and respect. “Belonging” just isn’t something that can be cultivated purely virtually.

When it comes to the ingenuity leg, I think that PR historically has a path dependency problem. A natural human impulse, path dependency means doing the same thing over and over again — despite its effectiveness – because it’s easier, perhaps cost effective, and becomes your go-to rhythm and process.

The trouble for a profession like public relations, however, is that amid a world in which both the messages and the mediums are rapidly shifting, what we did 10, five, or even two years ago doesn’t work today. My track coach once said to me in high school that comfort and excellence can’t coexist, and I deeply believe this to be true.

Path dependency is the ultimate enemy of our profession in everything we do.

The future path for the ingenious CCO of the future is rather, neuroplasticity — retraining our brains to think differently, so that we can operate in new and exciting ways. 

To take a page from organizational psychologist extraordinaire Adam Grant, “It takes curiosity to learn but courage to unlearn. Learning requires the humility to admit what you don’t know today. Unlearning requires the integrity to admit that you were wrong yesterday.”

Preparing to unlearn

What does it mean then, in our profession to “unlearn”? We come into this world in three very linear and analog spheres: external, internal and social. And all of these are important and none inherently bad but can limit how clients view our role. Rather, it is up to us to showcase the value of design thinking, upskilling and augmented intelligence.

Design thinking is an audience-based approach to innovation and real-world problem solving. Essentially it means that we’re commonly given a brand’s manifest need – a direct ask from the business – rather than the actual problem they are trying to solve for. 

As an example, our client The Ironman Group came to us with a goal of driving race registrations through public relations. Digging deeper, we helped them explore how we could convey that anything is possible by highlighting participants’ triumphs over adversity –—their tagline, and latent need. You can’t solve for the former until or unless you solve for the latter.

Upskilling means rethinking how our teams are structured — our roles, and the skills we need to continue to outperform on behalf of our constituents. Having traditionally operated as PR people in a silo, we’ve limited creative thinking and still hesitate to fully embrace the notion of emerging platforms. They are a window to our future, offering so many platforms and ways to tell or amplify a narrative. As a profession, we operate with a little bit of fear and uncertainty in this domain.

Focusing on narrative

We also need to think more broadly and understand how we map and fuse art and science together. We never want to get rid of our tradecraft, which is narrative – and narrative can only be done by human beings. 

Generic storytelling needs to be replaced with timely, resonant, topical commentary from those with domain expertise — from select, trusted, validated and verified thought leaders. But we can explore applying those skills in partnership with AI and other technologies.

In sum, when I think about the future of our profession and our collective workflows, I break it into three buckets: the intelligence we need to do our jobs, which is to say data to inform thoughtful pitching; the rise of a far more collaborative environment, in which serendipity and creativity happen in a more structured manner; and embracing lots of disruption, which can be with regard to anything from the intelligence side to distribution to reporting.

Using technologies like AI and machine learning can help us better understand what’s happening in the marketplace and make the most of the human intelligence that will always be central to the work we do. 

Return to Current Issue Navigating the Year Ahead | January 2022
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