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Public Relations and its Evolving DNA

Josh Cobden

Blue strands of DNA on a black background

I’m a career public relations guy, but this wasn’t originally my plan.  My working life started in the restaurant business with no knowledge of PR.  But once I found out about PR firms, I knew this was what I wanted to do. To get started, I leaned on the generous time and advice of a few people who helped me break in. I always asked them how to be successful in PR, and it’s a question I’ve been asked regularly in over 200 information interviews I’ve paid forward since then.

If my advice each year was a genetic formula, you would see similar chromosomes appearing from the late nineties to now.  I call these the C-chromosomes: Curiosity, Credibility and Creativity.  C-chromosomes form a fundamental strand of public relations DNA, unbraided as follows:

The three C-chromosomes of public relations

Curiosity: Variety is often the magnet that attracts people to PR (especially agency work), but curiosity keeps them there and makes them successful. PR pros love to plunge into new and unknown businesses and tasks, and the superstars are the ones that “ask better questions” (our company’s motto). In an era of measurement and ROI, better questions lead to better outcomes.

Credibility: PR’s strength has always come from the attention and action earned by harnessing credible voices. An earned recommendation from a trusted friend, influencer, expert or news story is likely to be believed and acted upon, and is often borne of a clever, compelling PR campaign.

Creativity: Creativity is sometimes considered the domain of ad agencies, perhaps due to their creative departments and campaigns. I disagree.  While PR firms have recently adopted creative departments and advertising techniques, PR has always shown creativity – especially in engaging and persuading audiences without overt selling.

The C-chromosomes are still fundamental, but things have changed too. Looking back on the last six months (and likely the next 6, 12, 18…) I think COVID-19 has been the catalyst for a new strand in PR’s DNA, formed by TEA-chromosomes: Trust, Empathy and Agility. 

The three TEA-chromosomes of public relations

Trust: understanding the leaders, brands, information sources and actions that build trust has always been crucial in PR, and at Proof Strategies we study this each year in our CanTrust Index. It’s also why we recently launched trustlab, a new consultancy offering specialized knowledge and research in trust-building.  Recent spikes in political populism and data privacy concerns brought trust into sharp focus, but COVID-19’s rapid spread and many unknowns brings a new trust test to leaders and brands, and the communicators that help them.

Empathy: successful PR people consider every move from their target audience’s perspective, not their own. This is empathy. COVID-19 has added a new dimension to this audience-first approach as freedoms, economics and personal values collide on a daily basis. Mask wearing, travel bans, business closures and school re-openings are just a few examples of topics that require heightened empathy.

Agility: COVID-19 should not have surprised us, but it has taken a deadly toll. And it’s far from over. Leaving aside the guilt of leaders and followers who ignore science, lethargic leadership will also be judged harshly in the history books. The same can be said for PR pros who fail to plan and communicate situationally. Timelines are now measured in weeks, not months, and few programs succeed without testing, learning and pivoting. This is the new normal, and the next normal.

The shape-shifting nature of PR has kept me engaged for over 20 years, and this theme dominates the discussions I have with PR people at all career stages. Yes, the emergence of digital marketing with “new-tools-in-the-toolbox” and “merging lanes” has accelerated the progression of PR in the last decade. But it is COVID-19 that has fundamentally evolved PR’s DNA.


To read more about Proof Strategies’ response to the pandemic, read how we’re working and building trust during COVID-19.