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Purpose & Authenticity: The Dual Strands Of PR’s DNA

Josh Cobden

When I started working in public relations over 20 years ago, it didn’t take me long to develop an inferiority complex. No, I wasn’t bullied or belittled.  In fact, my colleagues at Proof were so kind and supportive and the work so rewarding that I will celebrate my 22nd year at the Canadian public relations agency in 2019.  Rather, it was the traditional criticisms of PR that often left me feeling exposed.

PR’s not measurable.  PR can’t target specific audiences.  PR doesn’t have enough reach.  PR outcomes can’t be controlled.  PR only hits the top of the funnel.  These barbs would echo through my mind as yet another journalist rejected my latest pitch. I envied my friends in advertising who got to decide when, where and how often their messages would appear.

A lot has changed in 20 years.  Much of what we do in PR now lives online and can (and should) be measured.  Audiences can (and should) be well-defined and precisely targeted.  Messages can be cast both narrowly or broadly using a mix of paid and earned approaches.  Lower funnel outcomes like consideration, action, and advocacy can be achieved.  And increasingly, public relations has barged its way into the C-suite by embracing measurement and asking better questions.  PR has grown up and become a confident, resourceful and effective adult.

But the main reason I’m feeling bullish on PR isn’t due to anything the public relations industry has done to evolve.  Instead, it’s an evolution among people around the world who are increasingly making decisions about what to think and do based on purpose and authenticity.   This shift in behavior was a central theme among speakers at  PRovoke18, the Holmes Report’s North American PR Summit I attended in Washington, DC with colleagues from Proof last month. Let’s look at purpose and authenticity:


Not long ago you would be hard-pressed to find a brand that would be comfortable attaching themselves to an integrated marketing campaign focused on transgender rights in a developing country (or anywhere). But that’s exactly what P&G’s Vicks brand has done in India with its extraordinary “Touch of Care” campaign that redefines what it means to be a caregiving mother. Similarly, it might seem implausible that a brand steeped in Americana and originally built for rugged construction types is today fighting for gun control. Yet that’s what Levi’s is doing with its Safer Tomorrow Fund and their decision to ban guns in its US retail stores.  These are but two of many examples of brands taking a firm stand on social issues.

In the past, speaking out on controversial issues was often considered an unacceptable risk by many companies.  How times have changed. According to a 2018 study by Sprout Social, two-thirds of consumers say it’s important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues.  Similarly, John Gerzema, CEO of the Harris Poll presented data to the PRovoke18 audience revealing that 62% of corporate communicators in the US now feel that brands that do not take a stand on major societal issues face reputational risk, compared to just 18% who feel the opposite.

The problems that organizations confront today are more complex because their two key audiences – customers and employees – now expect them to take a stand.  The optics of indifference has become unacceptable.  This evolution plays squarely into the hands of PR, the organizational function that has always been charged with managing reputational risk, corporate social responsibility, employee communications as well as community and stakeholder relations.


“We’re imagining a world with zero ads – building partnerships with professional content creators to drive engaging experiences with consumers.  These content creators are helping us start conversations with our brands and go into new places – many of which have no ads or very few ads. PR is at the heart of these partnerships.”

You could be forgiven for thinking this might be a statement by the CEO of a public relations firm. But no, these were the words of Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer of P&G, the world’s largest advertiser and owner of Tide, Crest, Bounty, Gillette, Head & Shoulders and other stars of the 30-second TV spot.

The idea of advancing an organization’s goals through dialogue and conversation using trusted, influential voices as the messenger may be in vogue, but it’s nothing new – it’s the foundation on which public relations was built.  And it’s an approach that aligns with public sentiment today. Consider that our 2018 Proof CanTrust Index reveals that twice as many Canadians trust the news media (51%) as they do large organizations (26%), and when it comes to information sources, Canadians trust their friends and family and their own experiences most (76% each) followed by news coverage (54%). Advertisements trail far behind (39%).

Now, add together purpose and authenticity –the dual strands of PR’s DNA – and strengthen it with the industry’s adoption of audience analytics, paid amplification and powerful measurement techniques and you’ve got some serious modern marketing muscle.

“PR’s time has come,” announced P&G’s Pritchard to the audience in Washington.

At Proof, we couldn’t agree more.