Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the Public Relations Society of America’s 2018 International Conference—known to many as #PRSAICON. Conferences leave me feeling refreshed. Innovative ideas, endless inspiration, and new industry friends? Needless to say, I landed in Austin ready to soak up the experience.

Austin, Texas

But let’s be honest, there’s a real challenge in attending conferences. It’s easy to soak up case studies and dream of implementing ideas. The challenge lies in leaving a conference with a reasonable number of new things to try. So here are five takeaways from #PRSAICON, complete with a few examples of how public relations professionals can walk this out in their roles.

Purpose, it matters.

#PRSAICON included four keynote speakers, and all of their talks hovered around purpose—specifically how purpose can lead professionals to the intersection of their careers and personal fulfillment. Let’s unpack this.

Jonathan Mildenhall is the former CMO of Airbnb, and he might have presented the best keynote I’ve heard to date. Mildenhall described his trajectory as the intersection of humanity and creativity—and those values have guided the way he’s shown up in all areas of life. They have and continue to drive decisions he makes personally and professionally.

Working for Coca-Cola, Mildenhall scoured the archives when he landed the job. It was there he learned that in 1968, after Dr. King’s assassination, Coca-Cola sent their plane to bring his body back to Atlanta for a proper burial. Anyone would be touched by this, but Mildenhall was moved to action. Working with his team, they developed an advertising campaign that reflected their business values—humanity and creativity. See the result:

Millennial marketing expert Aria Finger with Do Something shared a similar story. Do Something spearheads social campaigns, mobilizing over 6 million teens in 131 countries. You may be asking how? How does she engage the hardest audience to reach and get them to act? Simple: She lets purpose lead.

Finger recognized early on that the life habits, ideologies, and values established at 16 years old last a lifetime—for better or worse. This is where Do Something was born. But instead of starting with goals and objectives, they identified a need to benefit someone or something and took action.

Take homeless youth for example. Do Something created a campaign around John Stamos’ 50th birthday. Yes, you read that correctly—Uncle Jesse’s 50th birthday. The goal? Engage teens to make 50,000 birthday cards for homeless kids. At the end of the campaign, they had over 80,000 cards to distribute to youth who felt forgotten.

Aria Finger, Do Something

If you don’t know your purpose, now’s the time.

Be inclusive—just do it.

One thing is clear in the PR industry—we’re not embracing diversity and inclusion enough. Throughout #PRSAICON, the importance of diversity and inclusion was a recurring theme.

In the first conference session I attended, the room was reminded that mentorship, employee satisfaction, and organizational vibrancy and creativity are all benefitted by diverse employees. When companies prioritize gender, racial, and ethnic diversity within the organization, it almost always yields happier employees and more well-rounded campaigns. Whether advocating for clients or campaigns, PR professionals will have greater success with an inclusive approach.

The second day, keynote speaker Robert Reich took the stage. I’ll be honest, I was intrigued at the notion that a distinguished economic advisor could sharpen my PR skills—and I was mind-blown the entire keynote.

One of my biggest takeaways read like this: We can’t learn anything if we don’t engage with people who have different points of views. Break out of geographic, ideologic, and comfortable bubbles. Part of disagreeing is listening—eloquent listening, with an open mind. This will require we all start listening to understand versus listening to respond.

Diversity and inclusion aren’t line items on a staff agenda. They are fundamental parts of an organization that should constantly be prioritized, measured, and refined. PR professionals should advocate and champion these initiatives in their organizations, with clients, and throughout the industry. 

Embrace big data.

This is where I’m going to lose some of you readers because—numbers. I was thrilled to see #PRSAICON embrace big data to help public relations professionals realize its impact on our efforts.

When I saw a panel titled Strategy, Soul and Statistics: How to Create Business Value and Impact Forever, I was all in. Felicia Joy dropped knowledge: our clients and company leaders are overwhelmed, which means they default to the same habits, including giving marketers credit for work being done by PR professionals. PR strategies do complement marketing tactics, but they also drive business objectives in and of themselves. Third-party storytelling, media relations, and organic social media are all in the arsenal of PR tactics that can drive consumer behaviors, engage new audiences, and result in measurable ROI. Joy illustrated how important it is that PR professionals know and communicate their level of impact on campaign results.

Key takeaway? The convergence of marketing and public relations is inevitable. PR professionals comfortable analyzing data and creating coordinated campaigns will prove themselves invaluable.

Be a storyteller first.

Digital marketing pioneer Ann Handley is a force to be reckoned with—and not just because she wore a snakeskin business suit during her presentation. Handley left me speechless with her closing remarks.

Ann Handley

Handley shared the tale of one of her favorite stories, Charlotte’s Web—a novel she argues is the best PR playbook she’s ever read. Crisis communication, community relations, employee relations, government relations, grassroots organizing, lobbying, publicity, media relations, special events, reputation management—all in one amazing story.

I won’t go into all of the details because frankly it would require a post of its own. But there’s one key takeaway I’ve already brought back and written down by my desk: Be a PR person second. Be a storyteller first.

Oh, and if you need novel inspo, Well Done’s president’s got you covered.

Trust trumps.

I really can’t say enough about hearing Robert Reich’s keynote—which is why I added this fifth takeaway. Reich recounted the roots of the country at the times when Baby Boomers and Millennials entered the world, explaining that the structure of the economy and society help translate how target audiences see, perceive, and experience the world. (A great reminder for PR pros trying to engage audiences.) He also reminded the audience that the quickest way for media to grab attention, in a world where they’re fighting for attention 24/7, is by using anger, fighting, and conflict. Enter civic virtue.

Reich defined civic virtue as a population that continually asks themselves: what are my obligations to others as members of the same society?

Trust is our most precious commodity. If we don’t trust each other, our clients, our communication systems, or the facts and information we’re consuming, we lose the social fabric that ties us together. There is a responsibility that PR and media professionals have to help facilitate a civic discourse through our work. I’ll hope you’ll join me when I say, “Challenge accepted.”

Interested in learning more about #PRSAICON or continuing the conversation IRL? Let’s grab coffee and connect: casey@welldonemarketing.com.