PRSA ICON Recap: The Secret Word is ‘Transparency’

5 min read

A ship sailing the sea

Monthly, quarterly, and annual evaluations have always answered the question, “Are you good at your job?” Public relations professionals have been going through a nearly two-year long evaluation trying to answer that question. Not to be hyperbolic, but 2020 changed just about everything for the PR industry. In my opinion, for the better.

For three weeks, I attended Public Relations Society of America’s annual ICON conference—virtually, of course. Conversations centered on corporate social responsibility and advocacy, diversity and inclusion, misinformation, post-pandemic operations, and much more. But the word I kept hearing over and over as I clicked through sessions was “transparency.”

I’ve been in the industry for nearly eight years and I was pleasantly surprised how open everyone was to being open. I’m a big fan of companies addressing whatever elephant in the room is taking up space that day; it builds trust, strengthens relationships with audiences in the moment and for the future, and gets the eyes off that elephant faster (although, if you read my last blog post about PR myths, you’d know I love elephants).

While there are new things to get used to post-pandemic, some industry standards continue to be extremely relevant and are always evolving to fit this new world. Journalists still want data, editorial and crisis communication plans still require strategy and flexibility, and PR professionals’s list of needed skills is ever-growing.

Below are a few key takeaways from PRSA ICON:

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

Diversity, equity, and inclusion seemed be the sun the conference revolved around. If a session wasn’t specifically focused on it, presenters usually mentioned a related topic.

I definitely had to get used to the alphabet soup presenters used—DEI, CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), CSA (Corporate Social Advocacy), BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color)—when discussing how to organize policies and tactics. But between listening to presenters talk to attendees using these terms and my own experiences with social justice work, it solidified for me that it’s a complex issue that can’t be boiled down to acronyms and data points.

While it’s great to measure success through data, audiences are looking for what a company tangibly changes—adjustments based on employee surveys and forums, audits of vendors and suppliers, diverse hiring practices, etc. In turn, celebrate your successes and recognize your weaknesses along the way—as we did this summer. Being transparent about making those actionable items a reality is what’s going to move the needle and build trust with those audiences.

Along with external stakeholders, board members, and employees, PR professionals should be a voice of conscience and hold organizational leadership accountable on their progress. The PR team is aware of the latest issues and can be leaned on for advice on when to speak out and how to do it. No company is apolitical, so if you haven’t reevaluated yet what activism looks like to you, now’s the time.

Turn Misinformation into Miss Information

If diversity, equity, and inclusion made up the sun in this conference solar system, misinformation was its Mercury. This topic is plaguing organizations, especially those in healthcare and government at multiple levels, and is another reason why it’s so important to save a seat for your PR team at “The Table.”

When one presenter described misinformation as a crisis, it all clicked for me. Like other crises, misinformation can undermine trust and erode communication channels because focus is completely lost on the company’s mission, goals, and messages. Organizations should have good practice playing “what if” to prepare a crisis communication plan, so why not plan ahead as much as possible? As you plan campaigns, consider what misinformation could surface and build guidelines for responding into crisis communication plans.

Should your company be accused of false or bad information by audiences, be sure to lead with empathy, education, and engagement. Make sure communications tactics remind audiences of what your organization stands for and the relationship they’ve had with you over a period of time. Decide how transparent you need to be ahead of, during, and after the situation. Timing is everything during a crisis, so don’t wait too long to get ahead of it because by that point, you may already be behind.

Tell Tales Across the Land

To round out the space metaphor, storytelling was certainly the brightest star in the solar system, which makes me very happy. One of my driving forces is helping share my clients’ stories with audiences—they humanize a brand and bring awareness to the fantastic work being done by talented experts.

With newsrooms shrinking and online media conglomerates becoming quite the trend, PR pros have to keep reconfiguring how to get stories to journalists. For example, it may seem taboo for a group of people that are used to offering exclusives, but it’s OK to repurpose blog posts or social media content for pitch ideas.

One presenter urged us not to discount the power of subscriber-based outlets and it makes sense. People are paying to read a specific publication, whether it’s industry-specific or interest-based, so why not get eyes from an audience guaranteed to be interested in what you have to say?

We find clients across different industries have a tough time capturing stories for a multitude of reasons—maybe someone isn’t designated to collect stories or there isn’t clear communication on what types of stories the marketing department needs. However, PR teams can present on why storytelling is so important, gather competitor media coverage to show leadership teams how others are spreading messages, and help develop internal processes for employees to submit stories.

“What Have We Learned, Class?”

People (audiences and employees) are finding it easier to walk away from companies unwilling to do the right thing, so ethics and transparency should be the top priorities in all types of communications. All in all, PRSA ICON’s messages to me were: Tell great stories, prepare for people to not believe you, and to quote Pitbull as one presenter did about DEI practices, “Don’t talk about it, be about it.”