Invaluable Reminders, Courtesy of PRWeek: Part One

PRWeek’s annual conference this month reminded me how healthy getting away for a day can be. Kind of like hitting reset — with benefits — as some of the world’s top marketers and communications leaders made what can look so hazy crystal clear, and, if only for a moment, beautifully simple. The learnings were so rich, I’ve broken them to two posts (stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2). First up, let’s talk about these take-aways:

- Brands start with cultures that thrive inside a company’s own walls

- Public communication is a C-suite function, and agencies must develop deep industry expertise in order to participate

- CSR isn’t a solution to short-term image problems; it’s an operating principle

Sean Connelly of The Hillshire Brands Company discussed the naming of the company he leads, following its creation out of the former Sara Lee earlier this year, creating a new home for brands like Jimmy Dean and Ball Park. Rather than an exercise in branding, Connelly started with a question: what kind of culture will this company have? In his view, everything starts with culture: how every employee, at every rung on the ladder, treats one another; how retailers view a supplier, taking the discussion beyond price; and ultimately, what is promised and delivered to consumers, and communicated to shareholders.

Openness, Connelly decided, would beat at the company’s cultural heart. From that grew the decision to name the company Hillshire Brands, after deciding its Hillshire Farms brand best represented a spirit of openness and possibility, while telegraphing to all stakeholders the “meat-centricity” and heritage of the new company. Self-hosted, webcam-powered virtual town halls held every Monday morning are among the ways Connelly is making good on his cultural pledge.

Connelly left the stage with words every PR person loves to hear from a CEO, that communications now is a C-suite function – a theme echoed by Jack Martin, Global Chairman and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies. Currently leading a multi-year, also largely culture-driven reinvention of the multi-national giant, Martin is agitating with his counterparts at some of the world’s biggest companies to give public communications a seat in the boardroom suite, giving our work its rightful place alongside law, finance, marketing and outside advisors in corporate decision-making and governance.  As part of the campaign, dubbed “The Fifth Seat”, and for fundamental health, Martin urged agencies to develop deep, industry-specific expertise. That seat at the table is earned, not given. The gang here at 360PR couldn’t agree more.

Perhaps no communicator has had their feet held closer to the fire of late than Lucas van Praag, until recently head of global communications for Goldman Sachs. Among many tales he told of the war room he helmed in the wake of the financial meltdown, the one that rang loudest for me was his steadfast resistance to plugging leaks in his bank’s reputation with kneejerk, short-term, cause-related tactics. Corporate Social Responsibility, Van Praag explained, needs to be a core, cultural commitment, and a strategic driver of a company’s long-term goals, pursued in a way that is transparent — that demystifies how and why a program truly matters for society.

At a time when “do something cause-related” has become a cure-all to remedy shortcomings in creativity and bigger thinking, Van Praag’s counsel got lots of heads nodding. It was a good thing to see. Indeed, it all starts with culture.