Last night, I had the privilege of accepting the Alexander Hamilton Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the Institute for Public Relations. I was honored to have my friends, family and esteemed colleagues join me at the Yale Club for the event.
I’m told that Alexander Hamilton, the award’s namesake, once said, “Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.” I certainly hope that speaks to the integrity with which I’ve conducted myself throughout my career. I was asked to share a few thoughts during the event and wanted to publish my remarks on our blog as a way to share my views and connect with a larger community about the future of our dynamic industry.
As seen on IPR’s YouTube Channel:
I’m humbled to be receiving an award named after Alexander Hamilton. Like Hamilton, I believe in the power of words to change hearts and minds. Like Hamilton I believe in the ideals of America. And like Hamilton, I resolve my differences by dueling with handguns.
Allow me to take a pause. In the brief second I paused, a lot happened.In a heartbeat, a single heartbeat, that lasts barely a second, if you consider the cosmos, 4,800 stars were born.More down to earth, in that second of a single heartbeat, 100 lightning bolts hit the earth.And to bring it right down to us – in a single heartbeat, 2,800,000 emails are sent.
- 193,000 texts
- 5,787 tweets
- 25 blogs were posted to
- 3,472 photos were posted to Facebook
- 4,629 to instagram
All in a second. A heartbeat.
This is a revolution in human communication and, in fact, it’s a revolution in the human experience. And for the industry of which we are all a part, this is the greatest transformation—and challenge—in the history of our discipline. This is a now-or-never moment.
We will define our value in a marketplace turned on its head by channel disruption, by so many new and instantaneous ways to communicate…now-or-never. We are now in the era of public relations—at the speed of light.
It is a defining moment for all of us. We will get it right, or we will watch the future recede. Personally, I am tremendously optimistic that we will succeed. The reason is simple: this new world is a world that is made for us. We are in the business of providing relevance—of igniting engagement. We begin by earning attention. We don’t impose ourselves on people. We connect with them by reacting with acute responsiveness to the news cycle and to the cycles of the marketplace. That’s what we do.
In a world of near infinite choice and distraction, each of us now decides what we want to know about. We decide what is relevant to us. What we want to engage with. And now we make that decision fast. Right away. That’s a cycle we are very familiar with in public relations. It’s all just speeded up, literally, to the speed of light.
Our industry is right for this moment but that doesn’t mean we are always going to get it right. It doesn’t mean that these aren’t challenging times. But we don’t have to re-invent the wheel. It just spins faster than any of us could imagine a generation ago—or even 18 months ago.
What all of us as consumers of media now demand of our information sources—relevance, right away, to win our engagement—is what we have always had to earn as PR professionals. It’s just that when some of us began our careers, “right away” didn’t necessarily mean this exact instant. The moment we are in is giving a whole new meaning to the expression—in a heartbeat.
Anyone who can tap out a message on a keyboard—or a piece of glass—can be a channel. They can step out onto the world stage and what they have to say can go everywhere, instantly. And people can talk back to them—and they do.
We are now in a global dialogue. Just about anyone, just about anywhere, can react to something we say, and the entire world can listen in. This also plays to our strengths. We have always worked to drive the conversation—not to mention manage the occasional, or not so occasional, controversies that those conversations kick up.
And at this now-or-never moment, it will be the fundamentals of our industry, who we have always been, that will empower us. We have always been and we will remain in the business of generating big, novel, irresistible ideas. That must remain the heart of what we do. We are storytellers. To see a story come alive—for me, after more than 30 years—that’s still what it’s all about. It’s just that now we must get that done in a fragmented landscape in which the old hierarchies have broken down. When every day each of us can now construct our own personalized media stream, the old gatekeeper structure of the traditional media is over.
The impact of a 140-character tweet can trump the New York Times. Of course, traditional media does still matter. We can’t lose sight of that. It is in fact a measure of the complexity of this moment that good old fashioned news print—even if you read it on a screen—remains very much in the picture. Traditional news sources remain by far the most trusted in social media. But we can and we will reach far, far beyond that too. To all the rest.The multiple, multiplying, and hyper-personalized channels that the great brand names of media now co-exist with!
It’s an exciting time. It’s a complicated time. But it also seems there is no time. No time within an open architecture of extreme, instantaneous choice.
The challenge is to compel an audience that has infinite choice to step back – and take notice. We see week after week how swiftly a story everyone is talking about can become a story hardly anyone is talking about. Big stories, critical stories. We hear about them all—from every corner of the media ecosystem—until we don’t. Big news has always come and gone, but now the churn rate is incredible.
In seconds everything is known to just about everyone. And then the next thing comes along. That has created a restlessness in all of us, I think, and in everyone we need to reach.
At its best, this can actually create a more egalitarian world. Not too long ago, social media lit bonfires that brought down dictatorships in the Middle East and caused a conflagration that is still burning.
Media has always been able to move mountains—but social media can flatten whole mountain ranges. That can mean a more democratic world, with power dispersed more widely. And that’s a good thing. It can also, of course, be a force to convey some of the darkest ideas of our time, or any time.
And, there is something else. Something of supreme importance to all of us. Character counts. A strong sense of ethics has always been fundamental to the credibility and longevity of this business.
Indeed, in this fragmented, constantly morphing landscape, today, when everyone can know everything, integrity must be at our very core. Transparency in how we function as professionals is not an ideal to aspire to – it has to be that way.
Our industry is powerful. Public relations can move individuals – even nations – to share a way of seeing the world. That is an awesome responsibility. We must handle it with care. Because we are a business built on trust. If we are trusted, people will believe us. If we are not – they won’t. We only succeed when we reach people. We have to touch another human being.
PR is living engagement. Everyone’s talking and everyone talks back. We tell our stories within an ongoing global conversation. This implies scale. And we need to scale walls, not be blocked by them. we must understand the world beyond our respective borders. We’d better be speaking —across continents and oceans—as readily as we speak to a neighbor over the backyard fence. In fact – even more easily.
Doing our work at the highest level means hurdling over fences. Only organizations that can communicate across religions, races, cultures, languages and borders can thrive in the world we live in today. So what should be the highest goal in this industry? Ideally, to foster an authentic dialogue built on mutual understanding. That is what we strive to do. There’s no rule book. There’s no manual. n fact, everyone in this room is re-writing the book.
We are re-imagining the work we all care so much about. It is a great thing to be a part of. Yet the formative truths of human communication and our business remain true as ever. Character counts. Ideas are powerful. Ideas can change hearts and minds. Ideas can change the world. It’s just that now that must happen down infinite channels… In a heartbeat… And at the speed of light.