Paul Holmes, Founder and Chair of PRovoke Media, explains why companies should not only lead with their values. Paul talks about current events such as the Disney lawsuit and Bud Light’s recent ad campaign. Paul also reflects on the growth of the PR industry.
DOUG: I don’t use the term legend loosely, except perhaps for when I’m looking at myself in the mirror. But Paul Holmes is truly a legend. He really globalized the journalistic coverage of the public relations industry. Paul’s recently come out with a very interesting editorial about the need for PR to combat the Anti-woke ideology. Paul, why is that so important?
PAUL: I know that it is very popular these days to talk about woke capitalism and woke companies, but the reality is if you spend any time at all interacting with business leaders, you know that the number of business leaders who are in any sense woke is infinitesimally small. The reality is that the things that business are doing that get identified as woke are utterly pragmatic. They are business common sense. They are done for economic reasons, not because business leaders are progressive or liberal or any other left of center ideological group. They are done because they make good business sense. And what we have here is a war between pragmatism and ideology. And when it comes to pragmatism versus ideology, I am always on the side of pragmatism.
DOUG: Now that makes a lot of sense. But sometimes ideology can and would appear is making inroads with a significant segment of the population that could affect business outcomes and talk what was named as woke. Turn that into something, that’s something that businesses want to be cautious about, which would be unfortunate. That’s really what’s trying to happen. So, what’s the role of PR in sort of saying let business do the right thing?
PAUL: First of all, I think public relations people need to understand just how important the changes that have taken place in the last 5 or 6 years are to our profession. We can go back to perhaps the BlackRock talking about the importance of stakeholder capitalism. We can go back five years to the Business Roundtable redefining the purpose of a corporation to include its responsibility to all stakeholder groups, and that, those two things, taken together have been a huge boon to the public relations industry because our job is managing the relationship between an organization and all of those stakeholder groups consumers, shareholders, employees, communities. And the fact that companies have come to recognize that managing those relationships and balancing those relationships is important has been of huge benefit to the public relations business. It allowed us to continue to flourish during the pandemic. It allowed us to take on new importance through the Black Lives Matter movement and later, when Russia invaded Ukraine and companies had to evaluate the reputation risk of remaining in Russia. It’s elevated public relations to an entirely new level inside the organization. So just from a selfish point of view, this is something that public relations people should be passionate about, but they also need to be able to make the objective case that engaging on issues of ESG and DEI is not something that companies are doing to be fashionable or faddish or to win friends in in the progressive political community, they are things that are critical business importance to their stakeholders. And what you’re actually seeing when you when you hear the words woke capitalism is companies responding to what the expectations of their shareholders, their employees, their communities and their consumers are in the real world. And if companies don’t do that, they pay a cost.
DOUG: Paul if I can just jump in.
PAUL: No, no, please.
DOUG: Because I should apologize for feeding the anti W word narrative by using that word in that context when it is a completely different meaning. Does PR need to sort of rebrand what the W word is about sort of as a safeguard to support companies that are doing pragmatic things for their businesses, but also to turn down the temperature on the attacks?
PAUL: I’m not sure what the rebrand is, but there are several things that we’ve been talking about, that I’ve been talking about, for many years that are part of what is really going on as opposed to what everybody would like you to believe is going on. The first thing I’d say is that companies have realized that they need to express their values. In terms that go beyond we make great products and we sell them to the world, Right? That is that is a remarkably uninspiring message for 90% of the people who are going to work for you and for 80% of the people who are going to buy your stuff. They want to know more about what your role in society is going to be, what problems you are solving, what issues you’re addressing. And so, becoming a values driven company, it seems to me, as is today, fairly uncontroversial. If you go to any corporate website, no matter how withdrawn from the political arena those companies are, you will find something about values. And 90% of the time you will find something about the values, including fairness, which, you know is another word for diversity and equity and inclusion. You’ll find something about sustainability and not destroying the ecosystem in which we’re all living and working. You’ll find all the things that are now being identified as woke, right? So, the first thing is that companies have become value driven. So, values is is a part of this equation. The second thing is that brands have come to realize that a purpose beyond, again, simply making products and selling them is vitally important to creating a meaningful relationship between your company and its products and the people who buy them and indeed the people who make them and everybody else in that ecosystem. And so, this idea of purpose has become a huge part of marketing. I would say that if you tried to think of the most successful marketing campaigns of the last ten years, whether it’s Dove reoriented itself around real women. Um, you know, all of them, all of them have at their heart this idea that brands should have a purpose beyond simply, you know, getting products on shelves.
DOUG: So, Paul, I think even though you were sort of saying you weren’t going to make an attempt to find the right word and way to rebrand, think you’ve actually done it during the course of this discussion. Because I think the rebrand is really values driven, because who can argue against that? And similarly, the Republican side or conservative side, you know, they made the word liberal a dirty term in the Reagan era, which caused it to evolve to progressive on that. But now, you know what? If it evolves to values driven and if we take a moment, obviously, to understand that the reason for the change is somewhat racist based in that where the origin of the word came from. But in terms of protecting clients against it, the idea that their values driven, who shouldn’t be values driven and who can argue with that, what’s your take on that is a possible approach and what are other things PR can do?
PAUL: So, should organizations have values? To me, that’s a no brainer. Of course, they should. They should be, they should be norms of behavior within the organization. Um. You know, we talked about DEI, inclusivity. Inclusivity is not, you know, some kind of wacky liberal idea. It’s the notion that all the talents that are available to us should be maximized. That if there’s a huge population out there that can contribute to the success of our organization, we should want all of it to contribute rather than just a small part of it to contribute. That seems relatively inarguable to me. So, the idea that we start with values and then if we say, well, if we’re going to articulate values, should we then actually act in accordance with those values? That seems to me to be fairly obvious as well. I don’t, you know, I don’t quite understand where the argument comes in except that, you know, thinking about values and then acting in accordance to values puts you in opposition to one of the very strong political forces in our country. And I don’t want to I don’t want to brand that as Republican or conservative necessarily. And I don’t think that there’s anything inherent in conservatism as an idea that makes it react violently to, you know, any particular ethnic or gender or sexual identity group. Right. I know plenty of people who identify as Republicans and conservatives and are perfectly fine, including, by the way, probably 90% of CEOs who are perfectly fine with the idea that actually ESG is good for business. That DEI is good for business.
DOUG: It’s really interesting. And, you know, I’d like to get to one final point, because obviously the PR people involved with these campaigns and politicians who are pushing this anti W agenda, they’re PR people and communicators as well. Um, what’s their role and what can be done to maybe reduce the role of PR and promoting these kinds of negative ideas?
PAUL: If we’re talking about communicators who work for certain politicians, um, you know, and think we can point to 2 or 3 states, um, around the country where this anti-woke agenda is particularly virulent. I’m not sure that there’s much that can be done to turn ideologues into pragmatists. I mean, think that the motivations for promoting this agenda are pretty clear. And the idea is to make life as difficult as possible for CEOs who are trying to respond to stakeholder concerns and run their businesses effectively because, um, you know, the obvious case to look at here is Disney in Florida. Um, what we’re seeing is an unprecedented attempt, it seems to me, to restrict corporate free speech and to single out and penalize a company simply for disagreeing with the political leadership of the state in which they operate. I would venture to say that that’s unprecedented. Um, you know, if you go back ten years, um, I think we would all have said that the Republican Party in general was the party of big business and the Democrats were the most likely to criticize and, and enact legislation that would punish companies one way or another, whether it was environmental regulation or labor regulation or anything of that nature. But even then, you did not see Democrats singling out one company for punishment because of something that it had said. Um, I think what we’re seeing is unprecedented. Do I think we can turn that around? No. But I think as an industry, we need to, as a profession and on behalf of our clients, we need to make the case constantly that this is simply good business and that it has a real impact on the bottom line. So, I think we have some evidence from the recent controversy over Bud Light that these campaigns generally, the Anti-woke campaigns generally don’t have a business impact. You know, there’s been lots of protest over Bud Light using a trans woman in an ad campaign. We’ve seen people shooting up their cans of Bud Light in videos on Twitter. But the reality is that sales and the company’s share price have both continued to rise despite that controversy. I think it’s quite clear that the company had thought out its position in advance, understood what the consequences would be, and has been quite content to ride out what will be a very short lived storm.
DOUG: And I appreciate your optimism in that role will continue to grow and trying to push values driven approaches by businesses that lead to positive outcomes.
PAUL: Yes. Look, I think our profession has risen to the challenges of the last five year, spectacularly well. Um, you know, I see. As you know, we run an awards competition. I see a vast amount of, of the work that is coming out of PR agencies right now. I’ve seen the growth of PR agencies, strong double digit growth, professionals advising clients not just on what to say, but what to do. And I think that’s the role here, is to come up with a framework that says these are the issues that we should engage on these are the issues that are sort of central to who we are and what our values are as an organization. This is how we should engage. This is how we should deal with dissent to our engagement. I mean, making sure that your CEO is prepared for whatever backlash is coming is obviously vitally important. But you can’t make everybody happy. And this has to be a decision that is based in, as I said earlier, and I keep saying, based in values, based in who you are, based in what you stand for as an organization and that’s that more than ever now is the role of corporate communications and public relations professionals, to define your values and then to, to make sure that you’re living them in a way that is credible and authentic.
DOUG: Yeah. Great, important stuff. Thank you so much for your time.
PAUL: Thank you.