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About the Host:
HOST: DOUG SIMON
GUEST: MICHELLE OLSON
DOUG: Being chair of PRSA can sometimes be a thankless job. It’s also a huge time commitment, especially for someone like Michelle, who’s got a significant job in her other part of her professional space. So, thanks both for taking the time to join us and for your work that you’re doing.
To get started off, do you see PRSA as having a role in improving the perception of public relations as an industry?
MICHELLE: I do believe that PRSA has a role in improving the perception, not only of the industry and our profession, but also the professionals who work in it. We’ve got a really big, broad umbrella. So it could be anything from, you know, traditional media relations to working in the C Suite as a trusted advisor to our organizations. But honestly, at the core is just really that honest and transparent communication to the publics that we serve.
DOUG: And one of the things that might be least understood about PR and can’t really be promoted for obvious reasons is sometimes the role of good PR people is to make sure companies & brands don’t do stupid stuff and they can be like a stop line against potential bad behavior or dumb things that will hurt the image. Is there a way to somehow get that message out to people that that’s a role? Because obviously you don’t want to say, oh, we just stopped X, Y, Z company from doing this stupid thing, aren’t we great?
So how do you go about telling that story, if that’s the story to tell?
MICHELLE: I believe that communicators and PR people, no matter their level in a company or organization, have this role as kind of the moral compass for their organization. We abide by a code of ethics, and I think that most businesspeople abide by their own code of ethics and behave ethically. Most of the time we hear about the ones who don’t. But because we abide by that code of ethics, it helps us guide our leaders as well. We know more about what’s going on maybe outside the company and executives listen differently to what’s going on in the news than we listen. We’re looking for certain things as a communicator and as a reputation manager that maybe a chief executive officer might not be listening for work. And so we can counsel then the leaders of the company to take certain actions if we’re aware of them, so having that seat at the table is imperative.
DOUG: Yeah and there’s been so much disinformation that’s out there that has become part of our culture. Some of it can target brands, so does PR have a role, and should it try to protect brands from that disinformation?
MICHELLE: I’ve gone around the country via Zoom, this year talking about communicators and their role in identifying disinformation or helping organizations who have been attacked by disinformation, and I do believe we have a role, a vital role. One we understand media more than the average businessperson might, or certainly my mom, who won’t know if it’s something true if she sees it on the internet..
DOUG: I will say that I think your first goal as chairperson is to make sure your mom understands the positive things that PR does. That’s job one. Get that done, then you can move on to the other thing.
MICHELLE: I believe she still thinks I write for the paper, but that’s OK.
I also think that there, and I’ve said before, as I go around the country that it has become industrialized. There are companies that are created to create disinformation, to harm us, whether for social or monetary or political gain. And that is harder to attack and address. But by understanding media literacy and by having some key tools like prebunking and debunking and then just sharing things that we’ve done in the in just crisis media training, that the truth sandwich like this is what you heard. This is the truth. Here’s what is the facts of the situation. Kind of getting out in front of it helps. But there are numerous ways that we’re trying to really be really out there with how to address disinformation.
DOUG: You know, one of the things that I think we can all agree is that maybe despite some of the challenges the industry has, is a public perception within brands, nonprofits, it’s increasingly recognized as an important function.
MICHELLE: That communication is recognized as an important function?
DOUG: Yes, yeah.
MICHELLE: I think the pandemic handed us a gift…there aren’t any gifts really in the pandemic. And I don’t mean to take that lightly. But communicators were leaned on more than ever to communicate to internal audiences, to external audiences, to people that they hadn’t the companies hadn’t considered as an audience or a customer of theirs that suddenly became a customer of theirs and talking through the challenges that we didn’t know what was going to happen next and that leaders didn’t know what to do next, really elevated communicators in organizations. And I don’t think that that’s going to go away. I do believe that in my world and my clients worlds were leaned upon for different things than this year than we were two years ago, where two years ago is, hey, can you all do a campaign about X? Now it’s ‘I’ve got a potential issue that I want to get your thoughts on how we address that before it becomes a crisis.’ And so that to us as communicators is as a gift and puts us in that trusted advisor role.
DOUG: Yeah. And the pandemic put almost every brand in a crisis, not of its own making. I mean, I was just a crisis environment full time. So in your role, any thoughts of encouragement to people or maybe are starting out in the industry? Why they should engage with PRSA, both the national chapter and at the local level?
MICHELLE: Oh, gosh, that would take longer than we have. I’ve been a member of PRSA a very long time and I lean on it daily just in my own professional development and how I navigate the issues that come up in any given day. But to folks who are just starting out, this is where the tools are. So the professional development that we offer is free to members from webinars to other resources. We just created this year a tool called Voices for Everyone, and Voices for Everyone really takes on these issues that the pandemic like things that we’ve not known how to navigate all at one time. So we’re dealing with diversity and equity and inclusion issues that are really at the forefront as they should be. We’re dealing with civility, disinformation, misinformation, misinformation and civic engagement. Those four pillars we’re putting out on this on this website, tools that communicators can use as templates and case studies and infographics and things that their organizations might need to communicate with their publics. And just for that one tool, membership is vital, although right now it is open to everyone. We think that it’s important that this information gets out there so anyone can access Voices for Everyone.
DOUG: That’s great. And congratulations to you for taking on the challenge, and I think PRSA is lucky to have you for sure.
MICHELLE: Thank you. I believe that the universe handed us what we needed to be talking about this year from a communications perspective and then having a committee who can really move quickly so we can continue to advocate not just for the professionals, but for the industry, while also helping them navigate the issues that all together they may not have served before. I hadn’t dealt with a pandemic, I had didn’t have in my crisis plan is a pandemic crisis issue as a scenario. And I don’t know if anyone else did. I think health care companies may have. But so that was kind of creating our own playbook and so that the universe really handed us what we really needed to tell and help our members with this year.
DOUG: Michelle PRSA does not have an official position on recommendations for brands to bring all their people back in office work remotely. What are you seeing and how do you see this issue as a communications piece?
MICHELLE: It’s a great question. I do believe that it is a communications issue, not just for internal communicators where it might naturally fall as you’re talking to your workforce and letting them know what the policies are and taking the comments that might be given from the workforce. But internal communications impacts reputation and impacts external audiences, too. So it does become a more broad communications issue and PRSA isn’t taking a position on it. I know that they will have a back to work,
not a policy, but a back to work solution coming this fall. And it’s not everyone back in the office, particularly in New York, where it was hard hit with mass transit and people’s reticence to be in that kind of a situation. But where I’m at in Phoenix, it’s the same thing. And we’ve got clients that are moving to hybrid where hybrid and we’re kind of rotating it two days a week right now and maybe we’ll watch it over time. It may never come back to be five days a week at an office. And that is the solution. In fact, we’re using it as an opportunity to find talent all over the globe because it doesn’t matter where they are. And we just want that person. We want to increase our diversity and we want to increase our our thought, the thoughtfulness of the folks that we’re bringing in and their experience. So if I can grab someone from a different market that doesn’t have to be in Michigan, Phoenix, Houston or New York, I’m going to I’m going to grab them. So we’ve used it as an opportunity, but our clients, too, are seeing it as an opportunity to give some flexibility. They’ve been proven that they don’t need the butts-in-seat kind of philosophy in in work and they’re working out their own issues. I haven’t seen a client yet who’s done a mandate five days a week back in the office, and I don’t anticipate that we will see one.
DOUG: Interesting. I am hearing of some groups that are really stepping up their requirements is a lot of differences out there. But I think you bring a great perspective. And I guess if people have proven that they can get the work done when they couldn’t be in the office, what’s the point of forcing them to adjust their lifestyle to that?
MICHELLE: I have I have a counterpoint to it as well. The human factor that has been lost in the last 16 months. We do need to bring some of that back in. And there’s a lot that can be done over Zom and phone calls. But that chance discussion about an idea because someone is passing you in the hallway, that’s hard to replicate in Zoom or phone call and just having that camaraderie and the collaboration and the energy that drives between people, like the physical energy that drives between people, we’re longing for that.
And I think people are longing to be back together in the workplace, or not. I just don’t think they’re going to be going back to the same workplace that they left it.
DOUG: Definitely not. And I think it’s important to that with new technology. It’s actually something our producer on this show is spearheading at the company; ways to mitigate the sort of accidental connections that allow for brainstorms with people you might not work with day in and day out. Thanks so much for joining us for this conversation. It’s been really great.
MICHELLE: Thank you for having me.