What is it with the French? They just seem to have the knack for getting certain things right that elude the rest of us, like staying thin or making it ok to drink wine at lunch. In any case, they have done it again, this time reinventing the practice of Public Relations, just as it was about to become obsolete. Below are my notes from the recent Paris ReputationWar conference hosted by the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) and Syntec RP (a French PR industry association).
Christophe Ginisty, President of IPRA
IPRA’s new President, Christophe Ginisty, put together a conference framing that was surely meant as a wake up call for the PR industry worldwide. It’s message: Forget media relations, the future of your profession is defined by a networked society and the rules of the game are going to be very different! The result was a conference where people were confronted with the unfamiliar (no crony network with mutual back patting), every presentation was worth watching, and excitement was palpable. Here is a rundown of highlights, from my perspective.
Christian Harbulot, Director of the École de guerre économique
First, a few words on the presentation of Christian Harbulot, ex-activist like myself, but with a much more dramatic past! Young Maoist in the 70s (at a time when bombs were going off in Europe), this man made a gradual ‘career pivot’ to end up a key player in the French government’s intelligence establishment. Now an authority on Cyberwar tactics, Christian directs the ‘École de guerre économique’, which he co-founded in 1997. Harbulot’s talk revolved around the shift in power that networked society has brought about. Whereas before, corporations fought to amass and stockpile strategic information, power in the networked era now resides in the ability to share information and dominate the public discourse around a topic. Strategic advantage goes to those who establish the greatest credibility as an information source. Guess who wins most often when it comes down to companies vs. civil society?
Helio Fred Garcia, Executive Director at Logos Institute for Crisis Management & Executive Leadership
Next on my highlights reel is Helio Fred Garcia. Few people know crisis communications the way this man does, having worked for years with the U.S. Marines as one of his principal clients. It seems that working with the military has rubbed off on Garcia in many ways, notably his use of military strategy as a metaphoric framework for trasmitting the subtleties of soft persuasion and communications to high level execs. Drawing from Clausewitz and the suprisingly subtle Warfighting manual of the Marines, he presents basic principles for winning hearts and minds of audiences in the networked era. Many have tried to convey these subtleties to decision makers, only to be dismissed for too much fuzziness. Using strategic military language to drive the point home surely helps these points to sink in even with the hard as nails CEO! See The Power of Communication, Garcia’s book for execs just out.
Brian Solis, Principal at Altimeter Group
Now a few words on Brian Solis. I know this guy is a social media superstar and, perhaps confusing him for other gurus who’s top ten lists I see flash by my twitter feed daily, I was not expecting much from his talk. Allow me to say that I was blown by Solis’ insights into the more cultural and psychological dimensions of social, precisely the aspects that I find much more important than technology or technique. Brian put a lot of emphasis on empathy, one of the defining qualities of interaction on social that separates the businesses that are doing it right from those that are not. Utlimately, it comes back to the call for even big businesses to ‘get human’ again that I threw out in a previous blog post. Such calls to action imply radical change in corporate communications habits but the opportunities for competitive advantage are huge and Brian Solis surely has them all covered in his new book:
Najat Vallaud–Belkacem, French Minister for Women’s Rights and Government Spokesperson
At the end of the day, the conference was graced with the presence of French Minister of Women’s Rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Recently at the forefront of a digital rights controversy involving the French government and Twitter over questions of control and censorship, the Minister came to defend her position. The young Vallaud-Belkacem, no stranger to twitter herself, had engaged the company over hate messages directed at homosexuals and minorities in France and the fact that they are allowed to become trending topics on the microblogging site. Not surprisingly, Twitter resists requests from national governments to control information exchanged on the network and many defenders of digital freedom vocally critiqued the French government’s position. The Minister did bring up some good points of defense, however, that merit consideration. For one, the fact that Twitter already screens messages which may contain death threats and child pornography. Second, the fact that Twitter, unlike Facebook, does not have an easy ‘report offensive content’ button that would enable the community to regulate exchanges amongst themselves. Given that society as a whole is now embracing online social networks, codes of conduct will doubtless be discussed more and more often and democratic governments have a legitimate role in these negotiations as long as they do not get heavy handed.
Your Humble Narrator, ex-activist now advisor to the Fortune 500 on stakeholder dialogue through social media
And finally, not to pass up a chance to toot my own horn, a few words on my keynote. As more and more people talk about doing public relations through social media, we at #engagementlabs are among the very few to have executed full fledged campaigns on issues of wide concern and with the proper budgets to do a good job. I spoke of the over 2 million dollars’ worth of strategies we developed for resource and energy sector clients that brought industry and the public in contact together over controversial projects. In many of these cases, all other traditional avenues of communications and influence had been tried to no avail. Social media, as it turned out, was the perfect way that a continuous dialogue could be maintained, though fiery at times, between people from all sides of the debate. My talk was an eye opener for many in the French PR sector. If you read French, see an article by Olivier Cimeliere reporting on it.
More ReputationWars, please!
Since I first heard about ReputationWar, I started searching to find similar conferences closer to home but came up empty. Question to my readers: Do you have any to refer? I discussed the possibility of doing a ReputationWar conference in North America with Christophe Ginisty and I hope this comes to be a concrete plan soon. There are a lot more cages to rattle around the world and a lot more evangelizing to do. I will be happy to pitch in again next time around!