Emerging trends, best practices and diverse perspectives among the highlights of #ElevatePR2

April 13, 2018
Christine Szustaczek

A sold-out crowd of 55 public relations practitioners, professionals and researchers gathered at McMaster Innovation Park on April 5, 2018, for CPRS Hamilton’s full day, professional development event, #ElevatePR2. Ten presenters and panelists shared their knowledge and expertise, with a number of recurring themes emerging, including the need to keep strategy and measurement paramount.

The morning began with an honest and transparent account by Ivana Di Millo, Director of Communications, City of Mississauga, who took the audience through her journey to elevate her in-house department into one that is widely recognized by internal stakeholders for its strategic importance to the City. From a name change to lean training and process improvements, through to co-opting staff, being meticulous about measurement to prove the team’s worth to senior leaders, and fastidious with public resources to keep people’s trust, Ivana offered the audience a range of ideas and inspiration to bring back to their home organizations.

Mark John Stewart, President of FlyPrint, gave a primer on organizational strategy. He likened strategy to empathy, suggesting that strategy helps people better relate to — and understand — both clients and the situational forces that affect our organizations. He introduced several tools such as the Diamond-E analysis, Porter’s Five Forces and the PESTLE (political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental) analysis that communicators can use to diagnose issues or help map initiatives. He urged the audience to constantly ask two questions before finalizing project decisions to ensure work undertaken is strategic: “Have we considered everything?” and “What should we cut?”

In a passionate account about PR and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Sarah Varley, Vice President of Manifest Communications reviewed several real-life campaigns (from Tim Horton’s, Shopper’s Drug Mart and Ericsson) to demonstrate how they have helped companies to be better received and respected or to drive social change. When selecting a signature initiative for an organization, she urged the audience to find one that naturally fits with the business and doesn’t need to be explained, as it spurs autonomous adoption because it makes sense. She reminded the audience of the benefits of engaging people by presenting positivity and possibilities, instead of focusing on problems that need to be solved. Sarah also cautioned people about the need to find campaign names that aren’t fully tied to the cause they represent, in order to give organizations flexibility for the future if or when needs or interests may change.

Alexandre Sevigny, Director of the MCM program at McMaster University helped to demystify big data and data science for delegates, with a view to helping people embrace it as an empowering link. He urged people to listen to what the data shows, as it leads to better decision making. Drawing a distinction between data and evidence, he gave the audience the common language and definitions to help build their understanding. A quick overview of artificial intelligence and predictive analytics followed including their uses in journalism to write headlines and sports scores. Unpacking big data into data volume, velocity, variety and value, he urged people to spend less time working with data engineers who collect the data, and more time with data scientists who can help derive its valuable insights.

Vice President, Digital at Canadian Press, Andrew Lundy, took the audience through a discussion about how the PR, communications and media landscape has changed over time. He highlighted the decline of advertising through newspaper classified listings as a result of the rise of Craigslist and Google Ad Words, that have resulted in closures of local papers and communities who now receive reprinted news stories that don’t always capture their needs. To get the attention of busy editors in this new landscape, Andrew urged the PR practitioners in the room to cherish the relationships they build with editors and reporters. Where photos were once enough, he spoke of the need to embed video to bring stories to life, or robust data visualizations, so that readers can see how an issue impacts them directly.

Rob MacIsaac, President and CEO of Hamilton Health Sciences shared the top tips that he believes PR practitioners should embrace in order to get the trust and ear of the C-Suite. Above all, he urged the audience to know the nuts and bolts of their businesses, understand strategy and politics, and continuously scan the horizon to anticipate what is on the horizon. He added the need to know your CEO’s strengths and comfort levels, remain calm during crises which can really prove a PR person’s worth, the need to focus on solutions, not problems, and adopt a writing style that is clear and concise, no matter how much practice it takes.

The final session of the day was a panel moderated by Brenda Sweeney, President of Sweeney Communications Inc., featuring Andrea Montgomery, VP Redbrick Communications, Rick Murray, Managing Partner and Chief Digital Strategist, National PR, and Chantel Broten, President, Jan Kelley. The panelists reflected on the need to understand the underlying issues and a client’s business, not just pushing advertising and marketing, in order to help clients protect their market share. Skills required to succeed include curiosity and passion, with some agencies hiring ethnographers and anthropologists rather than communicators. Suggesting that agencies are often given the messy, challenging projects that clients can’t tackle themselves, those looking to thrive in the field need to be comfortable working in agile teams and sprints, and fluent in evaluation, metrics and analysis. Despite the need for numbers, the panelists left the audience with the reminder that values always remain at the core of the work, especially in today’s era, which is marked by people’s expectations for transparency.

CPRS Hamilton is the voice for professional development, promotion and recognition of public relations practitioners in Hamilton, Halton, Niagara and Southwestern Ontario. We look forward to continuing our efforts to create value for our members by bringing our learning community together to stimulate discussion and inspire each of us to elevate our practice.