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Opinion: Towards A Fearless Future, By Adewale Kupoluyi

Knowing what happens in the future is something nobody can really boast of. The reason for this is very simple – nothing is certain – only change itself is constant. This reality of life’s uncertainty often creates the fear of what the future looks like. A ray of hope, however, radiates with the evolving communications landscaping, technology, trends, methodologies and innovations, suggesting a future that is bright, promising and assuring! This optimism became the rallying point for participants at the world’s largest public relations gathering of practitioners, communicators, speakers, scholars, researchers, educators, exhibitors and business icons, when they converged on Washington DC, capital city of the United States of America, for the International Conference in Public Relations themed, “Leading the Way: A Fearless Future for PR”.

Welcoming participants to the conference, organised by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Joseph Cohen, PRSA’s 2014 Chair, said the well-attended forum was a unique opportunity for them to share ideas, network, “inspire and be inspired by the latest ideas and strategic approaches that are driving forward the most progressive work in our sector”, as the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Show Choir and the University of Maryland Army Reserved Officers’ Training Corps Colour Guard, presented the solemn performance and official presentation of colours and the national anthem, respectively. Cohen appreciated those that had contributed immensely to the PRSA’s success story, as he highlighted the 10 major achievements of the association in the last one year. In the first keynote presentation, Walter Issacson, President of the Aspen Institute, shared some of the lessons he learnt while researching and writing his upcoming book, “The Innovators: How A Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution”. Issacson, a former chief executive officer of the Cable News Network (CNN) and editor of TIME magazine, is reputed to have written hot bestsellers about charismatic innovators such as Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs, justified the imperative listening and combining humanities with technology, noting that creativity is a pure collaborative effort and that vision without execution is hallucination.

The second keynote presentation was given by Amy Robach, the news anchor of the ABC TV’s celebrated programme, “Good Morning America”, who spoke about her early days as a reporter and news consumer and that “despite not having the Internet, and having pagers and pay phones, somehow the news still got delivered”, acknowledged that the “social media is like a virtual umbilical cord that can never be cut”. While encouraging women to develop self-esteem, she commended the outstanding courage of the 17-year-old, Malala Yousafzai (the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize), the Pakistani activist and blogger, for her contributions to education and women’s rights. This activist was fatally shot by the Taliban for speaking out for what she believed in. When Robach interviewed her, Malala said, “The Taliban tried to silence one girl, and instead, they heard the voices of thousands”. Malala and Amy (a breast cancer survivor), recently visited the Nigerian government together to intervene on the release of Chibok girls abducted by the Boko Haram sect. Malala had called on the Islamic extremists to free Nigerian schoolgirls as she marked her 17th birthday with the trip, where she met with President Goodluck Jonathan and the kidnapped girls’ families. She appealed to Boko Haram to free the 219 girls still missing ‘now and alive’, saying ‘you are misusing the name of Islam’, referred to the girls as her ‘sisters’ and called on Nigerian government to invest more in education for girls. These examples drive home Amy’s message of positivism that, “we all have the opportunity to connect with audiences”, not only that but promote an incredible idea by making an impact.The professional development workshop series began afterwards that were structured into eight sets, which afforded participants diverse and rich platform to receive information on gaining an edge on the competitive methodologies using contemporary leadership tools, hearing from iconic entrepreneurs and dynamic communicators during the close to 100 learning sessions on the best international practices. On “The Seven Disciplines of the Trusted Strategic Adviser”, James Lukaszewski and Dr. Katherine Fleck, discussed the crucial career behaviours, objectives and goals strategies that are involved in becoming a good, trusted and respected adviser to great leaders. These include being visionary, honest, vigilant and advising constructively, noting that leaders on their part usually fail due to a number of reasons that touched on non-performance, over-optimism, bad followership, among others.

The PD set two on “The Best of PRSA’s Public Relations Journal”: 2013 – 2014, afforded participants an opportunity to meet the authors of the ‘top five articles’ published in the journal within the period under review. The authors and their publications are: first, “Millennials’ Perceptions About Diversity in Their PR Agencies”, by Dr. Tiffany Gallicano, University of Oregon; second, “Profiling Public Relations Practitioners’ Work-Life Conflict: From A Diversity Lens”, by Dr. Hongmei Shen, San Diego State University and Dr. Hua Jiang, Syracuse University; third, “Perceptions of Wikipedia By Public Relations Professionals: A Comparison of 2012 and 2013 Surveys”, by Dr. Marcia DiStaso, Pennsylvania State University; fourth, “Towards the Establishment of Ethical Standardisation in Public Relations Research, Measurement and Evaluation”, by Professor Shannon Bowen, University of South Carolina and Professor Donald Stacks, University of Miami; and fifth, “Dictating the News: Understanding Newsworthiness From the Journalistic Perspective”, by Professor Lynn Zoch, Radford University and Dr. Dustin Supa, Boston University. At the general session that followed, Dr. Michael Lomax, President of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), gave the third keynote presentation, where he reviewed the new PRIME Scholars’ Programme, which is a collaboration between the PRSA Foundation and UNCF, as well as the impact that a diverse workforce that is reflective of America’s ethnic and racial mix would have on the PR profession. The programme aims to create a clear conduit for African-Americans to enter the PR profession at all levels through student recruitment and support, institutional capacity building and employer engagement. Polly LaBarre, a business and innovation correspondence with the CNN and editorial director of the MIX, observed in the fourth keynote presentation that magazines aim to promote ideas about leading, succeeding, innovating and trying new things. She concluded that: ideas should always compete on equal footing, power should come from sharing not hoarding, the wisdom of the many should trump over the authority of the few, novel viewpoints should get amplified while mediocrity should get exposed and be totally discouraged.

Joan Gladstone, in the PD set 3, revealed how crisis teams work in the real world by offering ideas on how to overcome stress and uncertainty at work. Gladstone, a Fellow of PRSA, in her rich paper titled, “Psychology of Crisis Management”, stated that crises in the news could be mitigated through the use of persuasive communications with decision-makers and the best way to work harmoniously with different personality during crises is to, as much as possible, remain relaxed, cool and calm throughout the period. Under the PD set 4, Dr. Susan Aldridge, Drexel University and Brendan Streich of Edelman Atlanta, stressed the need for universities to transit from the being the traditional ‘campus’ to a contemporary ‘content’ mindset and foster how best they can optimally strategise towards building trust and superseding reputation consolidation as the university’s key benchmark by shifting from a top-down approach to multi-directional communications model.

The former White House correspondent, political director of NBC News and moderator of NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’, Chuck Todd, previewed the forthcoming 2016 US presidential elections, in the fifth keynote presentation, where he analysed what Americans could and learn how the election might largely shape the remainder of the Barack Obama administration. The critical issues that would determine who becomes the next president according to him would be: the capability to fight terrorism to a standstill and putting in place sound economic recovery plans while the author of the 218-page book, “World Class Communication”, Virgil Scudder, anchored the PD set 5 with the support of Ken Schudder, the co-author. Titled, “Mastering Public Speaking: 10 Keys to Success”, Scudder’s paper listed the elements of good speeches to include: preparing the speech well ab initio, gesticulating, exuding self-confidence, improving vocal control, avoiding nervousness and asking questions from the audience.”What Journalists Want”, was the title of the presentation made during the PD set 6, which featured leading journalists, namely: Mike Piispanen, Hadley Malcolm, Mike Sander and Chitra Nawbatt, where they gave valuable hints on how to be better professionals. These tips include ‘telling your story by yourself’, respecting and showing trusts. Journalists also like to reduce unnecessary bottlenecks while accessing their audiences and dislike asking them to prepare pre-interview questions, which to them is unethical. “The entire planet is changing. We hold unbelievable powerful hand-held device computers that are 100,000 times faster than what we used to send the man to the moon”. These were the words of Mike Buckley, Vice-President of Facebook, at the last keynote presentation, where he intelligently unfolded the trends that are reshaping PR by learning to stay ahead in the period of great transformation within the media landscape. Buckley stressed the need to merge data and analytics, as vital tools for effective communication going by Facebook’s success story, where he presently coordinate matters on consumers, corporate, internal, international, monetisation and policy communications.

Lauri-Ellen Smith of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, spoke on real-world examples that illustrate PR protocol, easy-to-search resources that can streamline public information officers’ research process when building programmes by considering the impact of modern information technology on the officials saddled with achieving desired outcomes under the PD set 7 titled, “Protocol in PR: Dignitaries, DVs and Social Media … What’s Appropriate”. Lastly, the PD set 8 delved on the salient things to do to effectively advocate the professional’s organisational causes, interests, ‘moving the needle’ and guiding how public and governmental affairs departments in effectively coordinating the messaging and advocacy efforts, to yield optimal results. The last session on, “I Want to be Better at Advocacy: How to Effectively Influence Others”, was anchored by Rick Callender and Rachael Gibson, both of the Santa Clara Valley Water District as well as Julie Minerva, Federal Government Affairs and Public Policy Practice Group of her firm. The top tips identified by the versatile speakers include: preparing the minds of the audience well, ‘saying what you mean and mean what you say’, advancing one’s cause using metrics and concrete examples, activating social media channels and grassroots networks, lobbying the legislature and conducting a timely follow-up.

Other events that made the digitalised PRSA’s conference highly interesting include a discussion on the future of PR at the Diversity Mixer, the college of fellows induction dinner, products and exhibitions, opening gala night’s house of cards that featured the classic jazz performance by Tim Whalen alongside finest musicians in the country, the Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) 50th anniversary celebration breakfast, networking luncheon and the series of interactive and useful syndicated sessions like the ones I had with sound resource persons like the trio of Professor Lynn Zoch, Radford University, Dr. Hongmei Shen, San Diego State University and Dr. Hua Jiang, Syracuse University on comparative practices from their climes. Certainly, as the future becomes brighter and more fearless with what PR has to offer, the world is already looking forward to connect to the next conference, holding next year in Atlanta, Georgia with the theme, “Get Connected”, which the PRSA Chair-elect, Katty Barbour, says promises to be the best ever. No wonder, the ever smiling and radiant immediate past Chair, Mickey Nall, who I remember also welcomed all to the same conference held in Philadelphia last year, again reeled-out five reasons why everyone should be in Atlanta next year – history, culture, sports and entertainment, experience and connect. For many, it is a must for them to be in the place where Southern hospitality truly meets the big-city pace. Welcome to Atlanta!

Kupoluyi writes from the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, vadewalekupoluyi@yahoo.co.uk, Twitter, @AdewaleKupoluyi


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