WASHINGTON, DC—“Companies need to get on the front foot and think like an activist,” John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll, told attendees at PRovoke18 today, after presenting research suggesting that companies need to “Think Small. Go Big.”

The firm’s research, he said, confirms what most Americans instinctively know: “What really is happening is a sense of division and a sense of anxiety. We do an alienation report each year, which looks at how Americans connect with each other and with institutions, and people are more alienated than ever. But many would feel better if they could just have an honest discussion with other people.”

The problem is that  6% of Americans say they are afraid to express true political views with friends and family and 55% are afraid to express those views at work. That makes honest conversation difficult. But companies have an opportunity to make real connections with people, often at a local level.

“Americans want businesses to get involved, and they believe that businesses have the tools. But just as many people are skeptical that big company leaders are only looking out for themselves,” Gerzema said.

“Reputation means something different today. It used be ‘we’re big, you can trust us,’ but today the bigger you are, the less trusted you are. Today the most trusted companies are more intimate, they are more authentic. The companies that have the best reputation are smaller, or they have found some way of connecting in a more personal way.”

So the top 10 companies on the Harris Reputation Quotient survey this year include companies like Chick-fil-A, known for promoting conservative social values, as well as progressive icon Patagonia. What they have in common, Gerzema says, is that they know what they stand for and remain true to their values.

The message: “You have to get out there and do something.” The firm’s research among senior communications executives agrees: it found that 62% of CCOs now believe the risk of taking a stand now outweighs the risk of taking a stance. “We call that the optics of indifference.”

So “smart companies get personal with customers, they take a generic mass market product and make it personally relevant, and they are moving from public relations to public advocacy.”

The ensuing panel discussion presented a number of examples.

Kelley Baron, head of loyalty and brand experience at InterContinental Hotels Group—which encompasses brands ranging from the mass market Holiday Inn to the boutique and local brand Hotel Indigo—discussed the way each Hotel Indigo seeks to become a real part of the neighborhood in which it is located.

"Each of the Hotel Indigo properties is shaped around a local community and local neighborhood, and that’s the promise of that brand, to deliver that experience of being part of the community you’re in,” she said.

“We have also started to think more holistically about the customer experience, and one of the ways we do that is mapping the customer journey, and realizing that every touch point on that journey communicates something. We need to deliver the brand message consistently across all those touch points.”

Lisa Lieberman, Global Marketing Director, Inflammation & Immunology at Pfizer, discussed the company’s increased patient—and patient activist—outreach. “We are working with patients to develop solutions for better outcomes and we are working with advocacy groups. We want to help address challenges patients face in managing their disease. It’s a global program but we work in local communities.

“We need to understand what it’s like to walk in their shoes, so that we are coming at it from a point of understanding.”

Some of the company’s work, as Gerzema pointed out, comes close to community organizing.

“We’ve also been working to address that gap in care within the multicultural community,” said Lieberman. “There’s a gap in the diagnosis of diabetic nerve pain, for example. And so we worked with the American Diabetes Association and with Cedric the Entertainer and we brought our chief medical officer, and we brought everyone together to go to large churches in the community in New York and Philadelphia and Chicago to raise awareness of this issue and close the gap in that diagnosis rate.

"We need to understand who our patients are and we need to work collaboratively."

Finally, Christine Montgomery, head of digital communications with the World Bank, discussed the organization's efforts to use “employees as content creators and ambassadors for the bank. We are trying to show our human side more.”

Again, the experience demonstrated that more intimate and authentic connections were the best. “We tried to feed people content as part of our employee advocacy plan, and people didn’t use it,” she said. “They didn’t use because they wanted to personalize it, and anything that came in a corporate voice they didn’t want to use.”

The bottom line was a transformation of the organization’s approach to PR. Said Montgomery: “A few years ago, earned media was the focal point and the thing that everything else was built around. Today it’s partnerships, and being a convener where we can bring people together for important conversations.”