More from our 2019 Review here

1. Turning March for Our Lives Into a Mass Movement

Of course the young principals of the March for Our Lives movement—born out of the tragedy of the Parkland school shooting—provided a powerful emotional uplift at the closing of our PRovoke19 event in Washington, DC. Of course, this trio of young speakers—moderated by Stephanie Cutter, of Precision Strategies—provided an inspiring message of hope in these hard times. But more impressive, in its way, was the quality of their strategic thinking, their understanding of the political and media environment, and their maturity—a stark contrast to many of those who hold power in the American capital. “Social media is something our generation is fluent in in a way that the older generation finds difficult to grasp,” said Delaney Tarr, a senior at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School at the time of the shooting. No kidding.

2. Paul Polman Calls For More “Inclusive” Capitalism

If there is a resonant criticism of the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in Davos, it’s that all the talk rarely leads to tangible action or significant change, something that outgoing Unilever chief executive Paul Polman implicitly recognized while participating in the Edelman Trust Barometer session, telling the audience “we have to create a system that is more inclusive" and warning: "We’ve become strange human beings—we’d rather pay for the consequences than take the time to build the partnerships and attack these underlying issues." Former US commerce secretary Penny Pritzker was even more blunt: "Frankly, I think the root cause is this lack of real inclusive growth; the system hasn’t worked."

3. Corporate Counsel Still Matters

There was, as ever, plenty of good stuff on the stages of the Palais at Cannes this year, but I learned the most from a session at the House of PR, under the Holmes Report auspices (I may be biased, of course). Aflac’s Catherine Blades, P&G’s Damon Jones and Mars’ Kimberly West came together to talk about what corporate communicators are looking for from their agencies. The consensus was that agencies need to spend less time worrying about matching up with competitors in advertising and digital and more time delivering robust strategic advice. As Jones put it: “The challenges I am facing are business challenges, and so I need people who really understand business strategy.”

4. Is PR on Team Human?

Douglas Rushkoff is one of the most provocative thinkers of our age, his perspective on media and technology having shifted from “techno-utopian” to… something a little less rose-tinted. In a wide ranging discussion at PRovoke19, Rushkoff provided a torrent of ideas that drew on the issues raised by his latest book, “Team Human,” which warns that “society is threatened by a vast antihuman infrastructure that undermines our ability to connect.” In discussion with executives from Weber Shandwick, Rushkoff issued a challenge to the profession: “The tradition of PR is asking how do we get people to think this or to do this, and that’s a really tempting way to think about technology too. But PR and technology should be about allowing people to do new and better things, opening new possibilities.”

5. Changing the Mindset on Multicultural Marketing

There was, as ever, plenty of good agency management advice at our EntrePReneurs’ Forum (the former IPRFF) at PRovoke19, but the highlight of this year’s event was a conversation between our own Arun Sudhaman and Egami Group CEO Teneshia Jackson Warner—the first African-American woman to pick up a Cannes Lions Grand Prix. Warner called for the industry to rethink its approach toward multicultural marketing. “There needs to be a mindset shift from looking at multicultural marketing as a niche that can be bolted on at the end. But when you think about the general market, you need to think about creating campaigns that reflect many cultures and diversity, whether that’s race or gender.”

6. The Industry Is Failing at Diversity and Inclusion

Elizabeth Bananuka, founder of BME PR Pros, provided a breath of fresh air at our EMEA IN2Summit with her candid—and sometimes painful—assessment of the way in which British PR firms have responded to the need for greater diversity and inclusion (an assessment that could easily be extended to other European markets and beyond) in their ranks. Said Bananuka, “I would be very surprised if many top agencies had policies in place, or care, and they may even have deep-rooted prejudices about hiring people who are not like them. I’m not willing to accept you need white skin to write a press release or advise people on crisis, but I actually think very few agencies really get it and want to do anything about it.” And while other panelists from agencies such as Golin and Diffusion gave more cause for optimism, it was Bananuka’s perspective that resonated.

7. Corporate Activism in the Middle East

CEO activism has been a theme at almost every public relations conference of the past two or three years, so we have come to expect a bullish perspective on the trend in North America and Europe. But to hear panelists at our IN2Summit in Dubai talk about CEO activism drove home just how universal the issue has become. "Business as usual is no longer an option," said Asda'a BCW president Sunil John, who moderated the session. "The world has changed. CEO activism is no longer a 'nice thing to do', but a 'have to do'." Heba Fatani, executive director of Ras Al Khaimah Media Office, gave the topic a local twist, however, telling the audience that CEOs “should preserve the interests of the country as well as holding core values that are aligned with the government.”

8. Generation Alpha Is Coming

I’m old enough to remember when panels at PR conferences focused on the rise of Generation X (and then millennials and then Gen Z) but I have never felt older than I did when Hotwire presented research into the ways in which today’s eight-year-olds—generation alpha, I’m told—are already shaping purchasing decisions. Apparently, 65% of parents discuss tech purchases with their gen alpha kids. Said Hotwire’s Laura Macdonald, “By the age of eight, parents feel they are outsmarted by their kids.” Colby Zintl, VP of external affairs for nonprofit Common Sense provided another perspective: “Parents want to be able to trust the brands. That has to be built in from the get-go.”

9. The Significant Comms Challenges Posed By AI

With Asian companies leading in terms of AI adoption, the region has emerged as a critical barometer of the regulatory, ethical and communications challenges the technology poses. Thankfully, BCW's Joe Peng helped bring clarity to a complex issue by pointing out that companies should first and foremost focus on transparency and accountability in their use of AI, especially at a time when they are trying to build public trust in the technology. Peng’s comments reflected how AI, for all its benefits, remains risky in both legal and ethical terms, particularly when it comes to such areas as job losses, data bias and cybersecurity. “Regulation is always trying to catch up with technology,” added SGInnovate's Grace Chiang.

10. Make Measurement Matter

Despite its critical importance to the future relevance of our profession, it is difficult to create a compelling conference session around the topic of measurement, which can be dry and dull—and at this point, repetitive. But at PRovoke19, Proof Analytics founder Mark Stouse brought together CFOs, CMOs and CCOs to call on the industry to “stop doing what doesn’t matter.” Chris Talago, head of PR for Oracle in APAC and EMEA, called for an industry-wide commitment to delivering tangible value. “We're in sales. If you don't get that, you're probably in the wrong place, in the wrong industry, at the wrong time. You have to ask yourself, when was the last time you went to your executives set and really asked what they want you to do for them?"

11. IKEA On Earning Its Licence to Operate

With the Business Roundtable having recently announced its intention to redefine the purpose of a corporation—focusing on stakeholders and not just shareholders—it was a good time to hear about IKEA, which like many of its Nordic counterparts has long sought to balance the needs of consumers, employees, communities and investors. Former president of IKEA US Lars Petersson, a recent addition to the international advisory committee at APCO, appeared at PRovoke19 to discuss the need for companies to “earn a license to operate” and explain how IKEA had done so.