Are We Providing “Exquisite Answers to the Wrong Problems?”

Last year Harold Burson did an interview with Boston University Professor Don Wright in which he said that a critical fault in our field is that we provide “exquisite answers to the wrong problems.” 

Intrigued by this phrase, I emailed the 97-year-old founder of Burson-Marsteller and asked him what he meant. He explained in the video below that client teams are sent in to an organization, ask a set of questions and deliver an exquisite creative campaign that, ultimately, does not solve the business problem because the right questions were never asked. He said that there should be much more formal research at the beginning of the process to get a legitimate view of what the affected people really feel about the issue. This rings painfully true to me. 

The phrase “exquisite answers to the wrong problems” made me also wonder if our field was focusing too much of its energy in one area (shiny object syndrome) when we should be focusing more intently on the real problems facing businesses today.  

We are certainly serving up increasingly exquisite answers with our intense focus on social and digital strategies, original content creation, multi-channel PESO distribution, and advanced uses of data and analytics. Much of the media coverage within our field, and investments made by agencies and in-house teams, have been in these areas. Rightly so, as they are exciting and important capabilities to develop.

But I can’t help but wonder if those of us in public relations and communication aren’t failing to adequately focus on the pervasive reputation issues facing many businesses and institutions right now.  

Industry icon Arthur Page believed that, “Public perception of an organization is determined 90 percent by what it does and 10 percent by what it says.” Today, the Page Society frames the role of the CCO to, at least in part, define and activate corporate character – actions not just words. 

I believe that the actions of too many companies are out of step with societal expectations, and we may not be doing enough about it. Think about the areas of gender equality, sexual harassment, income inequality, and the pervasive role of social platforms in our lives. Is your company on a path toward achieving gender pay equity? Is your company ready to transparently disclose settlements for sexual harassment or will you wait until that’s required by regulation? Is your marketing function evaluating its role in fueling the privacy invasion and aggressive use of algorithms by social platforms and search engines like Facebook and Google?

Related to income inequality, here’s a battleground every U.S. company faces this year: What is your organization doing with the massive corporate tax cut? Are you trying to get away with a one-time bonus or worse, nothing for employees? Are you giving almost all of it to stockholders in buy-backs and dividends? 

Two more hot-button issues, both of which wield the power to literally make or break your brand’s reputation: If you are a financial institution or retailer, what are you doing about assault weapon sales? If you are a pharmaceutical company, what are you doing about the high cost of healthcare and the opioid crisis?

These are a few of the tough questions we should be helping our clients to answer. All the digital bells and whistles we harness won’t have nearly the same level of impact that exquisite answers to these questions will have on the reputation and future of any organization. 

A version of this article can be found on the Arthur W. Page Society blog.

About Rob Flaherty

Rob Flaherty is Chairman of Ketchum, a top-five, global PR firm, and member of Ketchum's 19-member Global Leadership Council that guides the strategy, client service and performance of the agency. Since joining Ketchum in 1989, Flaherty has been involved in all aspects of the firm’s business, including having successfully led its largest office, one of its global practices and several of its largest client engagements. As a client counselor, Rob specializes in corporate positioning and issues management. He has helped companies prepare for and respond to challenging situations ranging from product liability and airline accidents to data breaches and antitrust litigation. He also has played a lead role in growing the firm’s client base. Flaherty became President of the agency in 2008, CEO in 2012 and today, as Chairman, is one of the industry’s most sought-after client counselors. Flaherty was named Global PR Leader of the Year in 2016 by the International Communications Consultancy Organization (ICCO). Follow Rob on Twitter at @flahertyrob.