The Harris Poll at PRovoke18: PR Brands Need to Think Like Activists to Connect with Consumers Today

Our current consumer activist climate has drastically revolutionized the corporate landscape and, by extension, the world of PR. In today’s highly polarized society, Americans are anxious and disillusioned with political leaders. In fact, a recent Harris Poll survey showed that 65% of Americans do not believe in the leadership capabilities of U.S. government officials and in another poll with Career Builder we found that 1 in 5 Americans have lost faith in their leaders’ ability to act.

These findings were unveiled at The Holmes Report’s Provoke18 summit in D.C. on a panel with leading marketing executives: Pfizer’s Global marketing Director for Inflammation and Immunology, Lisa Lieberman; Intercontinental Hotels Group Head of Loyalty Brand Experience, Kelley Baron; and the World Bank’s Head of Digital Communications, Christine Montgomery.

This dissatisfaction with political leaders has pushed Americans to turn to corporate leaders to fill the void in political and civic leadership by solving social ills. 80% of Americans want businesses to get more involved in social issues. More interestingly, consumers have expanded their distrust of big institutions to include a distrust of big companies. This is evident in our recent Reputation Quotient study. Fifteen years ago, the largest companies were the most respected. Size and scale meant trust and esteem. Today, however, a company’s size is no guarantee of a good reputation. Consumer loyalty today is dependent on how a brand differentiates itself through its vision, leadership and social responsibility. Brands with the best reputations today are those taking on social issues, being vocal about their values and investing in their local communities.

“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,” The Harris Poll CEO John 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.”

This has ushered in the rise of “small,” an era where leadership goes local to resonate with consumers. According to Americans, the top three most effective and trustworthy leaders are small business owners, local community organizers, non-profit/religious leaders. What’s more, 56% of consumers trust smaller brands over larger ones.

To adapt to this paradigm shift, PR leaders need to act small as well and think like activists, grassroots advocates even, which means public relations has evolved into public advocacy. In this new role as public advocate, PR practitioners and brands can perceptually shrinking themselves in three ways:

Getting personal with customers: Brands can create personal experiences for consumers, so customers can build an emotional bond with the company. Corporations can get personal with consumers by offering personalized expressions but also by offering non-traditional partnerships. Take the example of Adidas partnering with Twitter to livestream high school football games.

Fostering communities and values: This means cultivating audiences and consumers, evolving from a brand-watch guard to a community organizer or serving as a local barometer or cultural anthropologist. For instance, Nike community stores recently hired 80% of its employees from a five-mile radius of the stores.

Acting “small” in how they work: For brands to act small in how they work, they need to shift from doing all the work to mobilizing and decentralizing and using data to anticipate desires. Lowe’s, in particular, is committed to developing future skilled trade workforce, thus providing tuition and pre-apprenticeship.