CIPR Conference 2017: a lesson in social purpose

The 2017 CIPR National Conference took place in London on 31 October at the prestigious British Library – with a great line up of speakers it didn’t disappoint.

The theme was 2020 Vision: The Evolution of PR, addressing the unique challenges faced by the industry, from securing its place at the boardroom table and questions around ethical practice, through to the continuing decline of print media, fake news and the evolving role of public relations – many challenges, all of them complex.

With speakers including LADbible Group’s Peter Heneghan, Matt Peacock, Group Director of Corporate Affairs at Vodafone and Kerry Thorpe, Ben & Jerry’s Communications Lead for Europe, we heard from PR professionals within a diverse range of sectors, with campaigns from Everton Football Club and the British Lions through to (surely!) the world’s favourite ice cream brand.

Yet three common threads ran through every single presentation – social purpose, transparency and credibility.

First up was Matt Peacock who made it clear that CSR in its old guise is dead – social purpose must be integrated into a company’s core commercial strategy, he explained, outlining the impressive initiatives underway at Vodafone that will not only make an enormous difference to people’s lives but, by doing so, will also build a better, more successful business. Matt cited the Blueprint for Better Business as further reading.

Matt’s presentation set the scene for the rest of the day, with every single presentation mentioning brands’ duty give back to their customers and wider community. Kerry Thorpe talked us through Ben & Jerry’s founding vision and explained how that vision is the same today. Central to the brand is the belief that the business should be used as a force for good, with a responsibility to give back to the community, which it does to this day. Find out more about Ben & Jerry’s “if it’s melted, it’s ruined” climate justice campaign.

LADbible Group’s Peter Heneghan gave a great presentation with valuable insights on what makes engaging and interesting content, advising PR professionals to avoid being so precious with the material they have and to instead give editorial teams the freedom to mould it as they see fit. Yet beyond LADbible’s continued success and battle against fake news, the publisher has launched several genuinely important campaigns – campaigns that allow LADbible to play a role in making the world a better place, it’s demonstration of social purpose – check out its Trash Isles and U ok M8? campaigns.

Underpinning the increasing focus on social purpose is the need for transparency and credibility, particularly in light of the challenges posed by fake news and ‘citizen journalism’ – although Matt Peacock cautioned, “the notion of a post-truth world is a lazy cliché”. Storytelling must be meaningful, authenticity is key and brands must speak with credibility about causes that chime with their core values, advised Melissa Hinds, Edelman’s Brand Managing Director. “At Edelman we call it resonance – crafting a story in a way that’s really believable and authentic enough that somebody else talks back at you with that story is super powerful”, she explained.

So, after day of fantastic speakers and some incredibly moving, insightful campaigns, it was fitting that the conference should finish with a hard-hitting presentation from Robyn De Villiers, CEO of Burston-Marsteller Africa focusing perhaps the most pressing matter within the industry - ethics.  Robyn pulled no punches in her account of the Bell Pottinger Oakbay scandal but finished with a call to arms –PR people must stand up and find their own opportunities to talk about ethics. We must tell our own story instead of letting others tell it for us.

Bringing the conference to a close, Robyn finished with a Harold Burson quote: “If you don’t get out and tell your story, someone else will and you won’t like the way they tell it.”