Reputation: What Brings P.R. & Research Together

Institute for Public Relations Distinguished Keynote Speech by Oscar Suris
Wells Fargo & Company Executive Vice President, Head of Corporate Communications
Institute for Public Relations Board of Trustees Co-Chair

May 15, 2014, Lotos Club, New York City

On behalf of Wells Fargo, Executive Vice President Oscar Suris publicly pledged support to the standards created by the Coalition for Public Relations Research Standards at the PRIME Research VIP Dinner, which was held in conjunction with the Strategic Corporate Communications and Research Conference co-hosted by PRSA.

Good evening, everyone! As Mark [Weiner] just mentioned, I’m Oscar Suris, head of Corporate Communications for Wells Fargo & Company.

A high bar has been set this evening for yours truly, as I doubt my remarks could ever come close to besting the collective knowledge in this room. But, then, we should not expect anything less than a high bar for a dinner speech at the historic Lotos Club.

Young writers, journalists and critics founded the Lotos Club in 1870, nearly two decades after Wells Fargo. Today, the Lotos Club remains one of the oldest literary clubs in America, serving as the setting for a long line of dinner speeches by great Americans of all walks of life – from presidents to celebrities, diplomats to generals, poets to novelists.

How high a bar? Well, I’ll quote from a 1901 collection of famous Lotos speeches: “Nothing extraneous avails one who rises to speak at the Lotos table; he must then show himself to be capable of original thought and feeling, or he is a lost man.”

Yep. No pressure.

I was relieved, though, after reading about a Lotos speech that Mark Twain, a popular club member, gave nearly one hundred and fourteen years ago.
That memorable Saturday evening began with Twain appearing to be a no-show for his dinner speech. A club messenger was ordered to find him.
“I’m sorry,” Twain said. “… I had forgotten this was Saturday; I thought it was Friday; I’ll go right upstairs and dress. It won’t take me fifteen minutes.”

Well, then. Looks like I’m already a better speaker than Mark Twain. I showed up on time!

It is an honor to be here tonight, because I am sharing this evening with many of the brightest minds I’ve met in the field of public relations.
This includes the professionals and academics who, along with Frank and my fellow co-chair Ken Makovsky, serve on the board of trustees of the Institute for Public Relations.

They, like the rest of you gathered here, believe the profession of public relations is made stronger when it is inspired by insights you can only attain through research.

Let me start with the simple statement that research has been the foundation for all of our reputational work at Wells Fargo.

I joined the bank in 2009, in the immediate wake of the financial crisis. The reputation of every major financial institution was in jeopardy at that time, and at Wells Fargo, we used reputational research to help us understand where we stood and to identify a path forward.

I credit this investment in reputational research to Wells Fargo’s senior leadership. It’s an investment they’ve made continuously over these past four years, because our responsibility to engage with our stakeholders is a value of our culture … and we appreciate effective engagement involves listening … and a legitimate form of listening is seeking insights and opinions through research.

Tonight, I would like to make the case that this virtuous relationship between PR and research needs to be even stronger across our profession. And it needs to be more pervasive and more squarely focused on “Reputation,” the subject that often inspires our best work.

This is especially needed in this age of social media, which has made all the rage the pursuit of integrating PR, advertising and marketing efforts.
Integration of these disciplines can be a powerful force. And, frankly, given how fragmented the communications and media landscape has become, some degree of integration is appropriate and should be pursued.

But the pursuit of integration has also brought with it some confusion … confusion about the strengths and core competencies of each discipline … confusion about roles and responsibilities … and confusion about whether social media tactics that are new to our fields really have any bearing on “brand” or “reputation.” Without the insights that come through research, we might never know.

Indeed, there’s even a bit of a running debate about which discipline – advertising or PR – loses out in this integrated, social-enabled world.
Take the many P.R. professionals and like-minded experts who have pronounced that “P.R. is dead.”

Search the phrase. You’ll find 280 million results on Google.

Not to be outdone, “Advertising is dead” generates 1.1 billion results.

Now, much of this is well intentioned re-positioning by marketing and Communications professionals. Pronouncing a discipline’s death has been their way of re-casting its mission as the lines defining them continue to blur.

“PR is dead. Long live, PR” is often the mantra.

At Wells Fargo, our Corporate Communications team believes it no longer practices P.R., but rather something we prefer to call “P+R,” short for “Publishing and Relations.”

We call this new operating model “Publishing & Relations,” because we are – as we have always been — in the content creation business.
The social media age simply offers us more ways to publish that content — those stories — through mediums we control and others we don’t – reaching stakeholders directly in ways we couldn’t years ago.

Likewise, we believe we are, as we have always been, in the “Relations” business – the second half of the P+R equation.

Many days, this activity goes by the more social-media-appropriate name of “engagement.” Either way, the “R” in “P+R” speaks to the fact that – in addition to news media – our mission is to tweet and post and listen and engage with influencers we would have never imagined engaging with years ago.

That said, by whatever name – PR, P+R or Corporate Communications – we remind ourselves at Wells Fargo that the point of all our work – the tweets, the pitches, the stories, the speeches – is “reputation,” and guiding us along the way has been the contributions of research.

I’ll illustrate the point with a story about Wells Fargo’s ATMs.

We’ve got great ATMs. Based on your banking habits, they know exactly what favorite transaction to offer you when you insert your ATM card and enter your PIN.

On your birthday, our ATMs wish you a happy birthday. When a calamity strikes, they have been used to raise funds for relief efforts, as has been the case in the wake of hurricanes and earthquakes.

Simply put, our 12,500 ATMs have been hugely important to Wells Fargo’s brand. But they alone can’t be counted on to move the needle on Wells Fargo’s reputation, and we have the research that proves it.

Working with our third-party research partner, Penn Schoen Berland, we tested hundreds of proof points about Wells Fargo – everything from points about those happy ATMs to facts about how we wrote and marketed mortgages prior to the crisis. We also polled the public about their feelings about banks, the country’s recovery, and policy issues affecting them and our industry.

Do people think we have convenient ATMS? Yes – it’s one of the three attributes our research said Wells Fargo was most closely associated with. But where does our analysis show ATMs rank as a reputation driver? Dead last. #24 of 24 reputation drivers we have been tracking now the past four years.

This was not a trivial insight for us four years ago when we were a TARP bank, and grappling with the public scrutiny that came with the government’s rescue program.

You’ll recall that Wells Fargo was the surprise bidder for Wachovia, which we bought without government assistance. We didn’t want TARP. But, in the end, it was an offer that could not be refused.

So, while we saw ourselves as one of the good banks in the years and months leading up to the financial crisis, none of that really mattered anymore.

In the eyes of the public, all big banks were in the reputation dog house. And to get out of it, we needed more than anecdotes about friendly ATMs. We needed proof points and stories that spoke to the values and concerns of the post-financial-crisis era.

Our reputational research was invaluable, and no doubt saved Wells Fargo from moments of public tone-deafness. (After all, is there anything worse than having your stakeholders characterize you as “not getting it”?)

So, each month we’ve interviewed 400 members of the general population, and 350 respondents we call “Opinion Formers,” because they trend high on information consumption and household income. Twice a year, we expand those audiences to larger sample sizes, and include additional stakeholders such as Washington D.C. Elites, Business Banking Consumers, Wall Street Analysts, Institutional Investors, and Senior Executives of Fortune 1000 companies.

Over the three and a half years we have been doing this program, we have conducted more than 40,000 interviews.  Reputation is a serious topic and it merits a serious research approach.

Respondents told us it was good we were profitable (and the ATMs were a nice touch, too), but our values mattered more.

They told us they could understand if we believed we weren’t the cause of the financial crisis. But they said they’d ultimately judge us on our role in our country’s recovery from it — Were we lending to businesses, big and small? Were we helping homeowners avoid foreclosures? Were we investing in communities, and making our mistakes right?

At first, this was tough feedback for our company. We had prided ourselves on consistently generating superior returns for shareholders, without putting balance sheets in harm’s way. But our CEO, John Stumpf, grasped what the research was telling us. We were no longer an under-the-radar regional bank. We were now a national company of greater relevance, with stakeholders who expected more of us.

“We’re Americans first, bankers second,” he’d say. If we demonstrated and showed the public we were on their side, we’d earn their trust and admiration. That was the message that was coming through all our research findings.

I know many of you in this audience have similar stories of how smart research has made your P.R. strategies and communications more effective and influential. This kind of work is nothing new to our field. But it is growing in importance.

Working with the academic community and with organizations such as IPR, the P.R. profession needs to continue to promote the mindset that a professional’s development in our field would clearly be incomplete without a command of how to harness the power of research and analytics.

Social media makes this a white hot priority, especially if PR is to continue to be a thought leader on the subject of “Reputation.”

Today, the ebbs and flows of a company’s reputation play out in ways that go beyond news stories and stock price movements.

The online conversation that is social media is a daily reputation report card, and if we as PR practitioners cannot explain what influences those daily grades, then we’ve placed a cap on our ability to influence and deliver value.

This is the essence of our job – understanding and addressing the elements that impact corporate reputation.

Our changing world also demands this. I’d venture to say the PR pros of tomorrow will approach our profession in a far different manner than those of us in this room. And that’s good.

They will be more multicultural, more diverse, more technologically proficient, and far less nostalgic about ink and pulp, and less dependent on the influences of so-called “mainstream” sources. This will be good, because our world increasingly reflects all of these things, but I fear our profession isn’t changing fast enough to keep pace with all the change. Research insights can help shore some of the gaps.

I think Golin Harris’s Chuck Hemann, now an executive director of analytics, summed it up best when he said: “The PR professional of tomorrow is faced with an unlimited source of data about their key audiences. It will be critical for the PR pro to be able to analyze large amounts of data pertaining to search behaviors, engagement patterns on Facebook and other social platforms and, most importantly, understand how to measure their contribution to the impact of a communications program and business objectives. The time has long since passed where the PR pro can claim ignorance on how to gather, analyze and develop insights from data. There isn’t an expectation that he/she will be a data analyst, but if he/she isn’t comfortable with working WITH a data analyst – or a researcher I’d add – then they will be left behind.”

Fortunately, the profession’s research community is here to help, and IPR is leading the way. The organization is part of a profession-wide coalition that is driving toward a set of common research standards for our field. Wells Fargo is joining General Electric, General Motors, McDonald’s USA and Southwest Airlines in supporting the effort. And I ask other corporations in this room to do the same by simply pledging their support at IPR’s website.
(The web site, by the way, is a virtual treasure trove of research findings devoted to the profession.)

A common language and set of principles would help elevate research’s role in our profession, and would send a clear message – particularly to those beginning their PR careers – that the understanding and leveraging of research and measurement principles have become table stakes … vital to the professional success we aspire to enjoy.

Indeed, it is hard for me to imagine what kind of value our Corporate Communications team could have provided to Wells Fargo, especially in the financial crisis’s long wake, without the help of professional research.

Research helped us understand what made up the gulf that we were experiencing back then between how we saw ourselves and how the world actually saw us.

That perception gap – which I believe is the point of all our PR work – has since narrowed for Wells Fargo, and I can claim this with confidence, because we have the proprietary primary research that shows our reputation favorability has risen, and the sentiment of our press coverage and the quality of our social media engagements have improved.

The outside world has begun to validate our progress, too. Just this month, Harris released its annual ranking of the reputations of America’s “Most Visible Companies.” They were ranked by a Harris metric called the “RQ,” or “Reputation Quotient.” Wells Fargo had the highest score among the “Big Four” banks, and had the third-highest year-over-year improvement in RQ.

Reputation is PR’s sweet spot. It is, frankly, the point of all our work. Let’s never forget this, especially in this era of great debate about our profession’s future.

Let’s never stop exploring what drives reputation’s rise and fall and recovery; or how to explain its value; or how to spot the trends that affect its outlook … In the future, this is likely to be PR’s most valuable contribution … as we help those who care about their reputations build them, promote them and protect them.

But as we keep exploring, let’s not rely solely on our guts, or clips, or tweets. Let’s also rely on the wisdom we can only obtain through professional, primary research.

Thank you.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks to Oscar Suris and our dinner guests for making the dinner an overwhelming success. More important than our surroundings and the food (which were amazing), the evening’s focus on research as a primary driver for successful public relations was enriching. Oscar’s speech provided the topical spark which ignited many PR research-based table conversations throughout the evening.

    Speaking for PRIME, we are grateful to Oscar for sharing his vision and to the Institute for bringing Oscar to our evening. To those with an interest in learning more about practical applications for research in our profession, we look forward to seeing you next year.

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