Interview: Stephen Waddington – the resurgence of PR in the shift to social business.


This is the fourth in a series of interviews with thought leaders, which we’re conducting as part of our new book project exploring the theme ‘Beyond Customer Centric’.

This time I caught up with the Stephen Waddington, a Partner and Chief Engagement Officer at Ketchum. He’s written and contributed to a number of books, including two recent ones that have looked at the impact of social media on corporate reputation.

I was interested in getting feedback about the theme in general and also on the interviews I’d conducted to date because there seemed to be two camps.

On one hand, Salesforce’s Jeremy Waite along with Anouk Pappers and Maarten Schäfer of CoolBrands talk about brands needing to have some higher or social purpose beyond profit, and this being better for us, the planet and their longer term commercial sustainability.

Peter Shankman on the other hand, represents what seems to be the Yang to their Yin by focusing on being obsessed with customer-experience, which includes making things easier for them, implementing little changes that make a big impact on their experience and simply hiring people who help show that brands actually care.


Customer experience obsession and purposeful brands part of a continuum:

Stephen doesn’t think the two positions are contradictory, pointing out that they both fit within the progression mapped out in Jeremy’s Five Stages of Brand Leadership model:

At the top end you have organisations with a purpose that creates something like a religion that has followers who have absolute belief in that core purpose. At the other end you have functional organisations that sell stuff, and there’s various stages to be reached in between: so it’s not Yin and Yang, but more of a continuum.

Brands having a higher purpose is something that Stephen mentions was highlighted in Culture Shock: A Handbook For 21st Century Business book by Will McInnis back in 2012, but thinks Jeremy’s more recent From Survival to Significance book nails the steps a brand needs to take to get there.

The renaissance of PR, industry convergence and the shift to social business:
From a public relations point of view, Stephen thinks there’s almost a renaissance opportunity because traditionally it’s started with listening to the customer and having a dialogue with them, and then creating content that takes them on a journey. He compares this to an audience planning approach, where it’s been about trying to figure out ways of engaging as part of the customer journey.

Stephen also sees books by the likes of Will and Jeremy mentioned above as part of growing number of indicators that show how different disciplines are starting to head in the same direction as the marketing industry converges:

There’s this huge intersection at the moment between public relations creating content that starts a conversation that results in an action or change in behaviour; and advertising, marketing and digital that understand behaviour very well and the points where you have to create nudges or interrupt to bring about a change in them.

As mentioned in my interview with Jeremy, his ideas about creating a purpose that people will follow like a religion, or at least a movement, is rooted in the ‘loyalty beyond reason’ that Saatchi’s Kevin Roberts talked about in his Love Marks: The Future Beyond Brands book from 2006.

Will’s ideas come from a similar place, but are more about the kind of meaning that people will buy into and was influenced by the conscious business movement. Stephen sees these related ideas and those from likes of Philip Sheldrake – who I’ll be interviewing next as part of this series – as all being part of the shift to social business:

We’re shifting from financial and functional relationships, to where the really successful organisations are the ones that have a social purpose and are truly social.

I was interested to understand what role Stephen saw public relations playing in this shift. He thinks there’s a resurgence opportunity with social media to move away from publicity being the primary means to influence and bring about behavioural change:

We actually dealing and working again with publics and audiences very directly, and that start’s with listening.

That’s the opportunity for PR as he sees it, which he discusses in more detail in a blog post that looks at how the discipline needs to evolve beyond being synonymous with media relations as it responds to changing media landscape.

Putting Customer-Centricity and Purposeful brands to the test?
For Stephen, it’s not clear whether customer-centricity and/or the need to have a social purpose beyond profit are really what’s keeping C-Suite executives awake at night yet.

These issues maybe, however, he thinks be more real for some more than others, hence McDonald’s greater effort to be more transparent and engaging with their Your Questions Our Food campaign that Stephen thinks was brave. How one would measure this approach against something like how a commitment to sustainability might have better helped change perceptions and improve their dropping sales is not immediately obvious.

It’s a lot easier to quantify more functional customer service and experience improvements because they’re testable, but as Jeremy discusses in his new book it’s about our hearts as well as heads and that’s why Stephen thinks we also need to be looking at the impact of brand purpose and meaning on our behaviours.

The Triple Botton Line accountancy framework is being used by the likes of GE to evaluate their performance in a broader societal and environmental contact. Perhaps there’s something to be learned from those who balance their social impact in the societal sense with their financial sustainability. It could, as Anouk and Maarten from CoolBrands mentioned in my recent interview, also be about a more qualitative assessment such as the way they reflect every year on what they have achieved not only in terms of commercial success, but also the quality of their experiences, what they’ve learned, etc.

Whether these and other alternative metrics will be embraced by the C-Suite any time soon remains to seen, but it will be interesting to hear what emphasis others I’m speaking to place on meaning and purpose versus actual experience, as well as how the impact of the former might be evaluated. At the same time, I’m looking forward to hearing more insights about the direction in which they also think things are heading.

Further Reading:
Check out Stephen’s #BrandVandals (2013) and Brand Anarchy (2012) books as well as his blog for more of his thinking and recommendations on doing. He also recommends you read Marketers Are From Mars, Consumers Are From New Jersey (2015) by Bob Hoffman, Not Invented Here: Cross-industry Innovation (2015) by Ramon Vullings and Marc Heleve and Trust Me, PR Is Dead Paperback (2015) by Robert Phillips. Next up will be an interview with Philip Sheldrake.







About the author

Justin is the curator of the Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM) ebook and event series


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