A few weeks ago we headed over to Miami (it’s a hard life but someone has to do it!) for Holmes Report’s annual conference, #Provoke17.

It’s an opportunity for the industry to come together to look at what is happening across the world and understand what it means for both our clients’ and our own comms strategies.

One thing is clear: there is an overwhelming consensus that this is a defining era for businesses. And for the role of comms within them.

We are moving away from a world in which product is king. Instead, it’s all about brand behaviour and irreplaceability. Almost every piece of research we saw supported that.

For example: 73% of consumers say they scrutinise company behaviour more today than they did 10 years ago (APCO worldwide), while Harris revealed that 60% of millennials say they trust small companies above big ones and more than a third (37%) would switch brands if they felt they were bad for society.

So what does this mean for organisations that are battling to understand a changing audience and evolving landscape while understand their role in bigger picture issues?

Here are three key areas of discussion that ran throughout the event.

Doing more; saying less

One of the standout presentations was by The Harris Poll CEO John Gerzema.

He unveiled the brand’s research – mentioned above – which looked at behavioural tendencies amongst a younger audience and what that means for organisations.

He talked about how big ideals are today’s form of branding, mentioning Airbnb’s plan to host 100,000 immigrants for free in the coming five years and Pixar’s free storytelling course.

These actions directly reflect a company’s mission and heart – a point cemented by PayPal Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Communications Franz Paasche in his session.

All of these represent brands who aren’t afraid to have an opinion and are happy to tell those who don’t believe in said opinion that it’s okay to pick another brand.

One of the best examples – given in a separate session – was of Eminem.

He quite literally drew a line in the sand between those who are with him and those who are with Trump.

The message was clear: don’t like it; don’t buy my music.

A phrase that we should perhaps expect to hear more from brands as they continue to define who they are and what they stand for.

On this point, Gerzema’s said this was important as to millennials “CSR is like dad jeans.” In other words, guys, it’s not cool. Now, whether you agree with that or not, I think the key point he was making here was around how brands share the good they are doing.

While there is an urge to centre your comms on one good deed, the brands that are seen as more genuine are the ones that let these actions speak for themselves and make them intrinsic to your business.

They need to reflect your business mission, your beliefs and focus on where you can make real change.

Most importantly you have to know you have a voice. And use it.

Creating a culture of challenge

Whether it’s your employees or your ‘fans’, brands today need to embrace a culture of challenge. One where employees can challenge the decisions of their leaders and where users feel their viewpoint is listened to – and actioned.

A great example given was Mark Zuckerberg’s rebuttal of the impact of ‘fake news’ on the US election and his employees’ response.

Being held to account might not be a new thing, but how tangibly it impacts your reputation as a company and you as an individual leader is.

The prevalence and influence of social networks means everyone has a voice – one most aren’t afraid to use.

Audiences are loyal to the brands that represent the same values as them – a fact that is increasing in value in a polarised world.

And it’s the role of comms to help define that and manage the impact – positive and negative – in a way that fits the brand

Knowing your influencers and what influences them

There is no excuse for organisations not to know who their audience is and who influences that audience.

We have more tools than ever before to listen. But how many companies really do that?

Yet if they are to continue to be successful, it’s exactly what they need to do.

When we talk to clients about this, we’re hearing a lot more about the practice of influencer relations and for some companies the role of comms is broadening out to support more understanding of customers. The insights from, say, social media listening can be invaluable to the customer services team.

Brands need to respond quickly but thoughtfully. And they need to understand the issues their customers care about.

Perhaps this seems like an obvious point, but the social media fails we’ve seen over the last year – alongside some extraordinary advertising decisions – demonstrate that for some brands at least, there is still need to take the time to ask their audience.

The topics over the two days of the conference demonstrate that today’s brands arguably have a harder challenge than those of any other era. But they also have a much bigger opportunity to engage with a wider audience than ever before. It’s up to them to make the most of it…

And finally, from a personal point of view, I can certainly recommend attending the event. You’ll meet lots of great people and get a really international take on our comms industry. Top job Holmes Report!

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