Restoring Confidence and Trust Top Issues at Council of PR Firms Forum

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Rob Flaherty, President and Senior Partner, Ketchum delivered the opening remarks at today’s sold out Critical Issues Forum, hosted by the Council of PR Firms. The theme of this year’s event was, “Aftershock: Restoring Confidence and Trust in 2010,” and Flaherty pointed out that 80 years ago today was Black Tuesday, which led to the stock market crash of 1929.

“Statistics on drop in trust are incredible, like nothing we’ve seen our career,” said Flaherty. “Are we willing to anticipate stakeholder expectations and push companies to change? Are we willing to step up to the plate and shape corporate character, not just words?” he asked.

Following Flaherty’s remarks was a panel discussion that got contentious at a few points, mostly between James Wiggins, Executive Director, Corporate Communications, Morgan Stanley and Susie Gharib, Anchor and Senior Strategic Advisor, Night Business Report.

Gharib suggested Goldman Sachs take their $20 billion in bonuses and “give it to people who don’t have jobs or homes.” Flatiron Communications Principal Peter Himler yelled out from the audience, “It would be seen as a ploy.” Wiggins said that Gharbib’s plan was like Bono’s in Africa, to “throw money at it and it will go away,” something he said was not a solution. On the other hand, “I’d rather see Goldman invest in micro-entrepreneurship, rather than just give it away,” said Beth Comstock, SVP and CMO, General Electric.

In terms of the bailout, Wiggins said the government “did the right thing by stepping in with public money and stopping it, but the event was irrational and anger in the public is also irrational. It’s going to take some time,” he said, in terms of tempering that anger.

Margery Kraus, President & CEO, APCO Worldwide, said that her biggest fear is that “this is an inflection point and if we don’t take advantage of it…what kind of legacy are we going to leave? I think the [PR] industry plays a huge role in this…we need to be able to help push and shape our clients, and ourselves, to levels where we earn that trust.”

In his first speaking engagement since he retired, Steve Harris, former VP, Global Communications, General Motors talked about the opportunity with social media, but stressed, “I don’t believe you can have an over reliance on tech.”

“That is a huge part and a great advantage, but my one takeaway from experience in the auto industry, [is that] losing one on one, small group contact is really critical,” he said. “At one time, GM owned community relations from a reputation standpoint through dealerships and plants, and we let that go because we thought it was too time consuming and expensive. It is equally labor intensive through social media.”