Billed as the year’s premiere global communications event by a leading communications publication, Holmes Report’s PRovoke addressed challenges and trends facing our profession. Hosted at DC’s iconic Watergate hotel for the second consecutive year, this summit highlighted authenticity as a driver of both corporate planning and social change.

A reoccurring theme for PRovoke19 was the inherent power in being your full “authentic” self at all times, especially in the workplace. Multiple sessions discussed why being able to bring your whole self to work every day, rather than compartmentalizing pieces of yourself to fit in, is crucial to a company’s success and creativity. When we are accepted as our complete ourselves, we are empowered to bring our complete selves to every brainstorm, every client meeting, every strategy session – and the business benefits. We generate ideas and plans that otherwise may have never been thought of if we’d been forced to consciously restrict ourselves.

P&G’s Associate Director for Creative Content and Story Creation Brent Miller, “[As a gay man,] when you see yourself represented, it allows you to stand up and become a more fully-fledged member of that society… it’s good for business.”

Diversity in thought can be reflected in diversity of life experience, so removing the barrier to judging those life experiences allows us to safely communicate these decision-shaping experiences at work. Panelists got to discuss how feeling more comfortable in their skin and demonstrating all aspects of their personality has encouraged their personal and professional success. The definition of “professionalism” is changing and companies are better for it.

Two days of the Global PR Summit kicked off with a conversation between H+K’s Global Chairman & CEO AnnaMaria DeSalva and leading CEO coach and best-selling author Elena Botelho on what it takes to become a CEO. They deconstructed the four essential behaviors that successful CEOs share (decisiveness, proactive adaptation, relentless reliability, and engaging for effective results), none of which exclude a person based on gender, appearance, ethnicity, sexual orientation, country of origin or any other superficial criteria. This means that fitting the archetype of a Fortune 500 CEO does not equate to being a long-lasting Fortune 500 CEO. In actuality, a CEO could potentially be anybody.

And this is a really important takeaway because, according to Elena Botelho and her research, “Not understanding what a leader looks like affects what we believe is possible for ourselves to achieve.” When we see that CEOs can have any appearance, we recognize our own potential. We no longer feel limited to look or act a certain way in order to achieve the pinnacle of professional success.

This concept has obviously evolved over time and leaders in our industry unfortunately remembered an era when being your whole self was not as encouraged or accepted. In one session, a woman talked about being specifically called out last century because she was the only member of her gender in a room. At the same session, Brent Miller xplained how the acceptance of LGBT+ is so much more welcoming now, in many ways including having ERGs, than when he initially began his career; he would not have felt as safe to be out then as he does now.

MasterCard, appearing at the conference, talked about fostering acceptance with queer street signage that stayed up well after World Pride 2019 concluded. The Gay Street marker in New York’s Greenwich Village got turned into a rainbow-colored, eye-catching display of various identities across the LGBT+ spectrum and a “#AcceptanceMatters” tab at the bottom. The significance of featuring the sign in a neighborhood that’s been instrumental in the history of LGBT+ rights movement was not overlooked, either.

MasterCard also created a card that reflects transgender people’s real names rather than their dead names, a persistent problem that community has faced; as MasterCard’s Jim Issokson put it, “You want to be recognized for who you are today, not who you were six months ago or two-three years ago.” These are great examples of companies being allies in the quest for further inclusion and action.

And our acceptance and inclusion efforts still have room to improve. The United College Negros Fund (UNCF) underscored the need for more and more representation at the table and how keeping assumptions out of decision-making creates opportunities for us all to bring our true authentic selves. The UNCF has seen progress within the Black community in the years since its founding, but that evolution is not enough.

Since the 1940s, UNCF’s iconic slogan has been “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” a powerful warning that is still all too relevant many decades later.  We can make a more diverse and accepting business world.

Authenticity includes the agency-client dynamic that’s at the heart of our industry. Agency and client relationships actually thrive best when all the agency folk are being their unique selves over adhering to molds, even the agency-client relationship itself does not need to fit one archetype each time. RFPs can benefit from a little authenticity, too; a creative, out-of-the-box brief that best fits the ask will likely result in more innovative pitches and a better final product than getting too cookie-cutter. Flexibility and change are key.

Show off your personality and do something that says “my agency is different and this is how.” Sessions discussing the value of brand partnerships and working towards common goals reminded the audience that “it’s okay to have fun.” IKEA understands the role of adaptation and cultural authenticity in a global sphere, especially catering to different market needs and tastes as well as physically being able to fit within the wildly different geography of cities around the world.

Part of being authentic is being okay with authentically failing. This was reinforced in our H+K session (CEOs didn’t get where they are by being perfect) and as part of the panel dealing with authenticity itself. Sometimes, we try our best and that’s not enough. Sometimes, we make a bad call that messes everything up. But, this does not have to be the end of our road – to quote Lyft’s Head of Marketing Samantha Goldman, “failure can be one of [our] most powerful tools.”

There is generally a potential for failure in most things, but that should not stop us from acting or trusting ourselves. Many of our greatest leaders, both in the PR industry currently and throughout history, have failed before succeeding majorly. As Elena Botelho noted, “We analyzed CEOs track records and careers. None of them have a personal track record or uninterrupted story of success. 45% of these CEOs had a major blow-up. It’s about how you handle those mistakes.”  After all, if you’ve learned from it, then it wasn’t a total failure.

A personal favorite, the closeout session, “From Moment to Movement: Building March for Our Lives,” emphasized, as panelist and activist Delaney Tarr explained, the “power of storytelling and youth to make a difference.”

The Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School students (now some in their early twenties and college students) managed to turn a horrific event into a nationwide call for policy reform. Millions have attended their demonstrations, becoming activists themselves. The faces of the movement, exemplified by its Gen Z leaders, are shifting to include people and ideals not initially featured back in February 2018, illustrating the fast pace of change that modern social justice movements are capable of. March for Our Lives’ openness to feedback has allowed the movement to stay true to its roots while encompassing previously unheard-of voices.

There’s a core comms tool at the heart of this: by incorporating honest, constructive criticism, your campaign can better stand the test of time while maintaining a more authentic platform. All of these young people seized a harrowing moment to address a real problem in society that is literally costing lives – they’re all something special. It was easily one of the most powerful and inspirational panel of the entire Summit. They finished with a standing ovation.

Empowering authenticity and sparking discussion, this year’s PRovoke demonstrated how public relations often sits at the intersection of marketing, business and politics and can affect those industries in turn. The trajectory of these events appears to be on the rise as the trade body and attending companies develop new, creative sessions and speakers each year – what an exciting future they have in store for us. PRovoke19 accomplished a lot of things, but, most of all, it was thought-provoking at a time when Holmes Report could have played it safe, and that is something to be respected.