Q&A: Eric Yaverbaum – ‘There is Power in PR, We Need to Use it for Good’

The PR industry vet shares his thoughts on ‘rainbow washing’, the setting of higher sustainability standards for clients, and how big brands should start putting their money where their mouth is.

Branding in Asia recently caught up with Eric Yaverbaum, a communication, media, and public relations expert with over 40 years in the industry. Currently the CEO of Ericho Communications, Yaverbaum is the author of Public Relations for Dummies as well as six other titles, including Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOs.

Over the course of his career, he has worked with a wide range of clients, such as Sony, IKEA, Progressive Insurance, Domino’s, Beachbody, H&M, fitness guru Jack LaLanne, and others.

During our conversation, Yaverbaum talks about the recent celebration of Pride Month and the issue of “rainbow washing,” PR firms setting higher sustainability standards for clients they will work with, whether Public Relations for Dummies remains relevant today, how big brands need to put their money where their mouth is, and more.

 
 

You first published “Public Relations for Dummies” in 2006. Were you to write the book today, what would be some of the biggest changes for 2022?

Given how quickly the PR landscape evolves, those books would have to be completely rewritten every single month in order to stay current. The proliferation of social and digital media has really changed the way we get, share, and even digest information. PR has always been a fast-paced industry, but everything today is moving at warp speed and the sheer scale, reach, and saturation of content today would have been unfathomable 16 years ago.

It’s essential to be able to react in the moment, which is also why it’s so important to be authentic—you’re just not going to have the time to pretend to be anything other than who you are.

You have to also realize that the younger generation is getting their news and info digitally while older generations are still using print. It’s key to know where each age group is going for their news and which sources they consider to be trustworthy in order to fully engage with target audiences of all ages.

 
 

And while crisis planning has always been vital, it’s even more so today since the news cycle is so lightning fast. When a crisis hits, there simply isn’t time to be caught unprepared—you have to have tailored plans in place, ready to be put into action at a moment’s notice; and even better, brands need to be doing the work to prevent crises from happening in the first place (as much as possible that is).

Pride Month recently passed. You and others have talked about the problem of ‘rainbow-washing’. Compared to previous years, how do you think brands did this year with their Pride Month PR?

Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be some time before the biggest companies really commit to putting their money where their mouth is. It’s going to really have to impact their bottom line before they start taking seriously the damage this does, not only to their brand, but to people, our democracy, and the world we live in.

This June, Walmart had a very public incident with its Juneteenth ice cream that it ended up pulling from the shelves, and brands are still deservedly being called out for donating to politicians who actively harm the LGTBQ+ community while attempting to capitalize on Pride with rainbow logos and merch.

“PR has always been a fast-paced industry, but everything today is moving at warp speed and the sheer scale, reach, and saturation of content today would have been unfathomable 16 years ago.”

So all in all, my evaluation for this year would be: not great. While I applaud brands who have taken steps to correct rainbow-washing (as well as those who never transgressed), there is still a lot of work to be done here.

The root of the issue is the kind of corporate bet hedging where companies put their eggs in every politician’s basket, so to speak, in order to curry favor no matter who comes to power. But with new generations who increasingly care about the values of the brands they support, the ability for companies to claim political neutrality or co-opt movements as a marketing ploy while still donating to politicians actively fighting those same movements is waning.

These kinds of profit over all else decisions affect and harm real people; just look at the damage it’s doing to our planet. Some things need to be more important than maximizing profit.

Donating to politicians that are actively harming marginalized communities and then turning around and trying to profit off of those very same communities is going to continue to cause issues for brands. It lacks integrity, honesty, transparency, and consumers are rightfully going to feel betrayed. That’s exactly why these public callouts (like what Walmart experienced) are so embarrassing and damaging for brands.

We’ve had enough of these callouts by this point that brands should really understand that any time they want to capitalize on public goodwill, it also needs to be backed by meaningful and appropriate action. Or it’s just not going to end well.

Earlier this year Edelman said it will “part ways with clients” that don’t adhere to sustainability standards and that it will use the net zero emissions target by 2050 as a guide for all of its work. How do you see this playing out for those in the PR industry making similar moves?

It’s a great idea in theory (so long as agencies do what they say they will), and it’s one that I’m philosophically aligned with—we need to take care of the earth. It’s literally our only home and we cannot destroy it without also destroying humanity.

Moreover, in this industry, I feel very strongly that we have a duty to be prudent about the brands we promote. There is power in PR, we need to use it for good.

I really hope Edelman and agencies who make similar pledges follow through and stay true to their word. I do strongly feel that committing to doing right is where the future of the industry should be headed, and I’m glad that there is a growing push to hold PR agencies accountable for the work we play a part in. Only doing work that has a positive impact on the world is precisely what I committed myself to when I founded Ericho—and not as a PR tactic, but because I personally like feeling good about my work, and I greatly prefer being able to sleep at night.

“We’ve had enough of these callouts by this point that brands should really understand that any time they want to capitalize on public goodwill, it also needs to be backed by meaningful and appropriate action. Or it’s just not going to end well.”

Unfortunately, we’ve seen these kinds of promises get made without meaningful change in the past. Edelman itself has been called out for greenwashing. So I will be (happily) surprised if big agencies and multinational companies actually follow through here (but will wholeheartedly applaud them if they do). The reality is that running a company (especially a multinational one) is complicated and requires making difficult decisions that have consequences for the entire staff.

Choosing to terminate relationships with clients can mean having to scale the company down and could even mean having to do layoffs, which is another problem in and of itself. I think that some companies are going to have a tough time delivering on these promises, and I don’t recommend making promises you can’t keep.

According to a recent study by Duke, only one-third of marketers say brand strategies address climate change — which is actually a decline since 2020. This at a time when consumers are looking to brands, more than the government, to protect the environment. What are your thoughts on this?

Young consumers are extremely conscientious about where they spend their money, and they really prefer to shop at brands whose values and ethics are aligned with their own. This is facilitated by the ease and convenience of online shopping which has allowed Gen Z and Millennials to choose which brands they do and do not support with their money. If a brand fails to act with integrity, there are a lot of other options for young consumers to choose from, and they will absolutely take their business elsewhere.

“Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be some time before the biggest companies really commit to putting their money where their mouth is.”

I think it’s fantastic that the younger generations are so socially conscious and active about really putting their money where their values are. That takes a lot of integrity, and I respect it. Until governments start taking meaningful action on important issues (like climate change) there will be an expectation for brands to step up and fill that void.

Brand strategies that don’t take environmental impact and climate change into consideration are behaving shortsightedly—not just in terms of the future of our planet, but the longevity and future of their brand as well.

What does the future of PR look like and what advice do you have for brands who want to get it right?

Authenticity and value-centric branding.

As PR continues to become more and more fast-paced, developing and maintaining an authentic brand will become even more essential. There simply won’t be time to react in the moment unless you’re authentic (there really isn’t even now) and the public callouts for brands that lack integrity will continue as well. Lastly, young consumers will remain conscientious about which brands they support and will continue to shun brands that lack integrity.

“Brands must ensure that each and every decision they make is aligned with their publicly stated core values. Any single decision that isn’t could mean an embarrassing public callout and losing young consumers, along with lasting brand damage.”

Brands must ensure that each and every decision they make is aligned with their publicly stated core values. Any single decision that isn’t could mean an embarrassing public callout and losing young consumers, along with lasting brand damage. Being authentic and building a business with integrity can require making hard decisions (like not taking money from companies whose ethics conflict with your core values).

However, I will say that being able to sleep at night, knowing that you’re doing the right thing, and safeguarding your company from scandals is priceless.

What’s been keeping you busy lately?

For the past few months, I’ve been working to raise money and coordinate with groups from all over the world to facilitate extractions from Ukraine. There are 11 groups that I’ve been intricately involved with and we’re working to help people escape dangerous areas, receive medical attention, find housing, and anything else they need (even making things like attending summer camp possible for children refugees).

Our hard work is paying off and that feels priceless to me. Across all the varying groups we’ve raised a million dollars now, which has been enough to help thousands of people and it’s extremely gratifying to be able to make a tangible difference in peoples’ lives.

I’ve also been busy writing my eighth book—The Audacity of Silver Linings—which is all about the challenging times we live in, silver linings, and lessons we can learn from them. The focus is on the positives we can find if we keep looking and for me personally, it’s about promoting the singular notion of hope. As Fred Rogers once said, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I want to be a helper.

And on a more personal note, my daughter is getting married next week! Her wedding had been postponed due to Covid, and I’m beyond emotional and overwhelmed with gratitude that her wedding day is upon us. It’s a very happy personal occasion for my family and I to say the least.


Quick Hits:

Book everyone in the industry should read: (Title & Author):

My top two are Atomic Habits by James Clear and The More You Watch, the Less You Know by Danny Schechter. What’s incredible about Schechter’s book is that even though he wrote it 25 years ago, every single thing that he said was happening still is—just on a much larger and faster scale because of digital and social media.

Favorite show you’re watching lately: 

I’ve been watching the Carl Icahn and Sheryl Crow documentaries—I spent a lot of time with Icahn and had a lovely friendship with Crow, so it has been fun to see them! I’ve also been watching Succession on HBO, which is just fascinating to me from a psychological perspective. It’s all about what really goes on in a family business and the family dynamics at that level of success.

One album you would take to a deserted island: (Title & musical artist) 

I’d have to go with Abandoned Luncheonette by Hall & Oates.

Something you want to learn or wish you were better at: 

I’m really into working out, but I’d love to learn more about yoga and really embark on that journey. I’d also like to get better at meditation—I first learned about transcendental meditation at 15 years old, and even though I’ve practiced it regularly since then, I still feel like there is a lot of room to continue growing.

Bobby McGill

Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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