PRSA LOGOGary McCormick, APR,  is the Chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America. According to McCormick, there have been dramatic shifts in the PR industry over the last year, which will be  highlighted at this year’s PRSA International Conference in Washington, D.C.

HPRB: How has the world of PR changed between last year and this one?

McCORMICK: One significant change is that marketers now are showing a greater interest in using public relations to reach consumers, which places a higher strategic value on what we do as professionals.

Aside from our unique role in amplifying a brand’s message, the convergence of two trends are at the heart of this new-found appreciation. First, we’re living in world today that is captivated by social media and all things digital. Second, the lines between what’s a “marketing” idea and what’s a “public relations” idea are blurring. And these trends play to public relations’ strengths. We’re a content-creation discipline — the written word, certainly, but also photos, audio and video — and we’re able to engage key audiences to establish mutually beneficial relationships. Plus, we’re accustomed to working in an environment in which we cannot exercise total control over the message.

Another important change is a greater appreciation for crisis communications. A number of high profile events have recently taken place, from the Toyota recall to the BP disaster to HP’s firing of its CEO, that have brought the importance and benefits of corporate reputation and trust clearly into focus.

You can see these two changes reflected in spending on public relations services: 75 percent of agency CEOs and CFOs surveyed by the Council of PR firms reported growth in the first half of 2010, and Veronis Suhler Stevenson is predicting a 3 percent increase in public relations spending this year over last. Compare this rate of growth to other communications disciplines, and you’ll see that public relations is faring pretty well.

One final change to mention is that the intersection of journalism, public relations and technology is creating ethical issues for public relations practitioners. Just last month, for example, we witnessed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settling charges against Reverb Communications, alleging that the public relations firm had engaged in deceptive advertising practices by having its employees write and post positive reviews of its clients’ games in the Apple iTunes Store, without disclosing the client connection. These types of situation will continue to multiply as more and more of what we do as professionals migrate online.

HPRB: What is going to make this year’s conference different and more special than previous year’s conferences? What is your expected attendance and who are your keynote speakers?

Gary McCormick, APR, Chair and CEO, Public Relations Society of AmericaMcCORMICK: The theme of this year’s conference is “Powering Progress,” which recognizes public relations’ role as a driver of business outcomes central to organizational progress, while capturing the essence of our host city, Washington, D.C., as the seat of power and progress for our nation and the world.

Attendees can participate in more than 80 sessions within four educational tracks: innovative strategies, effective tactics and techniques, specialization and practice areas and the Business Case for Public Relations™. Additional learning opportunities will focus on the latest strategies in social media and public affairs. For anyone who would like to browse the complete program, our Conference brochure is available online in digital format.

The PRSA International Conference is the largest of its kind, and we expected to draw approximately 3,000 of the best and brightest professional communicators from around the world. Attendees typically include communications professionals from public relations agencies, corporations, government, healthcare institutions, the military, professional services firms, associations, and nonprofit organizations; students who are members of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA); and academics.

This year’s Conference will feature keynote presentations from some of the most influential and respected thought leaders in the areas of social technology emergence, online research, branding, crisis communication, and public affairs, including: Bettina Luescher, chief spokesperson, United Nations World Food Programme; Jim VandeHei, executive editor and co-founder, POLITICO; Bill Tancer, author of “Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why It Matters — Unexpected Insights for Business and Life”; Jeffrey Hayzlett, author of “The Mirror Test: Is Your Business Really Breathing?”; and Charlene Li, author of “Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead.”

HPRB: How is PRSA continuing to redefine its mission and objectives as it applies to diversity?

McCORMICK:As you know, PRSA was criticized last year for combining its Diversity Committee and Multicultural Communications Section. Much of the criticism — though well intentioned — was misplaced and borne on fears that we were no longer committed to achieving greater diversity within our Society and industry. But nothing could be farther from the truth. If you look at what we’ve accomplished this year, under the auspices of our new Diversity Committee, we’ve taken great strides toward the creation of a more diverse Society and profession.

The extraordinarily passionate and hard-working members of this committee have come together and re-focused our efforts on four main program areas, where we can have the greatest impact: Students, Programming, Chapter Relations and Social Media. In the student area, for example, a video on “Diversity in Public Relations,” aimed at educating and educating high school and college students about careers in public relations, was produced in conjunction with Hunter College, where one of our Directors, Lynn Appelbaum, is a faculty member.

In the programming area, we’ve hosted idea swaps and free webinars, including “Diversity: A Matter of Gender or Style,” which are initiatives that we plan on continuing next year. Our Chapter Relations initiative is augmenting the work of our Chapter Diversity Chairs by availing them of National programming opportunities and resources, such as our Diversity Tool Kit, and by acknowledging Chapters best practices through our Chapter Diversity Awards.

We’re also extremely active in the social media realm, with the re-launch of our Diversity Today blog, an updated diversity section on our website, and the creation of an “@PRSADiversity” Twitter handle, which is being used to draw attention to diversity blog posts and articles. We’re also using our daily news digest, Issues and Trends, to regularly communicate Committee news and information.

HPRB: What are some diversity or multicultural-marketing related topics on the agenda for this year’s conference?

McCORMICK:Members can look forward to several professional development sessions centered on diversity in public relations, including “Powering Innovation: The Role of Diversity and Inclusion,” presented by Nelson Fernandez, managing director, APCO Worldwide, and Jose Hermocillo, senior vice president and managing director, APCO Worldwide; “Employee Resource Groups That Grow the Business,” presented by Tom Cunningham, vice president, corporate communications, Interpublic Group; Julia Hood, president, Arthur W. Page Society; and Kevin Hooks, senior vice president, integrated media, Weber Shandwick; and “Socially Diverse: Engaging With Diverse Communities Online,” presented by James Walker, editor, PR Prescriptions.

There also will be a Unity Mixer on Oct., 16, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. This is an opportunity for members of the various public relations and communications associations, including the Asian American Journalists Association, Black Public Relations Society, The Capital Press Club, National Association of Black Journalists, National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and PRSA, to come together for an evening of networking and fellowship.

Individuals who are interested in learning more about our diversity and multicultural marketing sessions should visit the International Conference website.

HPRB: How can someone register for your conference and what is included with the conference pass?

McCORMICK: This year’s conference will take place Oct. 16 to 19, at the Washington Hilton in Washington, DC. Individuals may register online, or download a PDF form is they prefer to register by fax or mail.

There are different registration packages available, with special offerings for educators and military personnel, but our basic — “Package 1” — registration includes entry to all general sessions and professional development workshops; our opening night gala and Monday and Tuesday luncheons; our Exhibition Hall Reception; and various refreshment breaks. We also have several events that are offered a la carte, including our Professional Interest Section Networking dinners and APR and Social Media boot camps.