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By Zazu Lippert

This past year has taught me that nothing is certain. But it has also taught me that when the only constant is change, there are some things that will always matter, that can always provide comfort and hope: strategic problem-solving, creativity and, most importantly, genuine connection with others.

Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, all of these are components of the communications and public relations profession. And over the past year, I’ve been lucky to help advance the USC Center for Public Relations’ work to increase authentic communications and strategic, creative collaboration between corporations and activist organizations. 

#PRFuture Podcast, USC Center for Public Relations, Noemi Pollack Scholarship, Brand Purpose, KOS2021, GCR2021, 2021 Relevance Report
Noemi Pollack Scholar ZaZu Lippert

As a new volunteer at the USC Center for Public Relations in March 2020, I was just getting to know the incredible team there as they began to navigate the cancellation of the 30th Annual Kenneth Owler Smith Symposium. Instead of trying to put together a virtual event, we got creative, and started a podcast to share the insights of the amazing speakers that were booked for the event. 

Given my radio production background, I stepped in as an executive producer, helping to create what is now the #PRFuture podcast. We were able to share the stories of activists as well as corporations who worked with activist groups, discussing the need for a new level of corporate engagement on social issues. Little did we know that in a few months’ time, with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, these conversations around authentic engagement would be more important than ever before.

Now, I’m in the process of wrapping up our second season of the podcast as the 2020/21 Noemi Pollack Scholar at the center. I’m proud to say we’ve covered a variety of the most pressing issues in our industry, from brand purpose and the impact of polarization on communications to the need for increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in the industry. Much of the podcast is about bringing some of the best in the business together to share strategies and make progress on the biggest communications issues of our time. But at its core, it’s really about connecting: sharing stories and learning from the experiences of industry professionals. I’m looking forward to seeing what important stories we’ll tell in the future.

The center’s work to promote authentic communication and genuine connection doesn’t stop there. This past fall, I had the chance to co-author a research study at the center, called “Trends and Best Practices in Brand Purpose Communication.” The study establishes a set of guidelines for corporations looking to get involved in purpose-led public relations campaigns.

And of course, our annual research reports this past year offered more insight into how to strategically navigate the pandemic while leading with heart and always putting people first. Our 2021 Relevance Report focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, adapting to pandemic regulations and leading with purpose. I had the amazing opportunity to contribute an essay on interactive content and finding new creative ways to connect with consumers, alongside many incredible essays by industry professionals whom I greatly admire. 

Our recently released 2021 Global Communication Report on politics, polarization and purpose took a deeper dive into many of these topics, evaluating the future in light of the 2020 presidential election. As everything changes, the work continues. 

In a time when I anticipated feeling insanely isolated and idle, my work at the USC Center for Public Relations has helped me to maintain and create new genuine connections with others across the PR industry, and hopefully, play a role in laying the groundwork for more authentic communication on an industry level in the future. 

In my lifetime, communications has perhaps never been as important as it is today. How we communicate health and safety information and messages on social issues can bring hope and change in this time of immense uncertainty. I’ve been able to tap into my creativity, think more critically about the issues facing our society, and really make some lifelong friends through a computer screen — something that seemed impossible to me a year ago. 

The uncertainty of this year has also led me to embark on a variety of personal projects I’d never imagined I’d get around to. I began writing a musical, and just last month, I launched a collaborative blog and gallery space for young artists. It seems that the acceptance of uncertainty gives us more space to explore new ideas, and rewrite the rules to create measurable positive change on social issues, which is something that I hope we’ll take with us as we transition into post-pandemic life. 

As I look toward the uncertain future, I know there is still much to untangle. With any luck, we’ll soon be navigating policies for safe returns to in-person activities, and I’ll be navigating the process of becoming comfortable standing within six feet of another human being again. While there is an overwhelming amount of interest in increasing DEI initiatives, there are still large gaps in the communication industry’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. And truly focusing on leading with purpose in campaigns will likely require much change for the industry. None of these challenges will be easy to overcome. But if we lead with creativity, strategy and above all else, humanity, then I believe we will start to see positive change.