The fire hose

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Richard Edelman over at the 6am blog has written a thoughtful well written article about the US recession and how it compares to the 2001 downturn which I recommend that you read. I have provided a link to it at the end of this post.

In it, Richard says that a combination of a more diversified client mix that was diversified to balance out the fragile technology sector, the rise of ethically challenged frontier sectors like  green products and genomics, a changing media environment and an apparent ‘disproportionate’ ROI for brands on well-executed PR campaigns. (It would be really great to see real numbers around this).

Richard points out that the average informed person accesses seven sources of information daily (though this sounds a bit low to me).

But the most interesting aspect is that although as Richard points out that companies can be media as well as the traditional mainstream outlets, there isn’t a corresponding effort to understand how to plan and maximise the impact achieved.

Instead if you read the post you hear about traditional PR influencing traditional media and citizen journalists aka bloggers, but also other stake-holders and helping clients being a media outlet themselves. I have been thinking a fair bit about this ‘fire hose’ of content recently, part of the thoughts on this went back the experience I had on two old projects in previous roles.

  • In the first one we achieved a large amount of high-quality online and print media coverage from around the world for a media brand that was extending itself into the online and mobile arenas for content delivery.  Looking at the raw web analytics data at the time we found that not one piece of traffic to the site was via a link from a page were this press coverage had been achieved despite direct hyperlinks being available on many of these sites
  • The second incident was when I was in-house. We had an integrated marketing and PR campaign going on with a call to action to visit a microsite. As part of the media programme the PR agency worked with a broadcast specialist to set up a radio media tour. We had a celebrity spokesperson who did really good interviews, hit the three key messages AND got the call to action into all but the first first interview.  However when we saw the traffic numbers for the day I was mortified: the numbers had dropped some 30 per cent. The day after the radio tour the traffic numbers were back to normal

I chose the earlier phrase ‘fire hose’ to describe the modern plethora of content from the media and companies available to audiences with a certain amount of care. It reminded me of when I used to work in an oil refinery and we we used to have canvas hoses with a large metal nozzle to control the water flow. These hoses were hooked up to a water hydrant and did a great job so long as you kept control of it.

But if you let go they would thrash around and knock over or smash everything in their path that wasn’t bolted down. I once had my safety hat knocked off my head and ended up having to work the rest of my shift in a throughly drenched boiler-suit and sodden work boots whilst trying to shut off the flow from the hydrant to bring an errant hose under control.

The campaigns that gave me food for thought, had the conventional PR ‘controls’ on them in terms of adherence to messaging and highly relevant targeting.

So why didn’t the PR work?

I don’t know for sure, but I have a theory. Audiences only have a finite amount of time to ‘consume’ information and act on it. There are only so many hours in the day, unless you have a life of leisure you can’t give more than a certain amount of time to find out about what’s happening in the world. Often this time is ‘dead time’: on a commuter train or listening to the radio on the way to work.

So if we give audiences too much information to engage with, they don’t have time to follow up with the call to action. And eventually when they do have time, the call to action has slipped from the top of mind with most people because they have since been bombarded with the latest news and a new set of marketing messages.

  • So when is enough PR activity?
  • How do we get the holistic marketing balance right so that overkill doesn’t waste marketing resources?
  • How do we get constructive interference that amplifies marketings siren song of a call-to-action without over-running on the amount of information consumption time that audiences have?
  • What can we learn from other disciplines like media planning and how can we reduce the risk in the ‘plan’ going awry by more carefully ‘scheduling’ editorial?

Here is Richard Edelman’s Let’s make the argument

PS: A note to Richard Edelman: Richard, congratulations on the agency winning big agency of the year in the US PR Week awards; the 26 per cent growth figures achieved by all the employees of your company alone make the award throughly deserved. By all means promote it on the front of your website, but can you please get rid of the annoying interstitial page.   Thanks, Ged :)