Just where is PR going?

I have been thinking a lot PR and where its going. At the moment PR is focused on storytelling, predominantly through media relations. Now as an industry we bang on about digital, but for the most part we think about how do we transfer ‘paper’ skills to ‘pixels’. So the press release becomes the virtual press release or the social media release and so on.

The smarter people amongst us have realised that the web reduces barriers to publishing and allows us to disintermediate journalists in our relationships with stakeholders.

Classic examples of this is go-direct strategy is the way Innocent Drinks used their blog to open up discussions with customers about a new business relationship with McDonalds Restaurants to provide smoothies with happy meals despite the obvious clash of brand values. You can read the posts here and here. Or David Neeleman’s direct communication to customers on YouTube following the Valentine’s Day meltdown of his airline JetBlue.

What do I mean by storytelling in marketing and public relations?

Joseph Campbell’s work around the concept of the monomyth has been adapted and adopted by media companies for film and television series. Marketers including advertising and public relations agencies also use these tools. A number of agencies have a storytelling model, for instance Weber Shandwick have one and I heard Jon Leach, planning director at Bell Pottinger speaking at the CIPR’s Perfecting PR Strategy conference explain that storytelling was at the core of all the ‘basic’ PR campaigns that they do – inseparable from the very DNA of what a PRO does – a hygiene factor for PR.

What this means for your average journalist is that they are given the right pieces by the PRO and since they are familiar with the story structure at a ‘root’ level assemble the pieces into the story picture that the PRO wants to convey. They discover the bread crumb trail that the PRO leaves for them and have the achievement of documenting their journey of discovery as the story.

Advertisers and media companies follow it because it resonates with the human psyche, the satisfaction of working out a story plot in a detective series episode or getting to the bottom of all the hidden meanings in The Matrix are two examples of the same thing, all be it with varying degrees of complexity.

How stories fit into society

So on one level stories are an enjoyable game for us as they allow closure but stories also provide a number of other purposes. It is used to teach us lessons, to reinforce community norms and to strengthen the bonds in families and other groups.

As a child I learned about my family and where I was through stories: the great uncle who was in Biafra during the civil war or how my uncle decided that he was going to have a luxury car as a small boy and now drives around in an S-Class Mercedes. These stories made a big part of who I am.

So, what does this mean to brands? It’s huge: William Gibson’s phrase talking about technology adoption and unintended consequences – “The street finds its own use for things,” also fits nicely for brands.

As consumers with a bounty of choice for the most part, the choices we make about brands, or the omissions that we make communicate and show our affiliations to our community.

For example: shopping at Marks & Spencers for food items may show that we care about the quality and the preparation of food that we eat ourselves and give to our friends, family and significant others. Contrast this with someone who walks past the M&S to get a Big Mac at McDonalds – immediate satisfaction is more important than quality, they probably eat-to-live rather than live-to-eat and they’re probably not the kind of person you would meet at a pilates class. 

What happens if a brand isn’t part of a community and its telling its stories? In print terms it could mean that they are not seeing demonstrable attitudinal change the marketplace for the coverage that they have received. So for instance the corporate communications campaign that makes little-to-no positive impact on a company’s share price, or the critically lauded marketing campaign which doesn’t move brand sentiment or product off the shelves. Think about Mother’s highly praised efforts for ITV Digital.

In online terms, it could mean that the content is ignored or attacked by determined badvocates. A classic example was the way Lycos’ innovative IQ service got ignored by consumers and nerds alike in preference to LinkedIn and Yahoo! Answers, I remember colleagues of mine at the time saying that Lycos didn’t have the brand permission to innovate; yet the company turned out some very interesting products through its hot-shot Armenian-based development team.

Engagement is not just about reaching out to potential influencers and audiences, but being accepted by them as having the brand permission to have a voice as part of their brand community.

So how does that work?

  • Listening to what the community: what matters to them? How are you perceived? Are you relevant to them? You need to keep this going as sentiment can change in the proverbial blink of an eye
  • Reflecting to derive audience insight from what you’ve heard and understanding what your brand really needs to demonstrate
  • Matching the insight with messages, or finding a community that would be more appropriate. It is rare to find a brand that would be acceptable to all communities
  • Plan how best to bring your voice to the community, or find another community that you can start the listening process elsewhere. What would success mean? How can you make that success measureable?
  • Execute perfectly. If you can’t execute perfectly prepare your speedy mea culpa and all times be nice regardless
  • Measure, learn lessons interpret and hopefully start the process again, or pick ourselves up off the ground and find a community that maybe more suitable

From a storytelling perspective, it means that stories need to be atomised and provided as part of the conversation with the community, over time the pieces should coalesce as a whole with the community. Of course, this would have to take account of the other stories that the community would tell about your brand as part of their own experience, dissonance between these stories and your story is likely not to get resolved in your favour.

A brand provides the building blocks of its story, but unlike the journalist model which is analogous to a jigsaw, in the community the analogue is Lego. It can be used to create a fantastic structure like the deathstar from Star Wars, or a heap of plastic on the floor and everything creatively in between.

The community will find its own use for your narrative. It is only if you are in the community and considered to be fit in with this values that you will have your story built broadly in the image that the PR person had envisaged.

If one reflects on the long term crisis that has gripped PR around measurement and then thinks about how critical measurement and monitoring are to establishing the online relationships required to be successful in this new word there is a dichotomy. The task itself can be achieved by PR agencies in partnerships with third parties, but would PR have the brand permission, given that marketers have struggled to get meaningful cost-effective measurement out of PR people for so long? This is the ideal entry point that digital and, or search agencies have been able to successfully exploit with little effective opposition from the PR industry.

Which brings me back to the question in the title: just where is PR going?

I suspect that in general digital will be:

  • The point at which PR programmes integrate with the marketing mix, kind of like the role that advertising and media planning schedules played previously
  • A hygiene factor rather than a source of differentiation for PRs
  • Substitutive rather than additive to PR agency revenues
  • As we are already seeing: the point at which other marketing disciplines attempt to disrupt, deposition and destroy the place at the table previously reserved for the PR agency in most contexts outside emergency reputation management and financial PR

All of this digital change for PR will be accelerated by the current economic climate.

I would be interested in hearing other people’s take on this subject: Becky, Wadds, Will and Stephen?

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