by Arun Sudhaman
If content is the answer to the PR industry’s never-ending quest for greater relevance, it might be worth asking exactly what the question was again. Much has been made of how brands must now entertain people if they are to build credibility and interest. Yet PR skills have always, to varying degrees, revolved around the need for an idea, and something interesting to say.
Looked at this way, even the simplest press release or investor statement becomes an exercise in content creation. It also explains why Cake Group head of planning Jim Dowling says that “content is nothing new”, while Frank PR MD Andrew Bloch admits that the area has a whiff of “emperor’s new clothes” about it.
And yet, something is brewing in terms of how brands are trying to engage and interact with their stakeholders, with very real implications for the PR industry’s ability to effectively take the lead in these areas.
The impact of technology
Earlier this year, Edelman pulled off one of its typical big-name hires, luring veteran BBC journalist Richard Sambrook to join the agency. Sambrook’s title, though, was a little unexpected: chief content officer. Edelman EMEA CEO David Brain admits that the idea of content creation is not a new one, but believes that Sambrook’s appointment reflects a dramatic shift in how organisations are interacting with their audiences.
“The difference is we do more of it now,” he says. “It is higher quality and has more impact because the means of distribution have changed.”
The impact of technology cannot be overstated. “Barriers to entry for content generation used to be insurmountable,” says Lansons Live head Christian Mahne. “You needed a recording system, an editing platform and a distribution channel for your content or it would never get seen. A multi-million dollar investment which kept out all but the commercial few.”
As those barriers to entry have fallen, PR has become less about creating a story for a journalist to fashion, and more about telling the story itself. “You can now shoot, edit and upload from an iPhone – we don’t need large corporations to tell our stories,” says Lahne. “No matter what industry you’re in, you can do it yourself.”
Through digital and social media, furthermore, brands can now have a direct relationship with consumers. “Social media is simply another channel for content, but one where the audience’s ability to feed back is as strong as the originator’s ability to publish,” says Mahne. “Social networks simply work as a huge filter. Content that hits the spot rises to the surface. The rubbish sinks.”
“But how do you do that?” asks Brain. “The only way a non-human entity like a brand can have a relationship is have something to talk about. Then you need the content thing because that’s what people talk about.”
Content kings (and queens)
On the consumer side, this trend is largely understood, with any number of examples bearing this out. Edelman itself created the Wonderbra ‘Science of Sexy’ campaign, developing an online video series that involved no explicit PR selling. Agencies like Cake Group and Frank PR, meanwhile, have taken things one step further, developing branded programming for the likes of Orange and Nickolodeon that has run on TV stations and online.
In most countries, furthermore, restrictions on product placement within TV shows and movies have eased considerably. US agency Peppercom, for example, helped integrate its client Whirlpool into such shows as Mad Men, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Martha Stewart.
This must count as a fairly marked departure from the traditional notion of PR. Unsurprisingly, Peppercom director of client strategy and growth Valerie DiMaria points out that agency has hired entertainment industry pros as it searches for a team that “thinks and acts less like a PR firm and more like an intermediary that ‘gets’ the nuances of communicating in a digital world.”
For Brain, this is the fundamental challenge, and helps explain why Sambrook was hired. “Yes, OK, everyone does it in a broad sense,” he admits. “But understanding he manufacturing process for big high-quality pieces of content - across TV, movies and games - was a distinct set of skills that we didn’t have in our agency.”
Instead, it has been the advertising and media agencies, along with specialist branded content shops, that have dominated this area. Where PR firms spy an advantage, though, is in their understanding of dialogue and influence. So while many may not quite cut it just yet as Hollywood deal-makers, there is plenty of opportunity to help brands entertain and interact in a credible manner.
It has become increasingly common, therefore, to see brands funding content assets designed to pull consumers in. These can be TV shows, as in the case of Dove and Ugly Betty in China; mobile apps like Tiger Beer’s augmented reality guide to London’s Chinatown, or the Fiat Eco:Drive app; and online content, such as the popular websites, videos and social networking campaigns for such brands as Burger King, Tippex and Ikea.
One brand that understands this better than most is Red Bull, which has launched a range of content-led initiatives around the worlds of fashion and music. The energy drink works closely with PR firm Pretty Green, which has brought in people from the such backgrounds as event marketing, sales promotion, fashion and DJing to help it provide the right kind of offering. As MD Mark Stringer points out, it is something that “ad agencies have been doing for years.”
“In a way, PR agencies have been doing it for a long time, they just didn’t know how to package it in a way to sell to clients,” says Stringer.
“I guess the craft of PR suggests you have better storytelling skills - but I’m not convinced that is the case,” cautions Dowling. “Ad agencies can tell stories. And media agencies tend to be closer to broadcasters.”
The shrinking media
Implicit in this discussion is the dwindling influence of the traditional media. “As traditional media, particularly news, shrinks, and traditional advertising is undermined, then that leaves a space where there is an opportunity for PR to move,” says Sambrook.
This argument is being touted to particular effect at a corporate level, where content strategies are considerably less developed compared to consumer brands. “Increasingly, companies and firms have not just an opportunity but a responsibility to tell their own stories,” adds Sambrook. “There’s also a public value in having the expertise in companies and organisations out there. We know the public trusts media less but trusts experts more.”
Surely Sambrook, as respected a reporter as any, is not advocating that companies can replicate the independence and objectivity of the traditional media? “It has to be authentic and credible,” he admits, adding that he is unaware of a company that has got this right. “And there has to be an editorial framework around it. Then I think it can be very powerful.”
One that may have got it wrong is BP. Sambrook steers clear of directly criticising the beleaguered energy giant but notes that “what they struggled to get is legitimacy”. Bringing in journalists, with their in-built understanding of independent verification, might have been one way of tackling that challenge.
Not everyone is convinced. Abhinav Kumar, head of communications and public affairs for Tata Consultancy Services in Europe, believes corporates lack the “essential ingredient”, impartiality.
Meanwhile, at Ford, global VP of communications Ray Day has built an in-house ‘content factory’ that is staffed by reporters, videographers and social media experts. Its sole purpose, says Day, is “digging up and finding more proof points for the performance we are making on our plans.” This can span all types of messaging, from press releases to internal comms to social networking.
While Day admits that traditional media’s role is declining, he is wary of positioning his effort as a substitute. “We look at it a little bit differently,” he notes, pointing to the situation at the end of 2008 when Ford found itself testifying to the US Congress on behalf of its competitors. “There was a lot of confusion about whether Ford was in the same situation, and we had to be very clear that Ford was different.”
Accordingly, Day devised a strategy that included traditional communication but also featured a website called Fordstory.com. “It’s an example of where we created our own channel, but I don’t expect a situation where we would only be using our own channel. “We view it all as incremental.”
The PR challenge
For PR people eyeing the transition from press release pushers to content creators, a few challenges still persist. On the consumer side, the vast majority of these efforts are led by marketing teams; a situation that will have a familiar ring to PR agencies worldwide. There is plenty of talk that PR agencies now have a seat at the table, but less compelling evidence that they have stepped out of the shadow of their peers in other marketing disciplines.
In particular, the critical importance or creative and production skills could handicap a PR firm looking for a bigger slice of this particular pie. It explains why a number of firms are content to partner with other shops, rather than up investment too much. “It’s a commercial decision,” says one agency head. “The basic economics are, it’s more profitable to outsource something, charge a handling charge and not incur the time.”
Even Brain is reticent about the prospect of bringing of making too many ambitious hires. “One of the investments you have to make getting into content is you have to pull together partners and you have to know what those partners do,” he says, naming a string of production houses that Edelman currently allies with.
On the corporate side, meanwhile, Sambrook admits that many “understand it in theory, but haven’t quite made the leap of faith.” Tata’s Kumar is living proof: “I remain cautiously pessimistic on corporations filling the media gap in any material manner.”
Neither does the PR industry’s typical business model always help. Some of the agencies leading this space charge for their intellectual property, rather than time, through such methods as profit-sharing or licensing. Pretty Green’s involvement in absinthe brand La Maison Fontaine is via an equity stake, but this is not an approach that is either popular, or even realistic, for many other brand-agency relationships.
“On the upside, PR firms are good at getting content out fast, cheaply and taking advantage of an emerging news story,” says Tribal DDB strategy director Leo Rayman, who spent a year at Weber Shandwick before returning to an ad agency. “My personal view is that a creative or digital agency and a PR agency will one day get together and have a baby, and that baby will be very successful.”
Specifically, Rayman points to a range of challenges, from limited video skills to a lack of “technically-literate” talent. Neither does he believe that many PR firms offer a unique insight into either the consumer or brand. “It all, of course, depends on the outfit - I’m sure some young, creative shops are doing some interesting work.”
Still, the ease with which brands can now take their stories direct to consumers, coupled with the decline in traditional modes of influence, mean that the PR industry has to adapt to the new opportunities on offer.
“It’s a growth area and a definite business opportunity,” says Dowling. “Right now it’s pretty tough to do and the textbooks haven’t really been written. It will depend on how the market matures.”
Five content creation campaigns that catch the eye
The Ford Story
Agency: WPP Team Ford
Launched during Ford’s high-profile presentation of its business plan to the US Congress in late 2008, the Fordstory.com website is a social-media platform that showcases the automotive giant’s progress in implementing the turnaround. The website features a range of videos, consumer stories and ideas and also focuses on Ford’s efforts to deliver fuel-efficient cars.
Tiger Beer/Chinese New Year
Client: Tiger Beer
In partnership with Dazed and Confused magazine, Exposure created a Tiger Beer guide to Chinese New Year showcasing the best of UK’s Chinatowns. The campaign also included a microsite and an iPhone app that used augmented reality to enable users to find their nearest Tiger Beer outlet.
The Science of Sexy
For the lingerie brand’s Dita von Teese collection, Edelman produced a raft of original content featuring images of the burlesque beauty, a short film called The Science of Sexy and interactive elements. Without a press release or formal launch, the film became the most-viewed entertainment video on YouTube, the programme had front-page coverage on PerezHilton.com and the product line sold out in two weeks.
Agency: Cake Group
Cake came up with an idea to create a TV show around music for Orange, working with UK production house Endemol and broadcaster ITV to develop a show it calls “the most successful ad-funded programme of all time”.
Agency: Frank PR
To promote a new Nickolodeon channel launch, Frank devised an idea to scour the UK for a real-life family to feature in their own cartoon series, as the British version of the Simpsons.