Can the PR industry make a killing from content?
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report
President/Editor-in-Chief

Can the PR industry make a killing from content?

Arun Sudhaman

If nothing else, Weber Shandwick’s decision to launch a content creation unit is certainly not premature. Perhaps AdAge has it right when it refers to the broader content marketing trend as a “craze”, driven as it is by an apparent fetish for brand journalism, data mining and search optimisation. This latest fashion will, apparently, transform the high street of digital marketing into something approaching haute couture, turning previously mundane brands into objects of consumer craving.  And all thanks to a company’s newfound ability to sidestep the shackles posed by an unnecessarily obtuse fourth estate, and publish to its heart’s content. Seen in this light, our own timing looks a little awry. Two years ago, we investigated the PR world’s forays into content creation, suggesting that “if content is the answer to the PR industry’s never-ending quest for greater relevance, it might be worth asking what the question was again.” For the most part, I stand by that statement. Weber Shandwick’s new Mediaco offering smacks less of the emperor’s new clothes than of the emperor’s new business strategy. If clients want content, a specific division catering to this need makes sense, even if it does suggest that the firm was not already providing all of these services in recent years. The truth is that rarely a day appears to pass without another example of a brand flexing its newfound publishing muscle, seemingly oblivious to the narcissism that this approach suggests. At our Global PR Summit last year, Tom Foremski wondered if a corporation might one day win the Pulitzer Prize. I’d recommend setting their sights a little lower, because if companies are serious about becoming “brand journalists”, then they should probably be aware that much of what they deliver will be ignored. Rather than extolling the virtues of the corporate viewpoint, brand publishers will be forced to see things from the eyes of their users. This is not a transition that many companies are going to find easy to make. Trulia’s Ken Shuman provides good evidence of this, pointing to the kind of content, in this case Kanye West’s house, that easily captivated his readers. A handful of brands (including Cisco, Nissan and Intel) have demonstrated that their 'owned media' efforts can pass muster with critical audiences. That has taken them plenty of time and money. A rather more attractive shortcut must be major media publishers opening their platforms up for branded content. The Holmes Report is as open to a good advertorial as the next publisher, but the idea that sponsored content will somehow change the marketing paradigm might be overstating matters. If anything, a glut of branded editorial must raise the spectre of diminishing returns. For the PR world, the content marketing race will, once again, manifest itself as a battle to be heard. The actual creation of relatively compelling content (and the concurrent ability to push back against tedious corporate drivel) should be second-nature by now. The bigger challenge will be marketing this work, amid an endless cacophony of brand messaging. Search experts claim the secrets to top-of-mind awareness, while companies like Outbrain tout content platforms that will marry brands with specific user behaviours and desires.  Are PR firms ready to do battle with algorithms? We are about to find out.
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