I have been lucky enough to be present at the birth of the modern UK PR scene and the Internet. I have also been lucky enough to be party to some interesting discussions over the last decade of how the ‘Communications’ industry deals with the fusion of the two.
Now, more than ever, it has become clear that when you block out the white noise that surrounds the multiple channels in which we all operate, that we are coming to a confluence that places PR practitioners where they need to be; at the very heart of corporate and customer communications.
For years, PR has basked in the shadow of more high profile above-the-line activities. Budgets have grown significantly as companies realise there is more to PR than media relations. At its very core, PR can influence, persuade and promote perhaps more successfully than advertising ever could but the public relations skill sets developed over the last three decades are coming into play in a way that could forever change the role of PR in the marketing mix.
I feel confident is stating that, since the birth of PR as a legitimate marketing function, the role has always relied on good material or content and a receptive audience; relations with a company’s public. I guess the clue is in the title but public relations professionals are the go-to people for news, insight and corporate information.
Coincidentally, the golden rule of having a successful digital presence or brand profile is also about creating great content.
Paul Holmes recently recalled Ed Bernays’ original definition of PR as a form of social science, and I believe it is. In my view, it’s a more informed (sometimes) and stealthy way to communicate a company’s aims and objectives at an emotional level. If you imagine a company as a person, then advertising is the clothes they wear, PR is the things they do.
In June of 2011, Paul Polman, CEO Unilever said “Agencies need to organise themselves around the consumer, not the client – but are they innovative enough to fuel conversations with our customers?”
When you shoot that theory through the McKinsey & Co optic of a need at a corporate level to create brand ‘Editors’, it is an open door for corporate and consumer comms experts to walk through; the need to marshal the multiple communications formats and messages under one unified brand message or theory.
Using the right partner, research into a company’s audience leads to a single content audit; reviewing technical, editorial and commercial activities. Content can then be mapped against each target audience and the company’s objectives to create a single content strategy that flows through all channels. But who curates these materials?
Not all companies have the huge resources of Unilever and can’t produce and coordinate viral, mobile, social, search elements; many of which are handled via third party agencies. The sheer volume of briefs, content and agency account people to be managed these days can be overwhelming. Each claims to know the best route to each market and content is designed around meeting the defined needs of that particular audience, and the brand becomes secondary.
Under one lead ‘broadcast’ agency, a company can channel its chi across multiple formats and devices, so that content created for a customer magazine can be designed to appear on a viral ad or as part of a social media push. I’m arguing for companies to take an ‘Always-On’ approach to communications, instead of the more traditional campaign-led bursts. Imagine a communications channel that can be accessed through any device, anywhere by a company’s customers; read the latest customer magazine or watch ads on your phone, browse video content through apps and so forth - all designed to help define and build a company’s reputation and character.
Abraham Lincoln once observed: “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Now is the time for corporate and consumer comms folks to get the conversation going make sure a company’s shadow is true to its tree and to take the lead in the 21st century marketing mix.
Keith Smith is a marketing consultant for Seven publishing.