Why Word of Mouth is Integral to Public Relations
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Why Word of Mouth is Integral to Public Relations

The news last week that Omnicom and Ketchum are launching a specialist word-of-mouth consultancy, Zocalo Group, contained both good news and bad news. The good news is that the holding company and its public relations subsidiary are clearly taking word-of-mouth seriously.

Paul Holmes

The news last week that Omnicom and Ketchum are launching a specialist word-of-mouth consultancy, Zocalo Group, contained both good news and bad news. The good news is that the holding company and its public relations subsidiary are clearly taking word-of-mouth seriously. The bad news is that they seem to see it as a discipline separate from public relations, when in reality it ought to be viewed as an integral part of public relations.

The essential process by which word-of-mouth operates will sound familiar to any competent public relations professional. First, you identify individuals who have influence over the audience for your product, service, or business. Next you tell those individuals your story. Then you rely on those individuals to tell your story to others, more credibly than you ever could.

The process sounds familiar, because it is precisely the process through which public relations has traditionally operated. The only difference is, more often than not the people public relations professionals have relied on to tell their story have been reporters. When it comes to word-of-mouth, it could be almost anyone: in the online world, bloggers or frequent posters to chat rooms; in the offline world, hairdressers, ministers, the cool kids at school.

That difference is not entirely trivial. Indeed, it has some pretty serious implications for the public relations business.

Identifying the most influential and credible sources of word-of-mouth endorsement is not nearly as easy as identifying the most influential and credible journalists. It takes a lot more than a copy of Bacon’s. It requires a far greater degree of intimacy with the behavior of the target audience, the multiple and non-traditional sources of information to whom they turn for guidance.

And reaching out to those influencers will require a greater deftness of touch. Historically, the worst thing that would happen to a clumsy or misdirected pitch from a public relations firm was that the reporter who received it would toss it in his or her waste basket. He or she might complain to colleagues, but rarely was the public relations firm’s ineptitude made public. But anyone expecting the same courtesy from a blogger is in for a rude surprise. Online and offline, other influencers are likely to seize on any indication that a pitch is inauthentic, manipulative or plain incompetent, and negative word-of-mouth will almost certainly ensue.

That means public relations firms will no longer be able to delegate influencer outreach to junior staff—and that might itself be a problem, since younger professionals are more likely to instinctively “get” the newer forms of social media.

So the growing realization on the part of clients that word-of-mouth is a powerful—perhaps the most powerful—source of credible brand endorsement has the potential to transform the public relations industry. But make no mistake: word-of-mouth is a part of public relations, not an optional supplement to it or, worse yet, a separate and distinct discipline.

Any public relations firm that offers expertise in reaching out to traditional, mainstream media without expertise in reaching out to new, social media, will only be doing half its job. It might be feasible for a smaller, niche firm to decide that it will focus exclusively on one type of media, but for a large, multinational firm, declaring that the focus is exclusively on traditional media rather than word-of-mouth will be equivalent to declaring that it will handle print media, but leave broadcast to someone else.

Moreover, smart firms understand that expertise in dealing with social media and driving word-of-mouth cannot reside in a single “new media” or “digital” or “word-of-mouth” division within the firm. It should be integrated into every campaign and so expertise should reside in every account team. Telling clients, “Perhaps we should call in our word-of-mouth experts on this project” makes no more sense than telling them, “Perhaps we should call in a media relations expert.” That expertise should be part of everyone’s basic public relations training. 

I’m not for a moment suggesting that Ketchum doesn’t understand all this, or that it isn’t working just as hard as any of its competitors to distribute social media and word-of-mouth expertise throughout the organization. Indeed, the evidence is that Ketchum has been quicker to grasp the importance of influencer marketing than most of its rivals.

But to the extent that the establishment of Zocalo diminishes Ketchum’s in-house expertise in word-of-mouth and (more important, from the industry point of view) to the extent that it implies that word-of-mouth is a distinct discipline with a separate skill set, the creation of a spin-off firm to handle word-of-mouth is troubling.

There may be all kinds of good reasons for creating such a firm—creating an entrepreneurial opportunity for senior professionals, for example—but philosophically it sends the wrong message about the relationship between public relations and word-of-mouth.

The public relations industry has shown in the past that no opportunity to enhance and broaden its role in the communications is too big for it to miss. We failed to capitalize on the first Internet revolution, and there are plenty of challengers—from ad agencies to specialist digital shops—who would compete for a leadership role in the Web 2.0 world.

But word-of-mouth is an extension of traditional public relations. It draws on a skill-set that competent public relations professionals should already possess. It should be an integral part of modern public relations and the modern public relations agency.

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