Resetting the ‘PR’ button?

I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad sign but the conversation on the future of the PR industry seems to have kicked up a notch in the last few months. The PRCA in collaboration with Ketchum have been leading the debate/discussion on this.

This is a debate that’s always been around but appears to have more people soul searching than I can remember.

As the whole ‘social media thing’ seems to be entering into the trough of disillusionment, PR firms and practitioners are starting to wonder what value they truly offer clients and organisations. It appears the PR industry is going through a trough of disillusionment.

Something I haven’t seen by way of debate from the PRCA though (which given what the acronym stands for, we should) is the notion of ‘consultancy’ versus ‘agency’ thinking. This is an area I’ve been fascinated with for a while now in particular as the consultancy industry as we know is going through a shake up of its own.

For too long those working in PR have adopted an agency mentality – we’ll do what you want for a retained fee and provide you with the results on a regular basis. The main reason you hire us is because you probably don’t have the time or resource to do it yourself. 

PR, sadly, in most circles has become synonymous with media coverage and relationship building with stakeholders of varying degrees. Agencies are relied upon to ‘oil the wheels of this process’. There are obviously exceptions but in the main this is how things play out. And it works. In fact, it still works for many.

Then however there’s the consulting approach. This is more about businesses having a problem they don’t know how to solve. In most cases it’s not about throwing bodies at a problem. An organisation has already thought through a problem and are stumped. So they’ll call in consultants to help work through how to solve this. Typically this function fell to management consultants who employed very smart people to come up with solutions to specific problems. Again that works. And still works for many.

But the landscape of online behaviour is changing things. Running businesses where the expectations of customers, potential customers, employees, shareholders and competitors are changing by the minute means for those in PR specific functions, areas that might have required an ‘agency’ offering means they now need a ‘consultancy’ solution.

It’s only a subtle difference. But a difference none the less. Setting the expectation and delivering on it are real business issues now because the expectation being set externally by industry-agonistic leaders who’s work is viewed in public forums.

In essence, the communications function is now inadvertently more strategic and thought through than ever before. Governments and public bodies have long realised this. Social networking software has pretty much forced businesses to catch up.

So what does that mean for the the PR industry?

In my view, if you’re in the strategic space you need to follow the consulting methodology. In all likelihood this means project work, developing analytically derived insights,  outcomes based results and pretty much staking your reputation on your recommendations.

As ever, all views and counter points welcome.


Sorting out your reality problem – the crux of social business

Every now and again you come across a piece of writing that hits the nail squarely on the head. An article that resonates so strongly with you that you find yourself nodding furiously in agreement as you read it.

This is one such article. Alistair Campbell who most will know from New Labour has written a brilliant piece on why the world of PR is changing – It’s a must read piece for anyone working in the practice of communications.

There are a couple of key points that stand out for me but the one that really struck a chord was this:

I get calls from people out of the blue – again the new world. I am on Facebook, Twitter and people can email me direct on my website. Helps me cut out middle men and agents and get better deals for what I do. Makes people feel you are accessible – which I am. But when a government or company or a big brand comes on, I always assume two things – they have a problem, and they think it is about the communications. They think they need a spin doctor.

So I go and see them and the first thing I do is say who are your key people, and I ask to see them too, at the same time. And I get out some plain white postcards.

And on each one is written the words ‘The main objective of our organization is…’ and I ask them to end that sentence. Then I ask them to turn over the postcard, and it says ‘The strategy to meet our objective is…’ and I ask them to fill that out too. Then I gather them in. And nine times out of 10, I gather in a stack of different objectives, strategies which are tactics, or strategies which are objectives, and I say to them… you don’t have a spin problem, you have a reality problem. And I say if you are not aligned on strategy, you the key people running the show, why should the public be expected to know and hear what you are trying to say or sell to them, and why should the media not take every chance it can get to make your life more difficult, pore over your errors, ignore your successes?

So good public affairs is not about spin; it is about strategy, and reputation.

Spot on.

However, how does a PR manager or agency partner even begin to address this? As Campbell rightly points out the role of communications within many organisations is treated as a luxury. Very few in the industry are able to command the level of trust and respect required to get senior executives to ‘align on strategy’. I daresay you need to be an old, white man with grey hair which knocks out a lot of those currently working in the profession.

There are ways and means though. And I believe this is where the notion of social business can really come into it’s own (and by social business I mean something akin to this definition).

One of the best ways of helping a company sort out its reality problem is to objectively show it what its community thinks of it (and by that I don’t mean Facebook fans. I mean customers, employees, partners, suppliers, shareholders, competitors and pretty much anyone with someone to gain or lose by that company).

Knowing what your stakeholders think of you has always been good business. The beauty of the technological world we live in means we now have the tools to cost effectively capture that intelligence and then analyse it and work it into a strategic approach (and no I’m not just talking about social listening. I mean in-depth community analysis both inside and outside an organisation).

Taking this one step further, those in PR/comms advisory roles should add running strategic workshops to their offerings as well as tactical creative implementations (I highly recommend this book called Gamestorming as a good place to start). Then they need to start speaking the language of business (ie how can I help you make money or how can I help you save money).

I’ve long believed the world of PR goes further than press, media and spin. It’s good to read the alleged king of spin echo that sentiment.

Creativity + content + speed = future of comms

It’s fascinating observing the way the comms industry is changing. I got into PR by accident. Then into ‘social media’ because of morbid curiosity about the way the industry was changing. All this time, I’ve been watching an industry being shaken to the core by its players, funders, detractors and stakeholders alike. It’s scary but good.

Then just when you thought you’d figured it all out, it changes again. (The debate as to whether social media has any relevance within a corporate armoury is largely done. If you don’t think it does, I’m sorry I can’t help you). Now we’re on to the debate about content marketing, brand journalism and transmedia storytelling.

We’ve moved past the why to the what. And in all honesty that’s the hard part. Using a crude analogy. It’s like you’re at a party and you’ve debated and decided with yourself that you like that girl (or guy). Well now you actually have to go up to them and say something. Gulp.

Working out what to say, how you’re going to say are one thing. Then there’s the timing. When’s the right moment to approach?

This is the new paradigm for the modern marketer or communicator. We live in the attention economy. You got one shot so you’d better make it good or I’m off to the next thing.

Creativity isn’t new. Ad men have been doing it and doing it well for years. What’s changed is the speed in which it can be delivered. Coming up with brilliant ideas takes on a whole new dimension when you have to do it under the pressure of the clock.

Those in the know will have heard of the great examples from the likes of SmartBodyform and of course Old Spice.

While it’s not a science in predicting how to get a ‘social media home run’, there are a few tips I’ve come across over the years that should help:

  • Brainstorm different scenarios for your and create responses to be delivered that scenario (like a comedian does) when creating a content calendar
  • Make sure you know the entire history of the brand (warts and all). It help you tell the story better.
  • Have a listening team on hand to pick out trends that can be acted upon
  • Make sure your team has a real web geek (you know the kind of guy that spends a lot of time on Reddit or 4Chan). They’re invaluable in understanding the obscure channels to help get the content seeded out as well as the ‘next big thing’ on the web
  • Don’t be afraid to use a bit of paid action to get content seen. Expecting things to ‘go viral’ organically is one of the biggest misconceptions around social media marketing

I truly believe this is future of communications (note I did not say PR). Coming up with a concept in the morning, developing it the afternoon and publishing it in the evening. Scary. But then again scary is good right?

Grad life sure ain’t easy

It must be tough being a grad looking for work. On a day when the UK officially entered back into recession, I was invited to attend a session to speak on how to get into PR.

The panel included a broad spectrum of people from different backgrounds and was organised by Ignite – a firm dedicated to promoting cultural diversity within PR.

A few things stood out for me:

1) Getting a job through the grad process isn’t easy. When you’re competing against 1000 applicants you have to be amazing to stand out

2) Although employers love to see confidence in a potential recruit, it ain’t easy being confident as a grad when you have no experience about anything

3) Networking should be taught as part of a PR degree. I spoke to a few attendees but not one asked for my business card nor had one when I asked

4) Although the event was about getting people from diverse backgrounds into PR, I genuinely think that in this day and age getting a job is more about your attitude than where you come from.

5) With the 24 hour access to information about anything and everything, there really is no excuse for grads not to have a basic understanding of an industry sector or news agenda.

All in all it was an enjoyable event. Just a shame we got turfed out of the bar early. Then again on a school night that was probably for the best.

You say potato, I say potarto – how much does diversity play within your search marketing?

One of the benefits of social media is that it has forced marketers to focus more on building and nurturing communities rather than the spray and pray, one size fits one model that has defined the industry for decades.

But how much of a role does diversity play when it comes to really understanding the different communities marketers seek to engage with? And what how much should search marketers get to know or exploit colloquiums when optimising keywords?

Search is a particularly hot topic for PR professionals now. Perhaps not quite as sexy as social media but many in the industry are starting to realise that search is very much interlinked (excuse the pun) with its more glamourous cousin in helping a marketing campaign meet its objectives.  They might be late to the party but PR pros are starting to wake to the importance search engines play in communicating a message. While they might not have the technical skills of SEO marketers, PR brings a certain advantage when it comes to relationship building but also in the form of keyword research and understanding what audiences are actually looking for when they ‘Google’ something.

Added to this is the rise in social search. This is where recommendations from your friends show up in your search results. You type ‘football boots’ into Google and within the search results that come back you’re alerted to the fact that your brother-in-law who had a trial at the Emirates recently ‘liked’ the latest Nike boots on Facebook. As a consumer, you want to know personal recommendations before making buying decisions. And as a marketer, you can finally get some of the coveted ROI that your finance director has been hounding you for.

As a web evolves to fit around our lives having a social elements to marketing campaigns will become the rule rather than the exception. Having a diverse campaign team that is not only able to tap into local lingo and jargon but is also astute enough to spot and capitalise on opportunities in the mainstream media that drive search trends is worth its weight in gold.


Can the PR industry handle an inconvenient truth?

Those active on the UK PR Twitter scene will have noticed this morning’s launch of a Media Spamming Charter, the latest episode in the ongoing discussion about the relationship between PR practitioners and journalists. The debate is one that has raged for as long as I’ve been in the industry andshows no sign of abating. There’s hardly a week that goes by without a rant about poorly-targeted pitches or the overuse of the #PRFAIL hashtag. As someone who started off my PR career within a professional body, I recognise the need for a collaborative approach to improve and maintain standards within any industry and as such applaud the CIPRPRCA,IRS and NUJ for taking a stance on what is a serious problem for the reputation of PROs.

However, questions will always remain on how serious the Charter will be taken by clients and those most guilty of spamming. Many have long argued that self-regulation is the answer, and in my time I’ve called for ‘naming and shaming.’ I’ve since mellowed on that front – maybe because I’m getting old – but the argument will carry on unless something drastic changes.

It remains to be seen whether simply having a charter actually goes far enough as I’m sure some will probably just view it as an overly-bureaucratic exercise that carries little weight. But at least it’s a step in the right direction, particularly as the lines between PR and other marketing disciplines blur and we become exposed (albeit not binded) to other codes of practice. Plus it beats naming and shaming.

First rule of online PR – What goes online stays online

Last night, we held another of one of our digital dinners. Sessions in which we invite clients and journalists for a bite to eat, a few glasses of wine and an informal discussion on the some of the latest trends within the social media and digital PR fields. Understandably given the adoption and amount of press coverage received by FacebookTwitter and more recently Foursquare, many in the room were well versed in the potential such networks can offer marketing and comms programs.

Personally for me, it was interesting to hear the views around the table about the different approaches being taken to integrating social media within crisis communications. After picking apart the bones of crises suffered by Eurostar and Toyota, the question arose about how much of a lasting impact do social media crisis really have on the customer psyche.

This is an interesting point for any PRs in charge of managing a client’s online reputation. In the days of print, the old adage was, ‘today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapper’. So what if a client has a barrage of negative comments on twitter one day? With the sheer overload of information that customers face, the chances are someone else’s crisis will come along tomorrow and your clients will be forgotten right? Well not quite. Unfortunately, the internet is very much like stag parties. What goes on there, stays there.

As far as online reputations are concerned, this means having to put out more of the good things your client does to outweigh the negatives. The bigger the crisis, the harder it is to foster a positive image over the long term.

That said, we all agreed sometimes an online crisis isn’t always the end of the world as when handled well, they can be transformed into trust building opportunities. The key however is handling them well in the first place.

Bringing a new meaning to the phrase – ‘checking in online’

For those of you unlucky enough to be one of my friends on Foursquare, you’ll know that I’ve just spent the last three weeks traipsing around Thailand and Vietnam. You’ll know this from the number of times I ‘checked-in’ to various restaurants, hotels and cafes that I visited along the way.

Aside from being a geek with such things, my main reason for doing so was to gauge the level of location-based networking that goes on in various parts of the world. Based on my very small, unscientific experiment and the fact that I was able to become the mayor of some very popular places with only a couple of checkins, shows there’s a still some way to go.
The potential that sites such as Foursquare can bring to the travel industry is huge both in terms of extra revenue but also in helping boost the ‘word of mouth’ recommendations that the industry relies heavily upon. While there are some that appear to understand what social media channels can do (hat tip to Four Seasons Bangkok in providing updates on the red shirt protests mixed in with reasons to visit the hotel), I found that many of the main local attractions and venues had virtually no social media presence whatsoever. This is merely an observation rather than a criticism as local-based social networking sites like Foursquare are still in their infancy. However amongst the smaller (and very often one-man band) tour and excursion operators, the spirit if not the tools of social media was rife. Everyone who approached me, ranging from those offering day city tours to week long excursions, had a notebook with hand written ‘references’ from other Brits (weirdly all from Manchester) saying how wonderful they found their trips, how safe they were etc. Now I’m pretty sure not all the ‘references’ were genuine and certainly not all filled me with enough confidence to go on them but it’s kind of world of mouth marketing that consumers are increasingly responding to.

Looking through PR eyes, the travel sector is blessed in terms of the visually appealing content it has at its disposal. And on the back of the economic hits the travel industry has taken from incidents such as the volanic ash cloud, many within the sector perhaps have no choice but to look at how social media can offer a fresh approach to attracting and servicing customers. Who knows, it might be that in a few years, online check ins won’t just be the preserve of the airlines

WTF? Is being ‘old’ a characteristic of bad presenter?

Every year our client the Foundation works with youths from under-resourced and low-income communities who want to learn about entrepreneurship within its BizAcademy programme. I had the pleasure of running a workshop with this year’s group on what PR is, how it works, tips on presenting and managing a reputation.

While I was impressed with the level of enthusiasm and interest they showed in what makes news, I was amused (and offended at the same time) when I asked what characteristics make for a bad presenter. ‘Old’ was one of the replies I got back.
Seems harsh. Perhaps at the tender age of 33 my best presenting days are behind me.

As it turns out he was referring to people who pretend to be ‘down with the kids’ as bad presenters. Phew.

LEWIS has been involved with the BizAcademy programme for many years and the group will be going on to learn more about being entrepreneurs and business from various departments within and outside Judging by the characters, the future of UK innovation appears to be in good hands and I’m sure many (if not all) will go on to become champions of industry – as long as they don’t encounter any ‘old’ people along the way.

You’re the PR agency for Carter-Ruck….

Your client and brand are going crazy on twitter because you apparenrtly gagged a newspaper from reporting on a parliamentary question relating to your client.