PA/PR in a complex age: what you say vs. how and where you say it

PR used to just be largely about what you said. Knowing the subject matter, crafting a storyline, being a resource for the media through your expertise. A competent PR professional knew their stuff inside out; they mastered the art of messaging and maintaining (a few) key relationships.

This certainly remains the case, but how and where you say your stuff is now arguably as complex because of the intricacy and multitude of channels and greater number of active stakeholders on any given issue. Before, you may have been OK maintaining 10 key contacts on an issue and sticking to your message. These 10 contacts remain as important as ever, but you may have another 100 to think about now. They might be on 10 different channels; and they might expect very different things from you so you can’t get away with the same one-track approach with all of them.

A problem inherent in PR/PA today? Many are good at the what while others know the how and where. But sometimes they don’t talk to each other; other times they even mock each other. Those who do both the what and the how and where really well? Few and far between.

Why digital is killing traditional advertising (in one paragraph)

Volumes could be written about this, but at its basest, the argument is this. In pre-digital, the only way to reach considerable numbers of people direct was via advertising. Positioning and branding were heavily reliant on advertising; if you wanted to showcase the real you, be fun, be smart, use visuals etc. you would advertise. Now, in the digital age, you can reach your target direct; you can do all of the above without buying media space. What’s more, you can do so while engaging: hearing what people have to say and building relationships with people who matter. Is advertising obsolete? Of course not, but it’s not all-dominant and can’t stand alone anymore: it needs to be intertwined with relationship building. And that’s where traditional advertisers are struggling in the digital age (and incidentally, where smart PR companies are thriving.) Their age-old love it and leave it approach to campaigns hasn’t yet developed into one in which advertising and PR/stakeholder relations are integrated. That needs to happen if they’re to ensure long-term survival.

Avoiding fluffy CSR

However much the C-Suite wants it to, fluffy CSR doesn’t work in PR. If you send a press release about your organisation’s new initiative to save a whale or help local school kids cross the road, it’ll get binned. .

In the digital age, organisations can communicate directly to their audiences. Unfortunately, plenty of communicators are squandering the opportunity by adopting the same approach that doesn’t work with media. They talk about their fluffy initiative (aforementioned whale, kids etc.) and leave it at that. Media doesn’t cover it for a reason: their readers don’t care. They won’t care now that they can access the content directly online.

When might they care?

When tangible effects and benefits are highlighted. So you’ve trained someone? Given something away for free? That’s not the story. The story is what happens next. Proving that the freebie or the training has had an impact.

When you treat people like grown-ups and admit you have a stake in your own CSR. Initiatives like Pepsi Refresh are criticised because they are mere gestures unrelated to the business itself. We live in cynical times: only action that benefits the community as well as the organisation responsible for it will be deemed truly authentic.

Contrasting storylines on and offline

I’ve been conducting some research over the last week to compare an issue in traditional media and online. Three key observations as follows.

First, the traditional news-cycle is obviously shorter than the online story cycle, but it’s always surprising to see just by how much that is the case on most storylines. A story can have traction online over the space of months while it dies after a couple of days in the papers: testament to the word of mouth (and mouse.) Sometime it’s ongoing discussion of an issue but other times it’s someone “breaking” the story for the umpteenth time: in the online age, a risk-factor remains a risk-factor for far longer than you’d want.

Second, although the stories hitting the newsstands and the online space are usually aligned (albeit with timing disparities as described above,) some stories that are huge with the press hardly make headway online (and vice-versa). Confirmation that the media isn’t the sounding board of public opinion as much as one might expect (but also that online buzz doesn’t necessarily bother journalists that much – but more on this below.)

Third, the media always came first. Although we keep hearing about stories being broken on Twitter while the presscorps has been utterly oblivious – a trend which is definitely on the up – it’s fair to say traditional media is still likely to break a story first on the majority of issues. However, this does not detract from the importance of the web in the way stories come about or spread. Besides the actual breaking of news, I think the main trend (although I didn’t come across it in this case) will be dormant issues brought back to life by the press once they’ve spread like wildfire online.

Agencies and the commodity temptation

The role of the communications agency in political hubs such as Brussels, London and Washington is crammed with potential for exciting work. Issues experts and communications specialists join forces to formulate strategies that help organisatons navigate a complex political landscape…. a landscape that may involve all sorts of players from the pesky blogger to the virulent politician picking up steam in the press, cross-border nuances and awkward political realities, the sudden PR calamity…

It’s a shame then that agencies often fall into the commodity trap, where the goal goes from helping a client reach their business and communications objectives to doing just enough to rack up billable hours. The toolbox – reading up on the latest developments from whatever relevant government department, media monitoring, basic content production, website maintenance, event logistics and so on – become the commodity.

Sure, the dirty work has to be done, and I understand the temptation: the long hours, the lacklustre client, the short-term targets all conspire to lure you into simply doing enough to meet the requirements.

The problem is that as a communicator, you don’t have the luxury of the lawyer or the chemist, who perform tasks which are second-nature to them but which no one would ever dream of replicating without the apposite credentials. Everyone thinks they’re a communicator, and unless you’re challenging clients by offering them added-value thinking, they’ll think they can do it themselves (or get someone else to do it more cheaply.)

So what do you do about it? There’s no trick: it’s all about frame of mind and thinking to yourself that you sell brainpower, not items in a toolbox. So once you’ve developed a strategy and it’s in execution mode, don’t let it go: track your client’s issues on an ongoing basis and constantly revisit your business goals -> communications objectives -> strategy -> tactics chart to ensure that you’re proactively offering them smart ideas that will help them meet their goals. It’ll keep them happy and no doubt help get you more business (and what’s more, it’s a lot more fun and challenging for you, the communicator.)

Corporate comms and public affairs should be part of the same parcel

I came across an article on Euractiv which I’d missed earlier this summer entitled Business warned against ‘uncoordinated’ PA strategies which makes interesting reading. In short, it states that aggressive communications can put companies at risk and that Public Affairs and Corporate Communications strategies should be more closely aligned.

I could not agree with the latter more (or the former for that matter, but I’ll save that topic for a rainy day.) I’d probably even take it a step further. I think all communications activities, including marketing, should be under the same roof and closely integrated. Maybe I’m oversimplifying, but how can a legislator take a lobbyist seriously if he’s saying one thing while an EU media campaign is saying another and the ad in a trade magazine aimed at customers something else?

The web also makes integration more crucial than it’s been before. How? In particular, the nature of search (how +90% of information is accessed online) is such that it’s harder to compartmentalise according to target audiences online than it is offline. Look up a key term on Google and you’ll find the same thing wherever you’re a customer or policy-maker, pauper or CEO.

So what’ll the landscape look like in a few years? Even more so than is the case in forward-thinking organisations today, communications, be it PR, marketing, PA, advertising and so on, will be in the same building, have one boss and one strategy; and what’s more, they’ll be more closely connected to the “business” operations arm of the organisation than is the case today.

Dilemma: communicators don't get it and online consultants who aren't communicators

The web offers a wealth of opportunities to communicators. Greater engagement, communicating directly with stakeholders, better integration, clearer measurement, speed, cost-efficiency.

So what’s the problem?

One the one hand, traditional communicators don’t get the options. They often adopt an offline PR approach to the web: all about content production and having the right hook, but with little understanding of how the web works beyond being a publication tool. They ignore the importance of search and how people find information online, of how web users navigate a website, the value of hyperlinking and aggregating information from third parties, fostering interaction and perhaps most of all, using the web as a learning tool.

Then you have the other side of the coin. Web consultants who ignore the importance of content and building a story. They always start from a “web” perspective. They’ll dismiss a site because it does not follow best practice in navigation. They’ll say that a video is terrible without having even seen it because it hasn’t been embedded in the right way. They’ll say a hyperlink is awful because it’s too long rather than check what it leads to.

Clearly you need a balance of the two to be a good at online communications. Who fits the bill best? Usually young PR or marketing professionals who have grown up using the web and are very comfortable with technology. They get the content and message side and also get the web, but they see it as an end rather than a means.

Should we use term X or Y to entice an MEP?

This question was discussed at length in a meeting I attended this week, and no doubt props up all the time elsewhere. The key thing to note is that term X and term Y really weren’t that different. And frankly, who cares? Not the MEPs. One word or another won’t make the difference. As a communicator, it is best to focus on story and substance, and what will resonate with an MEP’s constituents. So instead of terminology, go for the elevator pitch (ick, I hate using the word elevator, but lift pitch doesn’t work does it..?) Think of the 3 key issues and your 3 key responses, and summarise them to perfection in 30 seconds and be prepared to build on them subsequently. Be a salesman, not a poet. Not as sexy? Your loss.

Building a story offline and online

I spent a fair few hours today taking “story-lines” and hooks that have been developed for media work by someone else and seeing if I could build an online approach based on these same ideas.

Result in a nutshell? To some extent yes: what works for journalists can work for online audiences. Makes sense, as journalists are looking to write stories that attract the same people we’re looking to reach online.

There are some differences though:

  • What will resonate with online audiences or might go viral is much broader than what could work with the press. Again, makes sense. There’s not that much actual space in traditional media and journalists have editorial guidelines and so on. Online, there’s millions of people out there and the publication space is endless. So whereas with the press you need a certain type of story and quality to get them interested, all sorts of other things will work with a global online audience, from a one-line joke on Twitter, a comment on someone else’s blog, to a video on YouTube etc etc.
  • The scope of what you can get your target to do is far broader. With media relations you’re trying to get your target – the journalist – to print a story. What happens after that is a bonus. Online, there’s getting someone to reproduce or forward your story, so the same sort of thing, but on top of that you can get them to do lots of other things, be it vote, comment, mobilise or participate in whatever other way you can dream up.
  • At the same time, you need to be a little more careful. Send a journalist a bad pitch and it’s binned. Put something rubbish or inaccurate online and the magic of cut-and-paste and instant publication might mean it does the rounds globally before you get up the next morning.

Reaching a legislator before and now

then&now

A few months ago, I posted a simple diagram to highlight that organisations should not overlook the importance of being able to communicate directly to their audiences. I’ve taken that diagram a little further to show how tactics to reach legislators have developed  in the age of the Internet.

The two key elements that are different now are: 1) being able to reach legislators via content and search i.e. organisation X publishes on its website, blogs, posts a release on an eWire etc. and a legislator picks it up via Google; and 2) the main indirect influencer i.e. the press via media relations has now expanded to include all sorts of other influencers e.g. bloggers, while far more people can become engaged in political activism that might influence legislators (online advocacy via communities, ePetitions and so on.)

Any thoughts? Have I missed anything?

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