Like everyone else in the PR world, I’ve been reading Robert Phillips’ book, ‘Trust Me: PR is Dead’.
Nah. It isn’t dead (though Robert’s book does contain loads of great food for thought).
Part of the trouble is that nobody agrees what PR actually is. Defining public relations is a bit like lassoing a jellyfish in a swimming pool.
Ask marketeers, for example, to define PR and you’ll get a different definition every time. I tried. I wrote out to several hundred marketing directors in preparation for a lecture I’m due to give in a month and they gave me enough different options to fill the whole lecture. It’s supposed to fill the first 15 seconds.
Why is a lack of definition a problem? Because different people who should be making effective use of PR have different ideas about how it works and what it’s for. Some see it as ‘wasteful flimflam’. Others see it as ‘the only way to catalyse conversations about [their] brand and drive sales’. Some think it is ‘poorly executed and wasteful of management time’. Others see it as ‘the only truly effective marketing technique of the 21st century’.
This variety of opinions isn’t altogether a bad thing, of course. They lend the discipline a level of creativity and flexibility that is appropriate in our wired and wireless world. Ask the same group what advertising is and they get it. Practically the same textbook definition every time.
Advertising is, in a sense, a fixed asset. Once it’s in the chute it can’t be changed. It’s also, generally speaking, a one-directional medium that tends to try and tell you what to do. PR, on the other hand, is a malleable asset. Its objective is to provoke a productive debate or to feed into our tendency to shop as tribes. A malleable asset, in a connected world, in which our attention spans have been reduced to a hamster’s, is a huge advantage. A nimble PR idea can take a new shape in minutes and can travel onto the screens and phones of hundreds of millions in no time. PR is digital quicksilver. Advertising, on the other hand, is rather sedate. An advertising idea that has been through ‘crative’, ‘tissue sessions’, ‘strategy woks’, ‘planning’, ‘media planning’, ‘media buying’, ‘production’, blah, blah, has as much chance of executing an immediate 180 degree handbrake turn on Greys Inn Road as a ship carrying ship carrying ship carrying ships carrying ships has of turning around in less than a twenty mile turning circle.
Some agency suits (both PR and ad) will say that strategy takes time. I really don’t think it has to. A lot of the value of PR is in its ability to respond to and capitalise on conditions NOW – not in 4 months’ time. If your PR work is led by an instinctive and highly experienced strategist – and this is where your money should be spent – the time between a brief and a measurable outcome could be weeks, days, hours or sometimes minutes. “Markets”, as the Cluetrain manifesto asserts, “are conversations.” Conversations that hang on an exchange that might take months to conjure up (i.e., an ad) are pretty dull in our rapid-fire age.
A PR idea is a many-headed idea with many minds of its own once it’s out in the public realm. A debate catalyzed for a client on the BBC or on MailOnline – often with little more than 250 carefully chosen and deployed words – always leads directly to a huge discussion on Twitter and Facebook – and with deft handling, this will do more for sales or awareness than any over-engineered, time-intensive ad campaign. PR has a billion minds of its own. People share a PR idea in ways they would never share an ad.
Some advertising agencies, of course, have clocked this and have started to sashay in. They call PR ‘experiential marketing’ or ‘experiential advertising’. Why? Because it sounds more expensive and more strategic. It’s essentially the same. Theirs just isn’t as good. A lot of ad agency output is too polished to fully share – and it gives little space or hook for opinion or debate. It’s slick, but slickness is now like glue on the floor and is a disincentive to the engagement that ad agencies’ clients crave. People want to be first, to be sharing at speed, to add their own skin or viewpoint to an idea, to respond to a catalyst. PR is the best means to achieve this.
Given the opportunity to do so, I’d conjure up a new name for PR – or maybe a new expansion on the acronym. The trouble with public relations is that conjures up the idea of generally being nice to people. Of course, the business of business is to find customers and serve them well. But generalized niceness isn’t necessarily the job of PR. It’s more, in my view, about catalysing a debate which can mean, from time to time, being a bit divisive. So if ‘public relations’ isn’t any good as an expansion of the acronym, what could P and R stand for? How do we get across the idea that the purpose of PR is to get as many people as possible to share an idea that has your client at the heart? How about ‘Popular References’ – which I guess is another way of saying ‘Most Shared’? Yes, it’s a description of the desired outcome rather than a neat description of the service, but outcomes are the things we’re paid for, aren’t they? ‘Popular References’. How does that sound?