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Strategic insights
Is There a Future for Traditional PR?

We can no longer simply broadcast our communications and with the mobile web, we can't dictate the format. So what does this mean for PR?

Written by Emily Davis on October 1, 2012

Editor's note: This article is written by Emily Davis. She is Head of Digital Strategy at Journey, responsible for developing and executing client marketing strategies (and very good at it too). But Emily is also the copy-editor of Baekdal Plus, and she has been helping me to improve the quality of Baekdal Plus both with her skills but also her refreshing insights.

Public Relations (PR) is essentially about communicating, and communication as a discipline is undergoing a shift. One it cannot avoid. If you have read The Shift, you will know all about this change.

With the social web, we can no longer simply broadcast our communications and with the mobile web, we can't dictate the format. Print is clearly in decline, although it is not obsolete. So, everything is changing and Communication Managers need to change with it.

Letting go

Today PR is less about channeling your message through the right media and more about making connections directly with your audience. Anyone can publish a 'press release' these days. You don't necessarily need a specialist agency.

Your PR should focus on connecting people directly with your brand instead of connecting people with a faceless media channel.

The role of PR is no longer about passive exposure. It's about the direct connection of brands with real people.

We as brands, can't control how people think and feel about us anymore. But, we can help influence their feelings towards us and do as much as possible to ensure a great brand experience.

However, the public are the ones who are really in control, not the brand or the PR agencies. Your PR must now focus on influence, or those that possess this influence.

What I mean by this is that customers must have a positive emotional response to our brands for them to follow our journey and ultimately buy from us. So, who and what your brand is needs to be consistent and coherent. It needs to be explained in a way that is meaningful to customers, not just your board of Directors or your shareholders. With growing competition, brands need to be clearly understood so they stand out from the crowd and help customers decide if they want to buy from them. That's what will ultimately impress your shareholders.

Whilst you can very easily broadcast messages about how you are 'Easy to work with', 'Friendly' and 'Forward thinking', unless you actually deliver on those messages then you will be found out. People will tell their friends (and even those that aren't their friends) over Foursquare, Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter...about their experience. If it's a negative one, remember that it will be searchable, and permanent. If it's an influencer, then it's even more difficult to recover from.

So the hard bit...

Make sure your brand messages are genuine, or that there's a plan for making it happen if they're only an aspiration. Then you can relinquish control.

It's good to talk

People will talk publicly and candidly about your brand on social media, forums and blogs - they won't hold back. We cannot (and should not) stop this. We can simply ensure our brands live up to their promises and that we hold our hands up when we let customers down (or change our strategy).

As Ian Thomas (Director at New Tradition) pointed out in his excellent presentation, 'Individuals possess the same potential as organisations to publish content via a platform.' We don't need pots of money and we don't need complicated technology. He also noted that as human beings, we can't help but swap stories with each other.

What stories are your customers telling about you?

With the social web, it's a huge benefit that we can actually be privy to most of these stories, with the chance to interact, influence and be part of them. But how will you influence your audience?

With traditional PR it was almost a case of 'speaking it into being'. Today, our audience is too savvy with their own tools, their own blogs and their own rights of access. You need to find the influential people in your industry and work with them to bring your story to your audience.

When you've got that right, you can start to communicate why you are different and also why this is good. As Marty Neumeier (Director at Liquid Agency) puts it, you need to zag when everyone else zigs. Virgin Cola was different...but it wasn't good. The iPhone was different...AND it was good.

Brand ambassadors

Social media can be one useful tool for monitoring these conversations, influencing their outcome and affecting change. But if the internal culture is supportive, employees can also be part of those conversations.

They can contribute to a positive public persona of the brand that is genuine and authentic. But we shouldn't try and control the use of social media by employees either. It's far better to embrace it as part of your brand culture and influence behaviour through useful guidelines than enforce a veto. This shift is not going to stop. You are simply delaying the inevitable if you try and clamp down on its use inside your office walls.

One recent example was a BBC journalist who left and got a new job at rival TV channel, ITV. The very next day, she changed her Twitter ID from 'BBCLauraK' to 'ITVLauraK'. Now I'm pretty sure that the BBC's social media policy dictates that their journalists include 'BBC' in their Twitter IDs. Therefore this made it a company-owned account, hence the uproar when 'LauraK' changed the ownership and took it with her.

Now, I don't believe a company can own someone's tweets. They don't own your conversations when you are in the bar. For the time you are employed by one company, you are automatically a brand ambassador - regardless of your role. Therefore you should conduct yourself appropriately at all times. That's just common sense.

I don't believe in these 'Tweets are my own' or 'This is my personal opinion, not the opinion of my employer' caveats. Apparently under current UK case law (which will probably change) LinkedIn connections are actually owned by the company you work for (not you as an individual). That's crazy. And, I'm certain this will change.

You are your own personal brand as well as an extension of the brand for which you work, you cannot separate the two. Social media can't make up for the fact that you have to engage your brain before you speak (or tweet).

So remember, employees ARE your brand. They are the ones who are going to have to deliver on your messages. This is why it frustrates me when people think it's only Marketing and Communications teams who need to worry about the brand 'stuff'. It's just not true. As Thomas Baekdal explained, we are all in the same boat trying to get to the same place.

So why then is Public Relations as a function, often isolated and separate from the rest of the Communications team? This leads to broadcast silos and even ill-informed or disgruntled employees. Messages need to be tailored for your audiences and not simply regurgitated press releases. That way your company vision can be understood internally, as well believed externally.

Without this you can't be certain that you'll live up to those brand promises.

Digital first

All customer and internal communications should be digital first. This means that websites and intranets should be the source of the content. Other tactical channels should drive people there (social media, email marketing, flyers and so on). However, there is also a case for creating conversations where your audiences already are, without forcing them to go to your nicely branded website.

But to do this without being perceived as disjointed or disorganised, create a communications plan which brings key parts of the business together. Get together in the same room because unless your Communications team are in the know, they can't tell your customers about it. So this is essential for collaboration and for capturing newsworthy content.

Then, think about who is going to go out there and create that content? During this shift, a key element to success is finding the right people who have the ability to generate real content, not just rewrite a press release. Ask yourself:

  • How does your content inspire people?
  • How does it make them have that emotional response to your brand?
  • How does it make them understand more about you?

A simple test is to put yourself in your customers' shoes and ask, 'Would I read this, link to it, share it, or remember it?'. If the answer is no, why are you posting it? Because there is very little point optimising your content for Google, if human customers don't care about it.

If you haven't already seen it, take a look at the official DKNY twitter account. It's about life as a PR girl living in New York (mishaps and all). Now that's something I'll follow and it's the OFFICIAL account.

The facilitators

So PR isn't about telling people what YOU want them to hear anymore, it's about being confident in your brand so that you can be flexible enough to play with your key messages. You need to do so in a way that is interesting, useful and ultimately informs a decision to buy from you. You need to connect directly with your audience instead of thinking about your brand as an entity. No one will follow a thing unless it has human-like qualities. Allow your staff to connect directly with your customers. That's what will make them have a connection with your brand and want to buy from you...repeatedly.

Often this lack of purpose creates an aura of uncertainty which in turn can cause your team to fumble and the message to be unclear. This is especially difficult when you have junior PR Execs or third party agencies working for you. So If your brand isn't defined enough in the first place, your team can only repeat the messages they are given (through no real fault of their own). Have some conviction or your customers won't believe in you either.

In this new PR era, you cannot control the message, the format, where it ends up and who reads it. So, what can you control? You control your reaction, your flexibility and what decisions you make based on what you see and hear.

As a Communication Managers we are the facilitators. We bring the right people into play at the right time, for the right cause - to surprise and delight our audience.

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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