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Public relations: to promote and protect

27 Jul

Here’s my belated contribution to Andy Green’s #PRredefined initiative – and also to those who would separate craft from professional public relations, or internal from external comms.

The interesting question for me is not ‘what is PR?’ but rather ‘what’s the purpose of public relations’?

Publicity is not an end in itself, but a means to some other end. The purpose of publicity is often to serve a sales or marketing end. There”s nothing wrong with this except that it makes it hard to distinguish public relations from marketing.

Yet if we separate publicity from public relations, we lose the base of the pyramid, the most widely-practised part of the business. We also lose our foot-in-the-door since the desire for promotion is universal, and by no means limited to the private sector. (Just think how charities and campaigning organisations use public relations).

So I’m happy to accept the promotional aspect of public relations – and would argue that the proliferation of media channels and rise of social media makes public relations a more broadly-useful approach to promotion than advertising. The decline in trust also makes it more valuable than SEO or search marketing.

But PR’s trump card has nothing to do with one-way publicity. It’s to do with reputation and relationships – with an end goal of maintaining an organisation’s ‘licence to operate’.

Let me back up a bit in order to explain this. Let’s take the long view of the promotional industries.

In the nineteenth century, promotion was in its infancy. What mattered most was resources: capital, energy, raw materials and cheap labour. Making things was the hard part – promotion could come later.

In the twentieth century, the means to make things became more widespread. Many people could make chocolate, or cars, or fizzy drinks. So the differentiating factor became the ‘brand’ – the recognisable quality that set a Cadburys, or a Ford or a Coca-Cola apart from their many competitors. Public relations became a part of the promotional industries serving these brands (though as public relations historians point out, it had not begun there.)

What’s changing in the twenty-first century? We don’t yet have the benefit of hindsight but it seems to me that brand is a diminishing rather than a growing concept. What’s becoming important is ‘legitimacy’.

Let’s take an example. Marlboro was an exemplary twentieth century brand, complete with memorable advertising. What’s changed is the public acceptability of smoking – and the tightening restrictions on tobacco promotion in western countries. No amount of brand recognition counts against the legal and societal constraints on smoking.

The only credible strategy for Philip Morris it to de-emphasise its tobacco business in favour of its food and drink brands (in other words to save the business, not the brand).

Which business will come next? It could be a fast food supplier like Macdonalds (because of concerns over obesity and over meat production) or energy or transport companies (environmental concerns).

Promotion and promotional culture are not about to vanish, but they are becoming less important than the other role of PR – the defensive and adaptive role that helps organisations manage society’s expectations (or to argue for society to change its view of an industry as has been happening with nuclear power generation in the context of the need to meet low-carbon energy needs).

That’s why I view public relations as a double-edged sword (‘to promote and protect’) and that’s why I believe it has a bright future.

Book review: Loose

13 Mar

Loose

Loose: The Future of Business is Letting Go
Martin Thomas, Headline Publishing Group 

Marketing consultant Martin Thomas was co-author of Crowd Surfing, one of my favourite books in 2008. When I saw the new book's contents page containing such chapters as 'Not a place for tidy minds' and 'The end of planning?' I knew I was in for a treat.

In follow up to Crowd Surfing and Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody (my top pick from 2008), this feels like a radical manifesto. It's certainly a challenge to the micro-managers, the planners and brand consultants whose traditional role has been to offer predictability and certainty.

We live in a complex, non-linear world – and the challenge is how to 'embrace the chaos and ambiguity of modern life'.

The author is keen to stress that this is not a web phenomenon. 'Something interesting is happening beyond the world of social media: public meetings are suddenly all the rage.'

It's a social phenomenon – and an understanding of behavioural economics is more useful than mastery of technology, Thomas argues. 'The simplistic view of man as a rational economic animal doesn't appear to fit the mood of the times.'

Simple prescriptions obviously won't do, though the author does offer some broad guiding principles for successful loose organisations (on page 168). He also gives many case studies to show where loose principles prevailed (ASDA, Pret a Manger, First Direct and Unilever among them).

He quotes Google's Shona Brown discussing loose management: 'The way to succeed in fast-paced, ambiguous situations is to avoid creating too much structure, but not to add too little either.'

Those singled out for criticism include business schools that have inculcated a rational approach to business. 'We are witnessing the unravelling of the most fundamental building blocks of the commercial world and a collapse of faith in tight, empirical rational models and ways of thinking.'

Thomas writes well of the millennial generation who 'take great pleasure in subverting any attempts by authority figures to silence them.' But I should say that I'm more likely to be criticised by my students for teaching in too 'loose' a way by those who want me to give them much more precise instructions ('just tell me what you want me to do').

The author is an articulate and well-read guide. Though it's a business book and not an academic text, he frequently makes me feel inadequate by his erudition.

While there's nothing I can disagree with the in the book's premise, it's not an original idea. I'm surprised the author makes no reference to open source, whose concepts have already been taken beyond software development into politics and marketing.

And a book that makes an even more compelling case for creativity and innovation in business is Charles Leadbeater's We Think (not cited here).

But it's an enjoyable and valuable read and the challenge for many will be to learn the lessons and put them into practice.

'The principles that appear to determine the success of any social media initiative are becoming well established: be responsive, be human, be transparent… Unfortunately, most institutions struggle to live by them.'

Best budget brands

18 Nov

If branding is about making you feel good about paying more for a product or service than you need to (and this seems a fair description of luxury brands), then what are budget brands?

I suggest they are those that make you feel good about paying less than you need to. There has to be some emotional engagement – and usually some form of relationship too. Let's try it out. Here are my top budget brands:

  1. The BBC. There's some public criticism of and much political pressure on the licence fee, but £139.50 for a year (or 39p a day) has to be good value. The most talked about programme of the week (excepting ITV's X Factor) was BBC Four's biopic of Enid Blyton, played by Helena Bonham-Carter. That's on a 'free' channel – if you have Freeview or Freesat. BBC iPlayer is also very popular if you miss a programme first time round. I subscribed to all Sky channels until a year ago, but the quality of BBC Four in particular has made me feel good about my budget move. But you can opt for an even cheaper relationship with the BBC – BBC radio and websites are free to all. It's quality public service broadcasting – and yet I still feel I have a personal relationship with the organisation.
  2. Google. When did you last pay Google any money? Unless you're an advertiser, the answer will be never. Yet we rely on Google for search, and probably for email, RSS, browsing and 'cloud computing' apps too. Why does this make Google a brand? The constant innovation is extraordinary, and it defies the expectations of a free business model. These expectations mean I feel like grumbling too – why no Google toolbar (and so Google Sidewiki) in Googe's Chrome browser? Come on Google – could do better!
  3. Wetherspoons. The national pub chain is certainly a brand – and they provoke a love-hate reaction because of their size and ubiquity. What effect is Wetherspoons having on back street boozers? Well, the traditional local will have to improve if it's to compete with a good range of real ale served at bargain prices – and with cheap food available all day. In reality, I suspect Wetherspoons is more of a threat to high street burger 'restaurants' and over-priced coffee chains because of its food offering, than to good local pubs. There's free Wi-Fi too. Chairman Tim Martin can be irritating, but the company's staff training and publications elevate it to budget brand status.
  4. First Direct. We love to hate banks. But it's possible to enjoy free banking if you keep within limits and this bank has excellent telephone and online customer service. I've been a customer for almost 20 years.
  5. Skoda. No joke. My trusty VW Passat was written off in a no-blame accident and I now drive a secondand Skoda Octavia Estate. It's a lot of car for the money, the annual road tax is just £120, I get almost 60mpg – but yet the acceleration and handling reminds me of the Mark II Golf GTi I owned in the early 1990s. It's fun to espouse an anti-brand brand and I have a good relationship with a local dealer.

I admire the public relations efforts of all of these, too. (Except in the case of Skoda, it's the ads we remember and the good PR is all delivered through a relationship with a local dealer. But that counts.)

Which other brands were in the frame? Amazon and eBay of course (but I felt that my relationship with them was more limited); Ikea (good prices and products, but I dislike the retail experience); Travelodge (needs to offer free Wi-Fi to make me consider an upgrade); Oxfam (a beacon of anti-consumption shopping on every high street); WordPress – great free service, but I don't feel any emotional attachment; Majestic Wine Warehouse: only counts as a budget experience if you like to drink better wine cheaply.

Community conversations: a case study

12 Nov

We took a look at the conversations surrounding a brand in class today – but I did not get to choose the case study.

ASOS sounds to me like a Taiwanese laptop manufacturer – but it's a brand that means a lot to my students.

We started with the website, and took a look at news reports, then moved onto blogs.

With Twitter it became really interesting. An appeal for photos of customers wearing leather garments was responded to within minutes. These photos became potential content for the ASOS Life Community site.

Customers were raving about the brand and its offers – and so were doing the marketing for the company. I could barely find a critical voice on the social web.

People are clearly happy to share their love of fashion and I can envisage this being true of music or sports fans – but it's not so easy to see how other organisations can so easily recruit customers to become fans.

Land of the brand

18 Sep

Interbrand's annual league table of global brands shows continued dominance of US brands, though financial services businesses have been damaged by the recession. The UK only has four in the top 100: HSBC, BP, Smirnoff and Burberry. What does that say about our economy?

Brands, relationships and social capital

30 Aug

Today's Observer column by John Naughton contrasts the impatience of the market for immediate returns with the need for a long-term approach to social media engagement. He quotes blogger Michael Foley saying: 

"There are a lot of big brands dedicating resources to social media lately, because it is the new 'bright shiny thing'. I'm worried that these big brands may feel the need to shut down these social media business experiments if they don't see results – meaning big revenue – in time for the next quarterly earnings report.

"It takes time to build relationships and develop trust, especially if you've been neglecting your customers for a long time – and most brands have. They're already suspicious of you because you're selling something. Real relationships aren't built on the salesman's need to move product on deadline. They are built on a mutual exchange of value over time. Don't think of your social media presence as an experiment, but as an investment so that you can obtain social capital in the long term."

Age of innocent

7 Apr

It's interesting to watch the diffusion of news and chatter as a story breaks.

Coca-Cola takes a £30 million stake in innocent. Most of us will have heard this first from the media, or will have checked the media for verification. You can also read innocent's news release (note the carefully worded title). Round one to the media.

Then the chatter and analysis begins. Many are comparing this to those other niche, eco brands taken over (or bought into) by large corporations: Ben & Jerry's, Body Shop, Green & Black's. There's some discussion on blogs, but the most telling contribution is that of Stefan Stern for the Financial Times. Round two to the media.

For the authentic, instant and unmediated reaction of the crowd, we turn to twitter. 'No, not innocent at all. Am thinking about a boycott!' Nick Band, a PR consultant, manages to be literary in 140 characters: 'Age of Innocence over as Coke buys Innocent'. Many more take a similar theme. Round three to the people.