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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.

PR and the media

7 Jan

[Notes and links for use in class]

Media selection used to be easy – a straight choice between editorial and advertising. It’s a more complex picture now.

The world’s largest public relations firm – the one that remains independent of advertising agencies – is now talking up media partnerships in the form of sponsored content. It (Edelman) has appointed a new ‘head of sponsored content and media partnerships‘.

Ian Burrell, writing in the Independent, thinks that the availability of new channels means that ‘the PR industry and its clients would rather reduce the press to the margins’.

While ‘advertorials’ were always an unlovely (and unloved) hybrid, they’ve been given a boost under their newer name, ‘native advertising’. But Is native advertising really anything new?

This world of sponsored content is widely known as content marketing. Yet read these 7 Tips for Effective Content Marketing and tell me how many are not the domain of (traditional) public relations? Number 6 perhaps – though even then the PR approach seems to me to be trumping blatant SEO.

Content marketing may sound like a new concept to some, but Mark Schaefer argues in Content Shock: Why content marketing is not a sustainable strategy that the boom is already over and it will become increasingly ineffective and uneconomic.

And there are still some voices speaking up for these traditional PR approaches. Alex Singleton has a new book out called The PR Masterclass. He argues in a blog post for PR to be done better rather than to be radically rethought.

Stephen Waddington is a moderniser envisaging a future for public relations beyond media relations. Yet his 10 areas of work in progress for public relations opens with an acknowledgment that it’s hard to change traditional workflows.

Back to earth. Back to reality.

5 Sep

There's a feeling of 'back to school' this week. But that's not the reason for the jolt.

The reality check is the decision to fold the Media Guardian supplement (and Education and Society supplements too) into the main paper. Clearly, this is a commercially-driven decision taken because of the migration of job advertisements from print to online (and elsewhere). Decades ago, before the world of the web, each Monday's Media Guardian had page after page of job ads and was the place to find a whole range of graduate opportunities. Times change, and so does technology.

The second jolt relates to this first one. Here's a very lucid perspective on the issue of unpaid internships from an MSc Marketing student. The phrase that leaps out at me is this uncontentious-looking one: 'I’m 23 and aspire to a career in advertising'. Only connect. The Guardian loses its well-established Media supplement  because of the migration of classified ads online. Then ask some questions about the future of display ads and print media.

Yes, but surely broadcast ads have bounced back in the past year. Perhaps; but what's the wider picture? The future of advertising isn't in advertising. It's in creating ideas, delivering compelling communications, fostering communities and managing digital campaigns (as this student is already aware). In other words, the future of advertising looks very like public relations…

Hopefully smart graduates are alert to this. Hopefully their lecturers and textbook authors are too. But I very much doubt that university marketing and management teams are when they offer courses that appear to promise glittering careers in glamorous twentieth-century industries that evoke a Mad Men world.

Bump. Back to reality.

Journalisted: out of darkness, enlightenment

13 Aug

JournalistedHere's a tale from the dark ages (less than 20 years ago).

I've arranged some press briefings for a visiting executive and I'm asked to supply the following: who each journalist writes for, copies of their last three published articles, a list of their hot topics, bugbears and some personal notes (favourite food, sports etc).

The exercise requires you to imagine finding this out without the internet (it barely functioned back then). It wasn't easy.

Today, PR people can read journalists online (publications and blogs), follow them on twitter and friend them on Facebook. This makes the task so much easier – except that the media landscape is much larger and more fluid than in the past. Who's a journalist? What's a publication?

So you can do it yourself, or you can be grateful that someone else has pulled together much of the data. Take a look at the Media Standards Trust's Journalisted site. Once you struggle past the poor search facility, it's a mine of information including social media features such as a tag cloud of frequently mentioned terms.

Just one concern. Did the difficulty of media relations in the dark ages make us more respectful of and knowledgeable about the media? Because now that it's so easy, why is there so much bad media relations?

Reinventing news as culture and community

11 Aug

Here's the paradox. We won't pay when we can get something for free; but we're willing to pay a lot for unique experiences involving real people and a sense of community.

Simon Jenkins muses on the future of the newspaper business in The Guardian. (And, yes, I feel a bit guilty that this reached me through my RSS reader, not through my letterbox.)

Media, popularity and public opinion

24 Jul

Mark Lawson asks Is it time to kill off Big Brother? in The Guardian.

In an analytical piece he reflects on Big Brother's ten years and suggests:

  • That there's a natural eight year lifespan for popular television series
  • Big Brother has influenced other areas of public life: politicians and football coaches now fear instant 'eviction' if public opinion turns against them
  • The media tries to predict rather than report the public mood, and it's turned its back on Big Brother this series (contributory factors being the busy news agenda this summer with MPs' expenses, swine flu and Michael Jackson dominating news and commentary pages).

Blurring boundaries in media

13 Jul

The Guardian's annual list of media influentials has been published today. It's increasingly hard to define the media because of convergence (Google, Apple and Huffington Post people are prominent, as is politician David Cameron); national boundaries are also blurring (see above) and public relations remains in the shadows – though just as prominent as marketing and advertising in this list.

PR practitioners within the top 100 include Max Clifford (at 65), Matthew Freud (74), Alan Parker (82) and Roland Rudd (92).