A message with substance

PR has, in the past, played second fiddle to advertising, but the growth of digital has brought the discipline to the fore when communicating with the new breed of empowered consumers

The credit crunch has focused minds on many things – not least marketers’ minds on marketing. The debate on which marketing discipline is best placed to surf the digital wave and engage the empowered consumer has been given a new edge.

But the online vs offline debate is a red herring. Gone are the days of separate offline and online marketing communications. Today all communications should be – to use The Future Laboratory’s phrase – ‘inline’.

With its heritage in storytelling, creating conversations and managing reputations, PR (for years the poor relation of the mighty advertising) is at the forefront of the new inline communications.

Why? First, PR is channel- neutral. It isn’t wedded to TV ad production or website building and has always understood the importance of third-party advocacy to a brand or issue.
And never have brand advocacy strategies been more relevant than now.

Latest credit-crunch research for Weber Shandwick shows that consumers are increasingly turning to independent third-party advice when making purchasing decisions. Almost half of UK adult consumers surveyed said they were now more likely to seek out the insights of friends or perceived (offline and online) experts when making key purchasing decisions than they were a year ago. Two-thirds said they were more likely to read blogs, online reviews, and offline specialist media, as part of their decision-making than a year ago.

Second, PR as a practice is based on the principle that you need to earn interest and space and share of voice, not just buy it, and never has this been more true than now, given fast-changing media consumption trends. PR has never controlled communications channels, it has influenced them, and its leverage has been interesting, timely and relevant stories rather than big-bucks marketing budgets.

Third, PR has long understood that you can’t keep consumer and corporate communications separate. Consumers, investors and other stakeholders don’t sit in hermetically sealed boxes, and corporate ‘greenwash’ can be splattered by a newspaper story of bad environmental practice or an amateur child-labour video on YouTube.

Often derided as ‘spin’ (and in truth there is bad PR out there, just as there is dull advertising and dodgy accounting), good PR is in fact only too well aware of the dangers of corporate double-speak arousing cynicism and backlash from empowered consumers; the danger of creating ‘badvocates’ rather than advocates.

Fourth, PR moves fast. One of our key tenets is ‘speed kills’.
The 24/7 media world requires brands to move fast in addressing issues, challenges and opport-unities. Learning from its political campaign heritage, PR is fleet of foot in a way that neither traditional advertising nor direct mail can be.

Finally, PR can address the increasing complexity of the new marketing environment – it can not only tell compelling stories and create conversations, it can also manage lots of little stories and conversations.

In our increasingly complex world of niche groups of empowered consumers and an ever-growing number of comm-unications channels, the days of the big, overarching brand message are over.

No more mass marketing, no more monolithic messages rammed home repeatedly, but lots of stories and conversations going on to suit the interests of specific and varied micro-audiences, all of which are credible and ‘on message’ with the core strategy.

So, with an ‘inline’ strategy, how do you employ the best PR principles?
Identify what matters to your consumer – rather than what you think are your brand or product benefits – and champion that. Think about political campaign best practice (politics is a rich source of modern communications thinking – from Blair to Cameron to Obama – and many leading PR figures cut their teeth in political campaigns) and apply it to your brand.
Don’t push your brand on corporate messages – tell compelling stories that engage and bring them to life.
Don’t talk at your consumers – invite them to have a conversation with you.

The core of any successful online or offline communication is the four ‘Cs’ – creativity, credibility, conversation and compelling storytelling. That isn’t spin, it’s substance with style.

Colin Byrne is chief executive, Europe, Weber Shandwick

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