Lessons from PR’s missed opportunity

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Neil Stoneman

22. 04. 2013 | 3 min read

Lessons from PR’s missed opportunity

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I remember it like it was yesterday.

My spine still tingles at the wave of anticipation I felt walking through the door to start my first PR job.

The industry was buzzing, attracting top graduates in droves; I felt lucky to be invited to the party.

So I arrived: 25, full of theory, careers fairs, interviews and Kool-Aid, ready for a career in big ideas.

So why, a generous decade later, am I (and so many of the colleagues I’ve met along the way) no longer working in PR and so pleased about it? Want to wind me up these days? Just call me a PR guy.

So what’s caused this rather depressing outcome?

Where’s The Big Idea?
Somewhere, along the way, the things that made the industry so exciting – the innovation, the passion, the creativity – became harder to find.

Worst of all, the big ideas that made the industry’s best known names became as elusive and rare as a lost, winning lottery ticket. In came people, processes and perspiration to replace them. And what happens when scalable actions substitute sustainable ideas? The industry bloats. Then it bursts.

What’s The Measure?
Surprisingly clients were more complicit than complaining. The mutual struggle to achieve meaningful measurement led to monthly output filling up scorecards and guaranteeing bonuses because the industry chose activity metrics instead of outcome metrics.

I can also remember the feeling sitting with a monthly activity list (two press releases, three features, two articles) and no idea of what to put in them. Did we do them? Sure. Were they any good? Unsure.

This is where PR failed: internal teams, and their agencies, traded the pursuit of big ideas for solid production processes and settled for churning out lots of unremarkable stuff.

The World Changed
Usurping quality with quantity left the industry with deep problems; a thought spins on a dime, a process turns like a tanker.

You don’t need Columbo’s overcoat to conclude that flexibility and agility, in this day and age, are good things.

That’s why locked-down PR processes, focused squarely (you might even say loyally) on a dwindling number of media channels, spectacularly failed to respond to the relentless rise of new big ideas: social media, blogging, search engines, analytics…

A senior press officer, head firmly buried in the sand, once described blogging to me “as the ramblings of lonely geeks sitting at computers – in their pants.”  Don’t be shocked – the bedroom-dwelling, scantly clad, burger-munching blogger was PR’s anti-poster boy for many years.

We’ve all heard of a solution looking for a problem, we ended up with a solution looking for a journalist.

And they’re thinner on the ground these days.

Lessons Learned
Just to be clear, I’m not having a go at PR people (or Fernando Torres for that matter). There were, and always will be, lots of great people in the industry. This is a lament for an industry (at large) that got stuck in its ways and didn’t fulfill an enormous potential to do new things for new markets.

It is also a warning. It can happen again.

I’ve been (what’s now called) a content marketer for five years. It has made the limelight by fusing big ideas with innovation and passion. It’s definitely the industry for which my 25 year-old self would be sharpening his CV. I imagine the PR industry started on a similar wave of creativity.

Content marketing’s strength is a virtuous circle of creative skills: writers, social media experts, analysts, designers, film-markers, animators, search engine optimizers, database marketers, planners, journalists – you name it, they play here.

Ideas First
But the clamour for content and the rush to provide it means we’re in danger of losing the thing that glues these skills into more than the sum of its parts: the big idea. It’s the valuable, sustainable, measurable, compelling, and, (in the original sense) key word alert, marketable part of any content campaign.

Cherish it and we’re on course for a thrilling change to the marketing world forever. Lose it and we’re just blowing the next bubble down a production line (three blog posts, one paper, two infographics) until it inevitably goes pop.

And then what are we left with?

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  1. Billy Hamilton Stent

    April 23rd, 2013

    Content marketing = fusing big ideas with innovation and passion.

    A heretic would say content marketing = copywriting + chalk n talk animation….

    …but I wouldn’t. I’m not a heretic.

    Here’s to the big ideas renaissance. Great post!

  2. Neil Stoneman

    April 23rd, 2013

    Cheers Billy,

    Hope we get to work on a few more soon 😉


  3. Jim Burns

    April 24th, 2013

    Interesting and thought provoking. Since content marketing is an articulation of a company’s unique value in the way they resolve well understood customer problems, it might also be the canary in the mine of the business. It is the business offer and model that must provide “valuable, sustainable, measurable, compelling, and, (in the es-sense), ‘saleable’ part of any” — company.

    If a company lacks a deep understanding of customer problems, alternatives, priorities, buying requirements, etc. this should be identified early on through content marketing. It should be reflected in early indicators of lack of engagement, sharing and conversion metrics.

    Better to discover any flaws this way, hopefully in time to correct or minimize risk to the existence of the business.

    I am reminded of sales process work we did with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in the mid-to-latter part of the 1990s, as I watched the company go under. Core technologies and markets were undergoing rapid and transformative changes.

    DEC products were designed and manufactured, but no one had considered or defined the ideal customer profile, competitive alternatives and buying preferences. I remember we rhetorically asked, “if these considerations were conducted before products were built, what impact would this have on your ability to design and build better products?”

    Content marketing can benefit marketing as well. It demands buyer relevant substance as well as style from content. Concerns about content quality today seem to focus appropriately on any lack of the former.

    But the “big idea” must originate in the business approach to addressing well understood customer problems, not the construct of a creative marketers mind.

  4. Neil

    April 25th, 2013

    Hi Jim,

    Fantastic insights and worthy of a post in itself. We often get prospects coming in with a “straight to content” request, thinking a creative construct can fill the gap. The way they react when we tell them that you just can’t skip the difficult, time-consuming but hugely rewarding substance work is a great barometer of whether they’ll succeed in this game.

    A couple of times, in a past life, I’ve tried to fill the gap with top line ideas but you just can’t make the connection back to the business. It needs to come from the bottom up. Doug, a wee while ago, wrote up a nice piece on benefit hierarchy – http://velocitypartners.com/blog/the-benefit-hierarchy-in-corporate-positioning-message-development/

    And you’ve got all the buyer work that you’ve outlined on top of that. But the companies getting these things right will have the best, most strategic and clear content marketing programmes.

    Nice one 🙂

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