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Open your ears and listen

There is an easy trap to fall into in the world of communications. It's called talking says Nexus Communications' Richard Medley.

So keen can people be to get their messages out, that the real value of listening can be skated over, or based on assumptions that may be out of date, misplaced or missing links of substance.

Listening itself brings pitfalls. How can any product fail if over-engineered focus groups have proved the idea is a good one? Or if a social media conversation gives off definite pointers as to what is 'needed'?

The real art of listening, of course, is based on behaviour analysis, not on what people might just say, rather than actually do. It's from a base of genuine understanding that we can then shape the right solutions and ensure PR is as commercially important to a business as we all say it is, but can't all back up.

At Nexus, we are specialists in food, drink, grocery and brands that sit at the heart of the family. The outcomes and perspectives from the behaviours we study are focused on the bullseye of where the UK spends its everyday money. Our new 'shopping-centred' customer dynamics monitor, which looks at how comms impacts shoppers' decision-making, throws up big challenges. It's not just the energy companies that Andrew Brown talks about that have trust issues.

Listening is critical for brands, but also for the shape of PR's future as builders of trust, in order to understand how we can be best placed to thrive, challenge and deliver in a blurred agency marketplace.

The stand-out challenge is social media, with multiple kinds of agency claiming the right for a lead role. But when so many social communities still lead on 'products' as the driver of their content, it highlights the lack of listening. Did the channel register as a driver of product sales in our study? Barely. Does that mean it has no place in the mix? Of course not, but a mission for brand relevance rather than naked product push is something for the subtler arts of PR-infused storytelling.

In fact, the more digital continues apace, the more there is a corresponding return to the basics of storytelling. The big influencer on grocery purchase and trial in the mix is not the virtual community. And it is rarely the celebrity figurehead. Our study reveals it is friends and family, by a mile. Face-to-face and talking around the quality of a product, rather than its random associations. A purity that challenges us as communicators to make sure we don't lose the quality message for the sake of a sexy headline or link-up.

'Influencing the influencers' takes on a refreshed perspective when you can see who they really are.

But this isn't a call for a personalityfree zone: rather the opposite. It's a need for consistency not just across the classic joined-up thinking model, but an expanded one. Packaging as an 'editorial canvas', rather than always promotional. Sampling with heart and character and story, rather than a bear-pit of giveaways. In-store theatre to turn heads. We know supermarkets are rethinking layouts and formats constantly, and from our everyday connections, we know they are interested in talking to brands with strong multi-dimensional ideas that can drive sales.

The glue here needs to come from agencies not afraid to challenge the traditional PR remit and think commercially around what is shared 'editorially' by friends and family. And quality (which is the answer to what is shared most) does not come across in quick-hit messages alone. Pre- tailing, retailing and post-tailing comms need to work in sync to deliver brand trust, belief and loyalty, and not just fame. It's all there in the listening.

VIEWS IN BRIEF

Which brands have gained the most, in profile terms, in the run-up to the Olympics?

Omega stands out, from the great Rolling Stones/slow-motion ad, to the smart socialisation of it, and the fact that it is selling a brand image, rather than a range of new products. And, of course, it blends totally with what is happening on the track and field. Natural storytelling.

If your agency was an Olympic sport, which would it be, and why?

Modern pentathlon. A combination of skills, working together for the final result and a mix of precision, stamina and freestyle creativity needed to win.

Richard Medley is managing director of Nexus Communications

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