PR needs more 'gentle collisions'

I was sobbing watching the 33 Chilean miners emerge after 69 days in their dark, hot, underground home the size of a studio apartment.

I was sobbing watching the 33 Chilean miners emerge after 69 days in their dark, hot, underground home the size of a studio apartment.

The precision of the operation, the meticulousness of the planning, the ingeniousness of the technology used were all awe-inspiring, but what was riveting was the emotional connection we felt to the men, their wives and families, and the rescuers.   

It wasn't just the drama of the scene we related to; rather it was the people and the stories. This underscored for me the critical role of humanity in brand marketing. While digital marketing and social media campaigns are very popular and valuable for many reasons – scale, measurability, access to customer intelligence, forums for online interaction – they alone can't create the kind of deeply personal resonance that sticks.

Maybe this is one reason why serious engagement with digital channels is less than universal among top-level marketing executives, according to a new report from the CMO Council and Accenture.

There is a significant role for PR, however, in finding and creating meaningful intersections for brands in the everyday lives of its target audiences. A CMO I worked with used to call these “gentle collisions.”

In healthcare, a gentle collision might be sponsoring and promoting a free screening for an at-risk population in an easily accessible, trusted venue. For a consumer brand, say a chocolate chip cookie, it might be a contest for school-age kids to try to figure out the number of chips in the bag. For a local restaurant chain, a gentle collision might be a program of welcome wagons for new residents who are then introduced to their neighborhoods through the resulting media coverage.

Regardless of the audience or the tactic, the PR endgame is to extend a brand's reach through the kind of personal interaction that strikes an emotional chord, meets an everyday need, or delivers something useful in a deeply personal way. 

Recent surveys reveal cranky consumers who don't trust marketing and don't hesitate to show it by regularly posting snarky Tweets about campaigns they dislike. Reading between the lines, perhaps what they're saying is they want more of a human touch.

Sandra Stahl is a partner at Jacobstahl.

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