Content and the convening power of PR

Content is disrupting traditional communications for the better.

One of my favorite maxims holds that success has many parents, but failure is an orphan. Perhaps no area of marketing has more parents today than content.

Content is big business, and it's growing. Interpublic's CMG Group reported stellar results for 2011, driven in part by this trend, according to CEO Harris Diamond. "So much of our business has become content creation," he told PRWeek. "That has been added to our traditional role of working with journalists and editors, and the ability to reach stakeholders through so many different channels."

Content is increasingly driving marketing strategy. Matthew Creamer, Advertising Age's editor-at-large, covered the trend recently, quoting data from the Content Marketing Institute that claims ninety percent of B2B brands are executing content marketing strategies at some level, and that more than one-quarter of their budgets are going towards content.

Between the advertising agencies, digital and direct agencies, PR firms, and dedicated content shops servicing these clients, it is yet unclear where the center of gravity will ultimately reside. The resolution is no clearer inside the corporation, and that's where I think the truly interesting story will emerge. Agencies of all types will scramble over the spoils, but content has potential to accelerate the shake-up of marketing hierarchy that has been ongoing since the onset of digital marketing.

As Creamer said via email interview, "Whether PR should do content is probably going to be one of the most important corporate organization questions of the next few years."

Creamer says that PR has a solid claim to content, because of its roots in journalism, and the related understanding that what constitutes a story is not unadulterated brand promotion. Communicators also understand about giving up some control in a way other marketing disciplines never will.

But there are nuances that are emerging. The centerpiece of content strategy is the creation of unbranded assets. Creamer points out that PR may have oversight of content, but execution might prove challenging if brand PR professionals find themselves toggling between generating strong promotional pieces and creating elements that fit into the new content model.

"Some of this reluctance is about expertise; some of it simply boils down to bandwidth," he wrote. "None of the traditional responsibilities laid on your average, harried PR pro have gone away, after all." That is certainly true. So even if PR has ultimate oversight over content, its execution may be best left to those who do nothing else.

But aside from execution, the new orientation towards content is permeating multiple layers of the communications function, according to Adam Cohen, SVP of digital and social media at Fleishman-Hillard. Communicators are accustomed to helping journalists identify trends and story ideas stemming from news releases, but the demand is for even more targeted angles and structured leaping-off points. "It's about trying to enable content creation elsewhere," Cohen says. "The more structured content will be more likely to earn coverage and placement with a blogger, even a top-tier blogger, than a standard pitch."

Cohen has clients where PR is squarely leading the content charge, "because they are responsible for that last line of defense, which is the messaging of the brand." Content may look similar in the output, but it has a huge range of objectives - from generating sales leads to thought leadership to crisis management. Given that, the opportunities and complexities of content are forcing divisions together in efforts to avoid duplication, neglect, and conflict. "It's everybody coming together around content, and they have to work together." That means marketing and PR, naturally - but also IT, web and SEO, customer care, sales, and HR.

This is the perfect environment for PR, the organization's natural conveners, to influence outcomes. Even as other organizational areas might take the lead on certain areas of content strategy, PR has the perfect opportunity to be the convener, to bring disparate functions together to maximize the value and assess the risk, of new content campaigns. With their journalistic DNA, communicators get not just the what and the who, but the why and the how. They know when it's okay to be out there, and when to shut up.

Maybe I've eaten too many Cadbury Cream Eggs, but I really feel this is a remarkable moment for our profession. So much of the digital land-grab has focused on execution. In the case of content, communications has an opportunity, virtually a mandate, to be its true strategic leader.

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