Neil Martinson: time to re-brand PR?

Ask almost anyone what they think PR is about and two images are almost always invoked. There is the rabid, foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker character or the fluffy PR bunny. Whether briefing against politicians or selling fashion, both are seen to be well practised in the black arts of spin, contact books and late night off-the-record conversations.

Neil Martinson: PR has a reputation problem
Neil Martinson: PR has a reputation problem
For an industry that is about reputation it’s tempting to say we have a reputation problem that spans the private and public sectors. How often have you seen the expression ‘It’s just PR’ as a derogatory term? Although it’s just as likely that you will read about how an unfolding disaster was taking place because, ‘They didn’t get their PR right.’ Feeling a little schizophrenic?

I’m very tempted to question whether it’s time to rename or rebrand PR because the reality moved way beyond perception some time ago. The skill sets built up around the core discipline of reputation have been used to develop new practices around strategy, insight, thought leadership, social marketing, engagement, employee communications, behaviour change, and product development and service improvement.

We live in one of the most sophisticated media markets in the world and our citizens are faced with a barrage of information choices everyday. The levels of distraction have risen dramatically in an age where media usage is additive not substitutional. The more channels there are the more we consume. The average family of four are likely to have six or seven screens on the go in the living room – three or four mobile phones, a TV, games console and a couple of computers. Then there is the sheer quantity of channels, with at least 10,000 traditional channels like print and broadcast and many millions on the web.

And each channel has a fundamentally different relationship to the consumer and the context in which content is carried and understood. Print is tactile and can be shared in a physical space with other people and passed around. National newspapers may be tomorrow’s chip papers but they have a significance that sets an agenda that is followed by broadcasters and bloggers. Digital is primarily a private interface where we huddle around a screen though, paradoxically, the content may be shared by dozens or millions and, significantly, allows for active engagement on a scale that we have yet to master or fully understand. But to talk about individual channels is to miss the point. We need to understand the relationships between them and their saliency to our objectives and the consumer. Do we need PR to begin an awareness campaign to change behaviour before initiating an advertising campaign? What are the relative effects and costs between channels? Whatever the challenge it’s unlikely that the answer is a single channel of communication or activity and it requires sophisticated planning that goes far beyond a contact list. But that is not enough on its own.

In the tsunami of information and choices that we face everyday it’s worth recalling the power of conversation and of story-telling. Stories are a wonderfully natural part of human behaviour. Since the human grunt first developed into an articulated word, or we were first able to paint or draw, they’ve been an indispensable part of our life. Exchanging information, having fun, forming views and behaviour. We tell stories to our children, pass them on around the water-cooler, read about them, watch and listen to them, share them. It is stories that spark conversations and trigger emotional responses.  And that is where PR comes into its own. The disciplines built up around reputation are based on what we say, what others say about us and what we do. What links them is the underlying narrative, or story, that makes it authentic, credible and memorable. Whatever the channel, whatever the product, without a story it is nothing.

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