Industry must take a risk, think small

Most PR pros would step over their own mothers to land coverage in The New York Times, a feature in Fortune, or a spot on Today.

Most PR pros would step over their own mothers to land coverage in The New York Times, a feature in Fortune, or a spot on Today.

We're promoters at heart - we think big. We thrive on securing top-tier hits because it makes client and agency alike feel triumphant.

Yet most of us have also come to realize the problem with our addiction: The mega-hit-or-bust mentality is outdated. For the past three years, the PR industry has roundtabled and seminared social media to death. We've hyped the Long Tail theory and talked about how media fragmentation is transforming communication.

So now we agree: The mass channels no longer carry the same weight in an age of hyper-personalized media.

But despite the old saying about tackling an addiction, acknowledgment is only a small part of the solution. For the most part, "big" is still the rallying cry, and "big" still dictates the way many of us counsel clients. For our industry to evolve, we must start acting small.

Consumers' media diets have matured. While Big Media is - and always will be - an important part of the equation, people are increasingly digging deep for specialized information and conversations.

Take the explosion of online social networking, for instance. Be- yond Facebook and MySpace, hundreds of vertical micro-communities are thriving. All of them offer marketers an opportunity to interact directly with highly relevant and focused audiences.

Web video is another example of why small is where it's at. Narrowcasting allows companies to go beyond the tired sound bites and formality of a VNR. The intimacy of online video leads to customer interaction and brand loyalty - something that is difficult to achieve through TV.

Bottom line: Engagement is the most powerful form of marketing. It's why ad agencies, media companies, and brand marketers are all retooling their playbooks and thinking small. So why is PR, the discipline arguably most equipped to engage consumers directly, lagging when it comes to reaching niche audiences online?

One answer: There isn't a MediaSource or AP Stylebook for the Web. It's not a concrete medium, so delving into a fluid, direct-to-consumer environment is a scary proposition for an industry rooted in message control.

Another hurdle involves a cultural shift within agencies. To get where we need to be, we need to change mindsets. That means rebooting training programs, investing in technology, and educating clients about the power of on- line community participation. It also means leaders need to understand that mainstream media - while still critical - is only one avenue for reaching audiences.

Some agencies have started this transformation. There have been numerous brands participating in niche communities effectively to complement a larger PR initiative. However, there also have been blunders and all-out catastrophes.

The missteps shouldn't be seen as a setback. The industry should encourage experimentation and risk taking. It's the only way we will advance and master the nuances of relating with the public online.

Or, the industry can keep its blinders on and continue banking on the systematic song and dance with mass media. The risk? Inflexible agencies will die out as the media landscape continues its shift toward deeper, highly customized content and conversations.

Andrew Foote is account supervisor and manager of PepperDigital at Peppercom.

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