PR must play part in co-creation

Last year's 4A's Conference was all about co-creation of products, services, and advertising. CEOs of mega marketers described a new world that might or might not be brave. They were not predicting. They say it is here right now.

Last year's 4A's Conference was all about co-creation of products, services, and advertising. CEOs of mega marketers described a new world that might or might not be brave. They were not predicting. They say it is here right now.

In this world, we have moved to a stage when product trials, focus groups, and ad testing are old tools. Today, co-creation is the method in which consumers invent the products that fulfill their needs and create the ad to market it, while the advertising pro takes notes and facilitates the process.

But wait a minute. Isn't PR the leader in dialogue with consumers and other stakeholders of the institution? Have we not over the years gently mocked ad pros for adhering to one-way communications?

Now they are jumping over us, inviting targets into their tents along Madison Avenue, and giving them a place on the creative team.

Meanwhile, what is PR doing? Of course, many in our sector understand the new universe of consumer-generated media and are active in it. But if PR pros are now routinely integrating stakeholders into the creative process at its outset, then I've heard of few instances that qualify. A quick look at the winners in this year's competitions - PRSA's Silver Anvils, IPRA's Golden Worlds, and the PRWeek Awards - doesn't show much evidence of strategic co-creation, with the possible exception of Dove's Real Beauty push.

(Before PRWeek is deluged with protests, let me record that I am taking co-creation to mean something that involves a level of stakeholder empowerment well beyond social networking which, in itself, is one or two stages beyond a traditional, well-researched, and tested PR program.)

I hope this new area of opportunity doesn't pass PR pros by because we're unable to take this extra step. We should be most qualified to manage co-creation.

History does not give cause for optimism. There was a time when HR, government relations, and IR were provinces within the realm of PR. And the new discipline of CSR would not exist had it not been created by PR pros working with enlightened managers and NGOs. All have now been largely taken away and turned into independent specialties that, in most organizations, have a separate, direct reporting line running parallel with, but not reporting through, PR.

In the new creative process, it is, perhaps, not the rival disciplines that pose the greatest danger of PR losing yet another of its most treasured provinces, but instead the direct conversation that nourishes relationships of trust between an organization and its stakeholders.

The rising power of consumers and consumer activists, propelled by their new-media skill, has already shown its ability to drive policy, consumer choice, and business decisions. It seems that our ad cousins are ahead of us in understanding this. They also seem to be ahead in finding ways of harnessing the energy and creativity of the anarchic new world to their own (and, I hope, society's) advantage.

However, the story has just begun. After anarchy, order eventually returns - the precise shape of which can take many forms. PR must harness its well-honed skills to navigate successfully the uncharted territory we are in right now so that it can influence the shape of the new world that is in the process of creation.

Michael Morley is chairman of Echo Research and senior counsel at Edelman.

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