While “earned media placement” will continue to be a centerpiece of client expectations from their agencies and internal staffs tactically, the substantive strategic contribution of PR has transitioned. It is no longer possible to dictate consumer behavior through sheer tonnage in conventional push, interruptive, and repetitive media tactics.
How, when, and where consumers consume media has dramatically shifted online to places where their self-interests are better served. One must add the consumer's requirement for lifestyle relevance and personal engagement, along with a generous dash of palpable hunger for the authentic and honest. What you have is a recipe for re-appraisal of the relationship between brands and consumers. Therefore the outreach techniques of the old command-and-control model have been replaced with strategies aimed squarely at working to earn a valued place in the consumer's life and menu of preferred brands.
This should be the driving focus of your PR investment: development, care, and feeding of authentic brand relationships. This mission is accelerated by emergence of the Internet, the most PR-appropriate, content-centric, and conversational media platform ever devised. So now the role of PR in the go-to-market toolbox moves from adding awareness to the tip of the spear in aligning brands with consumer interests and passions – an effective path to building preference and preference drives sales.
How consumers feel about a brand has great bearing on their willingness to buy. This means brands must redefine their strategic mission to accommodate not just the requirements of commerce (sell more stuff) but also embrace the relationship building prerequisites that now underlie how brands achieve their meaning and value. Brands must behave as enablers and facilitators of consumer lifestyle interests. It is through demonstration via authentic, relevant experiences that a brand can become real to its target and gain traction.
Nearly everyone agrees word of mouth (WOM) is the most credible and persuasive channel of communication. Tracing the path of WOM to its source we find a collection of influences including mainstream editorial media, blogs, chat rooms, social media platforms, consumer product reviews, and other content mediums that together form the basis of prevailing views and impressions of brands and their value. Consumers demand external validation of what brands assert about themselves and benefits of use from sources they believe are authoritative and credible.
Consumers want respected, trusted sources to validate assertions and representations made by brands and businesses. PR is the best path to drive demonstration and validation of essential truths. There remains a built-in value that springs from confirmation by respected sources in various media channels. PR strategy can cultivate and mine what we call the Circle of Influence. The Circle essentially consists of the consumer's “board of directors” – those they routinely look to for advice on things they buy. Media, especially citizen journalists, play a central role in the vital process of information flow to and through the Circle.
PR is in the experience building business – a skill set that no longer resides on the outer edge of significance to brand development. Rather it is front and center in bringing brand relationships to life. Experiences move consumers towards purchase. They help fuel the twin engines of authenticity and engagement, both key to opening the lines of communication between brands and consumers. Experiences are often served up in places where the distance between brand and consumer can be measured in feet (events) and inches (Web environments).
So to optimize your PR investment, look first at the strategic foundation: your plans and programs should address both experiences (online and off) and message validation. In doing so, the outcomes will far exceed the low-cost awareness benefits and more directly impact preference and sales.
Bob Wheatley is CEO of Wheatley & Timmons