PR in 2017: Everything is politics, and politics is everything

How to get ready for a second counterculture, a changing digital media landscape, and legal and more widely accepted weed? Be authentic.

There are years that are transformative, that shape the country and resonate for years to come. From the dawn of our democracy in 1776 to the creation of our constitution in 1787, to 1945 and victory in Europe, and the Berlin Wall tumbling in 1989.

And then there was 2016.

We will soon put a bow on one of the most toxic years in memory. The rancor and divisiveness that defined the political season in 2016 stretched beyond the candidates and campaigns into our day-to-day, and likewise, those ripples will affect all manner of life, including the realms of brand communication.

PR and marketing are evolving, like they always have, but now they are doing so in lockstep with how our political culture is changing—many would say polarizing.

As we head into 2017, RockOrange is considering these implications through the lens of marketing trends and how we will advise our clients to navigate these uncertain times. Here’s what we think:
Rise of the Counterculture
The election year was exhausting, actually encompassing nearly two years, and society’s frustrations with the limits of democracy are bubbling to the surface. From cultural discord, there inevitably springs counterculture. The malaise of Generation X sprung from the "me"-centric, hyper-saturated 1980s. The button-down, authoritarian McCarthy-era ‘50s begat the Flower Power movement of the ‘60s.  

Likewise, in the coming years there will be a renewed demand for art, music, and technological innovation representing a sort of DIY-revolution, change put in the palm of your hand. It is possible for the entrepreneurial in spirit to quit their payroll job, launch a website, and chase their dreams by starting up their own business on one of the many existing platforms and marketplaces that allow for it (CrowdSpring for designers, Etsy for makers, Elance for writers and coders, eBay for people with way too much stuff in their garage).

Hacking messaging is the new mass media, as our president-elect has demonstrated via Twitter. This, too, is counterculture—culture that runs counter to our years of presumptions about engaging media for exposure. For years "digital experts" promised a sea change in how we communicate, with social networks at the forefront. Now that the moment has truly arrived and is deciding world leaders, it is at once awesome and terrifying. This creation of our own ad hoc networks of communicating—not simply as obligatory legs of a digital marketing strategy but as real pathways to talk to our customers—no longer simply threatens to upend the advertising applecart. It’s done it.

As we move into 2017, look for more campaigns to find members of the counterculture where they live—hint: not on legacy media platforms—and talk to them using surrogates who are perceived as authentic to those groups.

Brave entrepreneurs will continue to swipe at fixing and making their way out of current limitations. Apple carts will continue to be upended, and the only true currency in this counterculture of creativity and entrepreneurship will be authenticity. So:

  • Be transparent. Let your customers know what guides your thinking and why you do what you do;
  • Don’t get caught up in soulless, focus-grouped language to describe your brand. The counterculture will sniff that right out;
  • Be bold. Represent something, communicate those values, and don’t apologize for them;
  • Hear and amplify all voices. Not only should black, brown, and women’s voices be heard inside your organization—they should be celebrated;
  • Commit your workplace culture to not being part of the gender pay gap. It’s an enormous problem, but you can help fix it by paying everyone what they deserve;
  • Be culturally bilingual. You can vote against the future, but you can’t stop it. This country is becoming more culturally diverse, specifically with the anticipated boom in Hispanic peoples. This demographic will become more vocal, and your brand needs to have more than just pandering messages for them.

Movement in social messages
If you’re looking to make authentic connections in 2017, the pathways are already there. Rather than using social media platforms to echo linear ads and existing marketing campaigns, focus on giving unfiltered, behind-the-scenes looks at brand culture and "how the sausage is made." If you want people to make your brand part of their lives, you have to let them in on yours. Social authenticity will win out over filtered social messages.

The gap is growing larger between the efficacies of video content versus static photo-related content. Video has become the new norm and users have come to expect it from brands and media on social channels. Photo content from brands may soon head the way of text-based statuses updates, making video and gifs the new cost of doing business on social.

Content is no longer king, audience is
If this election has taught us anything, it’s that the biggest platform wins. Measuring success by active user databases and engaged social channels can provide clear access to the screens of mobile viewers who trust the messages that these channels put out.

Content must be more than compelling. It also has to resonate with its audience; they are the ultimate arbiters. Distribution is a prerequisite. No audience is captive, and those who choose to stick around are worth their weight in gold. In 2017, brands will be paying big to get their messages out there.

Distribution more often trumps substance—often to our collective detriment. Publishing was once a highly regulated field with tall barriers to entry. What was once a concept regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and trusted to only established journalists and networks, is open to every user on the internet. With independent publishers, bloggers, and everyday consumers having access to publishing tools and social networks, it is clear that distribution is the real powerhouse behind getting messages out.
From big tobacco to big green
We are at the dawn of a new product age, and it is beckoning brands to wake and bake. Marijuana will soon be legal in a majority of states, and tolerance for it has grown steadily the past 10 years. Businesses are looking for ways to capitalize on marijuana getting the green light for medical and recreational use, but their challenge will be overcoming the federal obstacles, such as how you can advertise when your product is still illegal on a national level Also, marijuana growers must prepare to do yeoman’s work to overcome the social stigma in even the most liberal of places.

As communicators and marketers, we should be paying close attention to conversations and sentiment we help our brand partners dip their toes into these unsteady waters.

All in all, we are entering a brave new world of branding. On one hand, facts seem to matter less. All the highfalutin strategies in the world are no longer as significant as a rabid fan base. On the other hand, the hyper-reactionary politically correct world we lived in has swung backwards to an era where people will now wear their beliefs and persuasions loudly and proudly on their sleeves. They will look for brands to do the same. So maybe, just maybe, we may be able to be a bit braver and less safe in our messaging.

Michael Jordan, responding to criticism for his lack of social stances, once famously said (or maybe did not say), "Republicans buy sneakers, too." This strategy of non-offense and safe messaging, while sure to avoid initiating controversy, will no longer cut it in the future of brand communication. Consciously or not, your brand must take a stand. The sidelines are shrinking, and soon there will be none. You will have to stake out space somewhere.

Is your brand conservative, consisting of elements familiar and trusted, established and reliable? Or are you progressive, on the cutting edge, improving iteratively, and building something fresh and new? Even if you do your best to position yourself as apolitical, your customers won’t always buy it.

So take a stand.

David Naranjo is principal and managing partner at RockOrange. 

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