In an integrated world, PR must trade on its 'secret sauce': storytelling

All marketing is meeting in the middle: PR agencies are increasingly focusing on paid tactics; digital and media agencies are looking at earned media; and every man and his dog is peddling owned content.

In the rush to integration, the PR industry should not forget the 'secret sauce' which makes it special, argues Patrick Herridge
In the rush to integration, the PR industry should not forget the 'secret sauce' which makes it special, argues Patrick Herridge

In a world where we’re all doing the same thing, one has to ask: what’s the point of a PR agency?

The core skills of marketing these days are content production and distribution. That content may be a press release, a video creative, a physical stunt or an event.

The distribution may be through media relations, influencers, paid media placement, owned digital tactics or experiential.

Whatever the mix, the mechanics of production and distribution are the same.

Traditionally, the differentiation between agency types has been maintained through their different skill sets.

Media agencies knew how to buy media, creative agencies could produce compelling content and PR agencies had media relations contacts and skills.

But those differences are eroding – we’re all building the same skill sets, enabled by new technologies that open up previously arcane methodologies to a new set of users.

These days, we’re as likely to be pitching against a digital agency as another PR firm, and that trend is only going to grow.

The challenge for PR agencies is how to maintain what’s special about PR, while competing on a commoditised skill set.

Yes, we can all claim to be better than everyone else at everything, but real differentiation will come only when we recognise the 'secret sauce' that PR alone can bring to the table.

The answer to this frankly existential dilemma lies in that most overused of buzzwords – storytelling.

Every marketing business claims to be an expert at storytelling, but only PR has built its industry on creating earned-worthy stories that pass muster with even the most discerning audiences; audiences that are so story-overloaded that their cynicism can sometimes seem overwhelming – journalists.

In short, only PR really understands what earned media means, what earned-worthy content looks like.

It means creating stories that are so compelling, new and different that even a journalist will pick them from the millions of other possibilities that they could choose to write up.

And if they’re good enough for this audience, they should be catnip for everyone else.

This storytelling ability is what will make PR stand out in an integrated marketing world.

The creation of earned-worthy content underpins every other tactic. If your story is earned-worthy, it will be more effective as a paid placement. If it’s earned-worthy, it will be a more effective piece of owned content.

And earned-worthy content will drive the 'holy grail' of truly earned distribution, with the added value of third-party validation that this brings.

Too many agencies are running scared of PR, turning themselves into integrated marketing businesses to compete with the coming threat.

That way commoditisation lies.

Instead, we need to embrace our PR heritage; to reclaim what is unique and powerful about what we do.

We can be integrated, but we’re still PR agencies – and we need to be proud of that.

Patrick Herridge is UK managing director of MWWPR

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