In the not-so-distant past, the role of PR professionals everywhere was to help brands earn media attention. The approach was clear: create the key messages, send the pitch or release to the media, monitor for coverage. But the rise of digital publications, consumer threads like reddit, editors as content creators (i.e., editfluencers), and the impact of culture on the news cycle have all made earning attention a lot more complicated. Just look at our own behavior. On average, a person spends two seconds viewing a social post—not much time to read the content, let alone absorb it or express interest. So in this new frontier, how does a brand earn and hold attention with a tailored message that is thumb-stopping, salient, and relevant to their target audiences?
First, let’s go back a century to understand how psychologists first defined attention. In his 1890 book The Principles of Psychology, psychologist and philosopher William James wrote that attention "is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” In lay terms, when someone gives you their attention, they block out all the other messages and focus on you. In 1890, the local apothecary trying to build a customer base could probably grab attention with little effort, but in 2021, the highway of information is so cluttered that even when a brand earns attention, it can be fleeting.
Attention is a basic component of our biology, present even at birth. Our orienting reflexes help us determine which events in our environment need to be attended to, a process that aids in our ability to survive. It’s why a fire in our kitchen will grab our attention over the dishes in the sink. The fire is a current and powerful signal that we want to focus on (the dishes can wait!). But what if the dish could be a gatekeeper or a tool to help put out that fire? Say the dish was actually a metal lid that you could use to extinguish the threat. Would that dish get your attention then?
I think we can all agree that the answer is YES! The same is true for modern brand PR. We can shift the focus and earn the attention of our audiences if we know how to apply a current and relevant cultural signal or conversation that can pull that focus. If we lead with conversations that matter to that audience and then apply the brand story to that conversation, we can find a way to own and hold their attention. These narratives—or storyscapes—become the North Star for brands in cutting through the clutter across channels and audiences. They can open the door in a real, authentic way and earn a place at the table.
Now that we understand why earning attention is impactful, let’s explore some of the do’s and don’ts for brands to garner attention with storyscapes.
Do Think Outside of the Box. Don’t Build a New Box. Not all cultural conversations work for all brands. Brands need to have some straight talk with themselves and identify the cultural conversations that are both relevant to their target audiences AND the brand’s DNA.
Do Consider Cultural Moments. Don’t Build a Holiday Calendar. We have all seen it: Pride Month comes around and every brand has an execution. Some brands have a deeply relevant connection to these “moments,” while others are trying to capitalize on it. To earn attention, you need to find the right cultural moments that make sense.
Do Have a Media Wish List. Don’t Ignore the Storytellers Who Actually Move the Needle. Everyone wants a feature in The New York Times. But is your brand really trying to earn the attention of those readers, or is your audience looking for information from other storytellers? You can earn attention only if your audience is actually there, so building a strategic approach to where that story needs to show up is just as critical as the message itself.
Do Leverage Your Storyscape Across Channels. Don’t Limit it to PR. Yes, you heard that right. Earning attention isn’t the job of PR alone. Your audience consumes information everywhere, from a brand website to social channels to the publications they read. A strong storyscape is channel-agnostic and can help a brand earn attention across all platforms and voices.
As we look to 2022 and the role of modern PR and communications, brands can and will still be in the PR car—they just can’t be the driver anymore. So let cultural conversations & signals take the wheel: the impact will be greater in the long run, not just for the brand’s PR goals but for the full marketing ecosystem, as well.