June 15, 2009
An after-thought to a previous post – Storytelling over big budgets – which I’ve just re-read. I implied that companies need to tell a good story rather than just rely on facts and figures, but I want to stress that storytelling alone won’t do the trick. It might if you’re an organisation that is highly trusted by the public e.g. an NGO but not if you’re a corporate player, with trust in industry far lower than even back in the Enron heyday.
Ever looked at an old ad? First thing that comes to mind is often: “can’t believe people were so gullible back then.” Same holds true with PA/PR now. You look back 5-10 years (I was a student then, so this is an assumption!) and it’ll likely look hollow compared to what’s come to be expected now.
Which is what? That companies are real, open, honest and transparent. That their stories are rooted in action not spin, and that they engage closely with stakeholders and respond actively to their queries and concerns – hence the shift from Public relations to Public engagement. A large part of this engagement needs to take place online. It’s a natural fit: the web – social media in particular – represents a communications model that defines the new era of public engagement; one where companies are more decentralised, they inform the conversation rather than leading it, and they engage with stakeholders of all stripes (not just a chosen few.)
I’d stress thought that what’s required to keep this all together is a set-up that goes way beyond communications and right into the core of how a business operates. Communications alone can not turn a dud into a winner. Success requires real business commitment to “do the right thing” in anything from reducing carbon footrprints to keeping employees healthy. And if it’s being done half-heartedly, it won’t work; people are too smart.
What’s more, to make the the two parts come together and really work – the business and communications – further work is required. Silos need to come down; communicators need to tell business units how they shold operate in light of PR best practice anno 2009 while business units should be loud and proud of their initiatives, at least internally.
May 14, 2009
Who says the web is new, odd and different? I’ve just read a memo from 1999 which outlines recommendations to a chemicals company on how to engage positively so as to improve its standing with the general public and in turn regulators i.e. what actions it should take to try to “shape the debate” within the sector in which it operated.
The cornerstones of the memo were in line with best practice in communications, urging the company to provide better content, and to educate and engage the public. Specifically, the four main points were as follows:
- Showcase scientists and the scientific rationale.
- Try to push for “informed decision” i.e. educate people; let them come to their own conclusions instead of preaching to them.
- Form coalitions and showcase strong centralised action to further outreach and credibility.
- Promote dialogue amongst stakeholders.
So what’s the big deal? Just that when people think “online communications” they often focus on what’s different in communications terms. Social media is different because it gives everyone a voice. Online crisis management is different because it needs to be more immediate. Online advertising is different because pay-per-click is more targeted.
This is all true, but people often lose track of the fact that the web is just a set of tools that can improve, expand or speed up existing communications strategies. Just look at the examples above. I won’t go into detail, but the scope for improving all four elements are immense:
- Showcase scientists? Use multimedia to improve the user experience and hyperlink to show relevant content at source.
- Informed decision? Again, multimedia. Or use aggregation to bring in third party material automatically. Blog to showcase more regular, less formal information. Use search tactics so that people who are looking for information on your subject matter come to you.
- Form coalitions? Adopt the “web as a hub” approach and bring it all together in one online space to ensure better integration of activities and joint action in one place, rather than having it scattered about.
- Dialogue? Duh.
Moral of the story? Don’t look at the web as something far removed from what came before (or as merely technology for that matter.) Instead, view it as a set of tools that makes reaching your communications objectives that little bit easier.
November 14, 2008
For all the talk of PR becoming obsolete, some of those on top of the food chain certainly are adapting to the times. I’m a big fan of Richard Edelman’s 6 A.M. blog, and in this recent entry on the increasing confluence of strategy and PR, based on a recent lecture, he runs us through what he sees as the four main attributes of companies’ and organisations’ public engagement anno 2008:
- Be democratic and decentralised: people should be empowered by communications, not just be told things. They should be able to contribute to a story and spread it.
- Inform the conversation: as it’s much easier for companies and other organisations to publish, they should grasp this opportunity and produce good material and be seen as an authority in their subject area.
- Engagement with influencers of all stripes: everyone is a potential influencer, so a broader set of stakeholders expects to be involved. It’s your task to keep them happy.
- Reputation is built on policy and communication: playing a positive role in areas which are of public interest e.g. sustainability, and if need be, engaging with the other side to reach mutual consent.
Points 1 to 3 are of course in great part affected by the web’s role in lowering barriers of entry to the realm of communications. Result? People feel empowered and the role of PR is not so much to mould and control a message in order to influence public opinion, but to listen to the multitude of different voices out there, make sense of it all, and then try to contribute to the conversation in a manner that’s humble and constructive.
Another point I’d add – linked in some way to all of the points above – is that of showcasing real people. These days, hardly anyone trusts companies and most organisations (except NGOs) in large part due to the fact that these have forever been hiding behind advertising, corporate taglines, and over-stylised messaging. People are far more likely to appreciate one-to-one communications, perhaps direct from a CEO him/herself, as in Edelman’s case. Why? Trust is garnered when people feel you’re being candid, are yourself talking directly to them, and seem to care what they think. They’re far more likely to get this impression if you show your face (not always literally – a blog would for instance do), than if all they get is an over-stylised brochure or a jingle.