Back to the future of PR at FutureComm15

Last week I spent two fantastic days with Mynewsdesk at its FutureComms15 conference and then the following day at a content marketing master class with the Content Marketing Institute’s Robert Rose. I came away from the second day excited and brimming with confidence and ideas. I came away from the first day mainly bemused , but with a glimmer of hope.

My bemusement and came from the realisation that so many people still don’t really have a clue about what public relations really is. Witness the outrage when CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations) president Sarah Pinch explained how PR has already “got our shit together” (there was a lot of swearing that day and Sarah’s was relatively mild).

The result was that, despite many excellent speakers, the whole the day was long on what PR does wrong and short on what it actually is and what we should do in the future. When it did address the future it frequently did so from the wrong starting point as people misrepresented what PR is so they could show how their ideas could improve it.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

The day started off on a bum note when Robert Rose delivered an enthusiastic and entertaining keynote on content marketing. However, I think he perhaps misjudged the audience as the first part was too heavy on what the new marketing landscape looks like and why we need to change because of it. Hopefully, most people were there because they got that, but need to know more about the how part. When Robert eventually did get on to the how part it became far more interesting as he offered what I discovered was actually a taster of the excellent insight he would offer us next day at his content marketing master class.

Robert’s comment that “we are not in the business of truth, we deliver what ought to be the truth” (paraphrased) caused a furore and meant that the subsequent panel and questions spent sometime discussing ‘truth’, but ironically I don’t think really getting to the truth. Robert is a marketing man so by ‘we’ did he mean marketing or did he mean ‘we’ as in those in the room, which were mainly PR people?

The reality (as I see it and experience it) is that PR has always been more in the truth business than advertising has. Paul Holmes says that “public relations finds real stories and shares them. Advertising makes stories up and shares them.” The problem is that advertising is often better at telling stories, but that today people prefer the truth so PR needs to tell its true stories better.

Sarah Pinch made an excellent case for the CIPR’s Code of Conduct holding PR professionals to account and ensuring they tell the truth, but I differed with her when she asserted there can only be one truth. If only it was so simple. You just have to listen to eminent scientists debating scientific ‘facts’ to realise that truth is rarely black and white. It gets more confusing when we consider that the best way to communicate with people (talking and listening) is emotionally, not just with facts. If the truth about facts is debatable, the truth about emotions certainly is.

And is the truth always something that people want to hear? I remember a contribution in a debate about truth from PR academic Philip Young who asked what is the right answer to “Does my bum look fat in this?” Do we always want to know the truth? What is the truth in a subjective question? And do we even always know the truth? Your client or boss can sign an affidavit to confirm what they are telling you is the truth, it doesn’t mean it is. And how often would we actually get them to do this? You can even independently ‘fact check’ yourself, but still not be certain of the truth.

I’ve certainly lied inadvertently on behalf of clients because I believed absolutely I was telling the truth. This was despite me independently checking and challenging their account of what had happened and them sticking to it. It’s what you do next that matters. In my case when it emerged the client was wrong it was advising the client to tell the truth, which he didn’t as he continued to maintain he was right and just about everyone else was wrong. At this stage as he couldn’t or wouldn’t tell the truth my only option was to resign citing the CIPR’s code of conduct. But I still owned the client I duty of confidentiality so couldn’t publicly state he was wrong, unless it got to court and he was about to commit perjury as unlike lawyers PR professionals aren’t covered by privilege.

Personally, I’d argue a more truthful position is to say that public relations professionals should always strive to tell the truth and to present a fair and balanced account that doesn’t deliberately set out to mislead or deceive. In fact a key difference between marketing and PR is that PR’s job is often to give people the information they need and want even if it is uncomfortable, rather than marketing’s which is to give people what the company wants to give them.

Back to the future of PR

My frustration about FutureComms15 wasn’t about the debate on truth (although that was actually part of the same issue). My frustration was that just about everyone was getting excited about all the shiny new toys that PR can use… but none of them were genuinely new.

The worst panel for this, but ironically probably the best panel of the day, was the debate on PESO – paid, earned, shared and owned. The gist was that this was the exciting future for the PR industry and we had to seize the moment and start providing clients with integrated PESO campaigns because we’d make loads of cash and if we didn’t the advertising industry would eat our lunch, followed by our breakfast and dinner before hoovering up the crumbs.

Now I agree with that, but my issue is so what? That’s not new. If it is new to you then you’ve been doing public relations wrong all along.

Public relations has always been a media neutral discipline. Real PR professionals have used whatever channel happens to work. There appeared to be an acceptance that PR is synonymous with media relations and ‘earned’ media, perhaps with a bit of  ‘owned’ thrown in and Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc means we’ve started to get a grip with ‘shared, but ‘paid’ is something new.

The reality is that good public relations professionals have always used all four elements of PESO. Just to take some examples from my own 25+ year career in PR:

  • Putting on ‘bacon butty’ mornings at builders’ merchants for brickies so they could learn about new lightweight concrete blocks that were much easier to lay. They were a bit more expensive than normal ones so we needed them to help ‘persuade’ their bosses the blocks were worth it. We also got trade unions on board to say lighter blocks were a good thing. That was ‘influencer marketing’ and ‘shared’ word of mouth as part of a PR campaign, but we didn’t think of it as either. It was just PR.
  • Using full page display advertising (paid) in trade magazines in 30 countries to explain a corporate merger that created the biggest company in the world in that sector. We also used news conferences, journalist interviews and news releases (earned), a corporate magazine (owned) and securing speaker platforms at events where executives could network and tell stories (shared). PR led the strategy and even did the media planning for the advertising, but called in experts to do the creative and actual media buying.
  • Display advertising (paid) that was a cartoon strip that showed how to use the product (but the advice would be equally applicable to competitor products) at the same time as by-lined editorial articles on the same theme (earned).
  • Publishing a four language corporate magazine (owned – content marketing) that included generic industry news as well as articles about the company (deliberately including ‘warts and all’ case studies that said what went wrong as well as what went right).
  • Getting a journalist to write a great case study that appears in a trade magazine (earned) and then buying re-prints of the article (paid) that can be used for direct mail to prospects (paid).
  • Advertorial (paid) articles in regional newspapers and lifestyle magazines about how to make compost with the only brand mention being at the very end to say it makes garden shredders (which you need to make compost). These were only used where there wasn’t a suitable media outlet to place a by-lined article (earned). Deliberately they weren’t used where there was a suitable media outlet, but we’d failed to place an article.

I’ve deliberately chosen examples from 20+ years ago in my first and second jobs to highlight that PR has always used paid, earned, shared and owned. I think partially it’s also that I started my career in an integrated regional agency where public relations, advertising, media and design all sat under the same roof. PR actually sat in the attic and was frequently referred to as the poor relations. But it meant that if I wanted to create an integrated campaign for clients I could just wander downstairs and speak to an advertising expert, a media buying expert or a designer. Not only did I learn that a PR strategy could include advertising I also learnt how to put this idea into practice.

What I’d have preferred to see from the PESO panel was more insight into how PR professionals are actually using PESO. Danny Watmough hinted at some great insight when he mentioned using Outbrain and Taboola to boost great editorial content. Gemma Griffiths gave a great example of securing an article in Real Business magazine (earned) and using paid Twitter alongside organic Twitter to help ensure influencers see it. Both of these ideas are basically today’s way of doing the editorial re-prints PR used to do. It would have been fantastic to hear and see more examples of this. Both of these ideas could have been tactical (although given Gemma and Danny’s expertise were more likely a planned part of the strategy). Paul Sutton also made a good point about thinking about paid at the start, not as a tactical add-on. True, but once again not new as any PR strategy should always have asked if paid needs to be part of the mix.

The fundamental change today isn’t that PR is suddenly now using paid, earned, shared and owned, but that it is now more important then ever – it’s essential.

PESO, native advertising and content marketing are the shiny new names for things that PR professionals have always done. We need to be confident about that, because we can use the fact we’ve always done it as evidence as why we are best placed to do it now.

Some other great blog posts about the day include:

Future Comms15 conference: we need to talk about the future | Ketchum’s Stephen Waddington spent his year as CIPR president banging the drum for the modernised PR business and is continuing to do so now with excellent initiatives such as PRstack. Chatting with delegates afterwards it appears that Stephen’s robust take on PR’s ability to do this stuff ruffled a few feathers amongst people who don’t think PR has the ability to keep up and modernise.

FutureComms15: You can’t handle the truth!  | Paul Sutton pessimistic take on the day that PR isn’t changing didn’t convince me as I see lots of evidence that PR is changing. That PR is just getting on and doing the business of modernising how it works. But that’s perhaps because that’s what I do. I help in-house PR teams and some PR/public affairs practices to review their PR strategy, identify what needs to be done differently and train or mentor them to practice modernised public relations. Although I agree with Paul that the perception of all PR isn’t this, which is why ironically I brand much of what I do as ‘new PR’ to differentiate it from the myth of bad PR, when in reality what I’m doing is getting people back to doing real public relations before it became perverted into publicity and media relations, too often as an adjunct to just marketing.

PESO – Please evolve soon OK? | Hotwire’s John Brown is excited by the potential of offering PESO to clients and wants everyone to just get on with it like he already is.

FutureComms15: The death of SEO and the rise of the brand story | Sarah Hall writes up the SEO panel on how it is moving from technical expertise to people expertise.

#FC15 Call to Action: Let the journey begin | Neville Hobson includes a great slide that captures some of what I talk to clients about when we discuss the future of public relations. I’d possibly quibble with the title of Neville’s post as I’d say we are already well on the journey 🙂

A tetchy Future Comms moves on from the past – eventually | CIPR Conversation editor Rob Smith’s comprehensive and impartial round-up of the day.

Future Comms 15 | CIPR president Sarah Pinch’s brilliant post touches on my theme of this is what really good PR has always been about. Sarah sat on an oddly named panel ”PR and content marketing – the great divide’. Sarah sensibly makes the point that there isn’t much of one and that much of content marketing is what PR has always done. She also challenges head on the lie being spun by some that PR is somehow about broadcast or spin when in fact it has always been about engagement as can be seen by some of the excellent work done by council, NHS and public sector PR teams.

If you want to be part of the Future of Public Relations then get in touch to discuss how my PR advice and training might be able to help.