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Guest lecture to PR students in Hong Kong

November 26th, 2009 / 3:00 pm

HKBU PR students

On November 10th, I was honoured to address PR students in the Communications School of Hong Kong Baptist University. I was invited and hosted by the distinguished Dr. Flora Hung as well as the wonderful Dr. Regina Chen. The theme of the speech was “Building modern PR campaigns and telling digital stories in the age of social technology.” Feel free to download a copy by clicking the screen shot below:

Pickard presso on building modern PR campaigns

It was my best effort to ‘connect the dots’ between my own two decades of communications consulting experience and the ideas of thinkers like Gerald Zaltman (re. metaphors tapping into the unconscious mind), Martin Lindstrom (re. neuromarketing and ‘unconscious’ storytelling), Dale Carnegie (re. making people feel important in conversations) and Robert Cialdini (re. the psychology of persuasion).

These are the key points made in the presentation:

  • No brainer: the mind is the key issue when it comes to PR.
  • The unconscious mind is more powerful than the conscious mind.
  • The emotions of the unconscious mind determine PR success, not the rational logic of the conscious mind.
  • Metaphors communicated through storytelling tap into the unconscious mind where people make decisions.
  • PR pros need to design and conduct campaigns accordingly.
  • Unfortunately, the ‘storytelling zone’ of news journalism (which has also been the province of PR people interacting with reporters) is shrinking as the traditional news media business plummets.
  • So marketers and their money are migrating to the entertainment media and social media spheres, where stories can be told directly to consumers.
  • Nowadays every company can create its own content and tell its own stories, like a media company.
  • Digital is now changing narratives; new stories are actually being co-created via conversations with people online.
  • Understanding the ‘psychology of persuasion’ within networked contexts is a key skill for modern communicators.
  • PR people of the future must think like story writers and media content programmers.

HKBU PR students

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Digital storytelling in public relations

November 25th, 2009 / 2:21 pm

by Bob Pickard

Recently I read Buyology, Martin Lindstrom’s colorful book about neuromarketing, which posits that people tend to remember products when they are woven into the narrative – the story – of media content, and that they tend not to remember brands that don’t play an integral role in the story because people can see them as being ‘just ads.’

Well, this contention certainly makes sense to me, because like most PR professionals, I’ve spent much of my communications career trying to convince skeptical executives that they should invest more in ‘earning’ editorial media coverage of their brands in news stories rather than ‘buying’ paid coverage through advertising. The idea is that because people can readily identify ads when they see them (and we tend to think that ads are supposed to be obviously present during times and places we expect them to be), they attach less credibility to their claims. But if they see a product featured in a news narrative (that might result from a PR person’s pitching of a story to a journalist), they will probably assume that a company did not ‘pay for the play,’ and so are less likely to be suspicious and more likely to trust brand messaging that isn’t apparently manufactured artifice.

I learned a long time ago that the news is a product which media companies sell, but people have attached a value to it because it’s been produced by a journalism industry that – whatever its systemic biases and flaws – is supposed to be motivated by the pursuit of truth, resourceful in the use of research, informed by facts, governed by standards and edited with balance so that people know that the glass is half full and half empty.

The problem now is that the economic basis of that kind of journalism is crumbling, and so the quality of the editorial product is declining. As a result, I think people trust media stories less than they did before. There are fewer good reporters around, and not as many exacting editors. Battles about editorial ethics versus just going with what a company hands you for content are less frequent as money is the only thing that seems to matter.

So there are fewer eyeballs reading a shrinking number of trusted news media stories. Media companies have tried to make the news more entertaining (‘info-tainment’) and opinionated (e.g. FOX News), and the result of this debasing of journalism is a further reduction of news’ credibility. But if Lindstrom is right and a brand’s involvement in a story is still the best way for a product to get noticed, then what do marketers do about the fact that there are fewer trusted news sources producing a shrinking number of stories that will be credible enough to have commercial impact even if there is product mention?

Well, we see great efforts towards making advertising seem more like media stories. The ‘advertorial’ is an old trick for this purpose, but everyone recognizes such a blatant approach (thus its low impact), so now we see many more movies and TV shows where the plots are explicitly scripted to sell product surreptitiously. In other words, to sell unwitting people products embedded within story lines. Simple product placement has been going on for decades, but this scripting trend takes commercial penetration of the public media mind to a new level.

About stories in the news media that contain a PR-earned product mention, some people might ask: “Is this really the news?” Nowadays, regarding stories in the entertainment media that contain scripts written to sell products, surely more people will be asking “Is this really entertainment?”

That’s assuming they notice the products. But I think people are increasingly sophisticated and will see through such insidious marketing technique. Maybe more will want their marketing interaction straight-up, honestly transparent?

Richard Edelman – one of my mentors and an articulator of trends extraordinaire – is fond of saying that these days, “every company can be a media company.” If a declining media business can no longer generate an ample supply of compelling story content, and especially if owing to resource constraints it is becoming an automated and uncritical B2C conveyor of pre-packaged marketing information passed to them by publicists, then why can’t corporations fill the void themselves and communicate stories directly to the public? Certainly they have the money and the talent to create the content, aided by a massive and accelerating ‘brain drain’ from journalism. I am certain that helps PR agencies – including Edelman, which I served for six years, latterly as North Asia President – do a brisk business selling their ‘master narrative’ corporate storytelling tools, the bricks and mortar for everything a persuasive marketer needs…from the speech module content for executives to succinct elevator pitches for ‘spontaneous’ encounters with stakeholders.

But wait a minute: people would immediately see that a company is using such techniques as advertising and so they won’t trust it, right? I disagree. Increasingly, it seems people think marketing can be credible if they are involved, not just reading someone else’s story, but feeling like they are part of the plot themselves.

Old-style advertising assumes a passive person just sitting there consuming information. Individuals can follow cues and do what they are told, but they are atomized and feel insignificant alone. Therefore, as people trust traditional institutional sources of top-down vertical information less and less, we’re seeing them create their own horizontal peer-to-peer communities of trust, which can now involve friends, family, peers plus even corporate PR people who engage them in conversations, asking them for ideas or opinions (‘crowdsourcing’ is one current buzzword), thereby making them feel personally important as ‘co-creators’ of a brand’s experience.

Going back to Dale Carnegie, we know that making people feel important is the precursor to persuasion, and so once these PR-driven interactions foster that feeling, then stories are sold as conversations. Much of this is calculated illusion, with the objective of getting people to commit themselves in writing to a brand online (i.e. publicly, in front of others).

For those of us who have read Robert Cialdini (and I am a fan of his material), we know that when people commit themselves in public to something, they have created a new image template of themselves – including, for example, ‘as the kind of cutting-edge person who uses this cool product’ – which they will advocate to others within their personal networks of trust – Trojan Horse-like – as a credible peer. They will do and say whatever is necessary to conform with their new public image, and to evidence complete consistency with what they’ve said in ‘conversations’ online.

So it’s no surprise that these days there’s also a lot of work being done at PR firms in the area of ‘conversation communication’ and ‘digital storytelling’ and where the two meet allows persuasion marketers to tap into the power of metaphor (an area where reading Gerald Zaltman is a must). Conversational communication enables the easy application of metaphors used in everyday language for the development of marketing narrative to convince consumers about a product brand with story ‘frames’ that their minds have already developed at the unconscious level, which is where most marketing decisions are made.

Recently I posted on my Facebook page this article from The Boston Globe that delves into the psychology of metaphor, and my astute friend Michael Ferrabee summed up the situation nicely with this posted comment: “They [metaphors] force us to form mental pictures that are like glue to our memory and mainline directly to understanding.”

If almost all the public media time and space is embedded with product marketing messaging, then people who don’t trust anything in the public ‘media commons’ could become so cynical as to believe nothing and become more susceptible to the programming spectacles and short-attention span editing that critics of corporate power say are deliberately designed to keep people from seeing how they are really being manipulated. But now that our private media minds are being mined for marketing in such a scientific manner (including the use of the brain scans outlined in Buyology), it’s important for people to pay attention so that we retain conscious awareness of the increasingly sophisticated techniques intended to get us to do and think what marketers want us to do or think.

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Billionaire client work

November 15th, 2009 / 5:00 pm

It’s been my honor to provide PR services for very senior leaders, including in Canada for Bill Gates and Donald Trump and in Korea for George Soros. Over the years, I’ve been asked many times by fellow PR practitioners what it is like to work with such influential people.

I’ve consistently answered that the most important thing to remember is that even though they are world famous, these folks are human beings just like the rest of us and they seem to enjoy working with PR professionals who realize that as well. There’s nothing billionaires seem to dislike more than nervous handlers who act in awe of their celebrity. They want to proceed from one planned scenario to the next with ease and confidence. They want to follow a PR leader, not feel as if they themselves need to guide a follower (especially in unfamiliar territory surrounded by media frenzy, which most places are for such people).

Here’s some b-roll footage of me (age 29) arriving at an event with Bill Gates. I was feeling pretty pumped-up trying hard not to show it, but we somehow got the job done. 

There are a lot of clients out there – especially middle-management – who ‘Lord it over’ the PR people and seem to think that they know everything. Some might assume that billionaires might act that way, writ large. But the reverse is true. You learn very quickly that such people probably became so successful in the first place because they maintained open minds. They also ‘get’ the fact that they wouldn’t be shelling out oodles of money for professional services unless they felt that some value is being added.

For much of their careers, PR professionals work hard to earn engagement with stakeholders such as media in order to generate positive media coverage. Pitching and placing coverage is often an uphill struggle, with calls to journalists that often go unreturned and rejection a constant fact of life. Just getting the coverage – any coverage – is often the objective, with concern for the content a secondary priority amid the general relief that the story appeared somewhere.

All of this changes when the PR pro becomes the designated media contact for a famous person. Then the underlying fear isn’t that coverage won’t appear, it’s that the wrong kind will. With saturation media play already a given, then then strategy and messaging become key. For example, when Bill Gates was in Toronto during 1993, Canada was just coming out of a tough recession and with the advent of new PC technologies, people started to worry that technology would put them out of a job. Thus was born the slogan “Putting technology to work for Canadians,” to communicate Microsoft’s vision that new new technology would enable, not unemploy.

There are more media requests than there is billionaire time in town to accommodate them, and so it is the media who then need to deal with rejection as outlets and opportunities are carefully selected. On one level, it felt strangely exhilarating to decide who would get to interview Donald Trump in Toronto or George Soros in Seoul, but rather than mete out to others the rudeness I had endured from a small minority of journos in past, I took great pains when I was in such a position of unexpected authority to return all calls and express sincere appreciation for the media interest.

This video shows the publicity results of the Trump experience:

I once heard that any good PR person should always keep out of the picture, but with so many media around, and being the handler, that is basically impossible.

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Creating a new company from scratch in Japan

November 3rd, 2009 / 5:00 pm

It is well known in the global PR industry that Edelman tried but failed on a few occasions to enter the Japanese market — then the world’s second-largest economy — dating back to the 1980s. When the firm asked me to lead its latest charge into the country in 2004, I was not at all convinced that this would be a good idea and worried that Tokyo could be a career graveyard. It’s true that I had been playing a ‘hot hand’ with my colleagues making Korea Edelman’s largest Asia office from 2002, but the Edelman organization wanted me to replicate that success in Japan and I knew that would be a much harder thing to do from scratch (thus I was able to secure a 49% stake in the Japanese company for what I knew would be the toughest job of my career).

A lot of outsiders to Asia think that because Korea and Japan have a lot of things in common, then you can follow pretty much the same cookie-cutter approach in both countries.

Well, that may be true sometimes, but more often than not distinct approaches need to be pursued to achieve ‘societal alignment.’ For example, in Korea digital technology has rendered the press club system obsolete, whereas in Japan it still reigns supreme as an information cartel. Korean PR is more visual and vivid, but in Japan the use of text unaccompanied by images is commonplace in PR and while it’s OK in Seoul to send large e-mail attachments, in Tokyo that was often found rude.

Koreans are in a hurry to get ambitious things done, so speed is their thing and it doesn’t matter sometimes if the journey is a bit harried as long as the destination is reached. The Japanese, I find, are more inclined to take the time to ensure that every last detail of quality is mastered. Far better to take longer creating something of the highest quality than to rush things and be sloppy.

That was the key for me, aiming to create a premium brand for Edelman in a country that values quality, and to ask staff to be the best they can be in the spirit of Japan’s kaizen business philosophy. Still, while I did try to tap into this vein of national sentiment, we were actually able to grow so fast by acting completely different than all of the other PR firms. In Japan, where it’s important to ‘fit in’ and be like the others, we decided early on to aggressively differentiate ourselves by being completely different than the other firms in a range of areas.

This involved:

  • positioning the firm as aiming at a new PR standard of excellence competing on quality rather than price (in a country where there are a lot of frustrated and patient clients suffering one mediocre ‘commodity’ firm after another who crave a PR firm that can think, fearlessly advise and execute rather than just ‘follow instructions’)
  • ensuring the prominent role of Japan in the global Edelman network and showcasing Japanese accomplishments internationally (in a global industry where Japan really does seem to ‘punch below its weight’ and many practitioners working at firms in Tokyo regard English interactions with overseas people as a necessary inconvenience, thus making the overseas colleagues wonder about their Japanese co-workers’ commitment)
  • relentlessly promoting Edelman Japan’s accomplishments in the PR industry (in a country where modesty can reduce the motivation and effectiveness of overseas marketing, but in a network where shameless self-promotion is a sign of PR virility)
  • massively educating the staff with accelerated learning programs so as to increase the value of our primary product — the employees’ time — and thus help keep the premium quality promise with stakeholders

Just about every person I spoke with forecast the doom and defeat of a new Edelman Japan created along these lines, and some days when it was me living out of my suitcase after one discouraging meeting after another, I wondered if a unilingual Canadian expat could get the new firm off the ground. I later discovered that compared to optimistic Americans, Japanese can seem pessimistic and seek a greater degree of tangibility before corporate boasts are taken seriously.

Before I set up shop in Tokyo, Dan Edelman — who like his son Richard was a strong supporter of the new Japanese organization — sent me all of his files which chronicled Edelman’s dealings with Japan since the early 1980s. They arrived one day in large binders labeled with well known Japanese PR names like Dentsu, Kyodo, Hakuhodo, and Ozma. When I flipped through the hundreds of pages of material, I was stunned to see with my own eyes the extent of cultural misunderstanding (on both sides) which must have played a role in stymieing the success of the earlier failed attempts to win allies, forge affiliations, or precipitate acquisitions.

I guess we were able to make a success of Edelman’s Japan entry because — financed by the confidence of early foundation clients like Microsoft and Nissan — we just built the place one person at a time, sharing the entrepreneurial thrill of co-creating a company with a very courageous group of Japanese colleagues who wanted to make a career in modern public relations.

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