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The marketing might of modern public relations

March 26th, 2013 / 4:06 am

On March 23rd I was honoured to address the Bangladesh Brand Forum seminar in Dhaka.

In my presentation, I argued that:

  • social media is revolutionizing the way the world communicates and it is powering the public relations industry’s global ascendancy
  • in Asia, PR has traditionally been a relatively minor and subordinate part of the marketing mix but now it increasingly occupies centre stage
  • because public relations is at its essence a social networking business, it is well positioned to thrive in the digital domain, especially in a region where mobile communications are the new marketing battleground
  • media relations and publicity will always be a key part of PR, but now creating content, building communities, understanding analytics and applying the psychology of persuasion are all part of the picture
  • PR will always be about the art of relationships, but increasingly it is a measurable communications science

The marketing might of modern public relations from Robert Pickard

Categories: Asia, PR industry
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The rise of the digital storyteller

February 19th, 2011 / 2:40 am

[This is a blog post I wrote for Marketing in Australia].

The decline of the mainstream media in the face of the expansion of Internet-based communications has been well documented. Less well known is the concomitant declining quality of news stories themselves.

At its heart, the news is a product that media companies sell and to which people have assigned their trust.  Traditionally, the news has been produced by standards-based journalism that is, at least in theory, motivated by the pursuit of truth, resourceful in the use of research, informed by facts, governed by standards and edited with balance.

The rise of digital communication has put the traditional news media at the eye of a perfect storm.  On the one hand, declining attention spans and ever-shorter deadlines increase the need for news outlets to report ‘the facts’ as rapidly and succinctly as possible.  On the other, declining advertising revenues impact the ability and willingness of news companies to hire top-flight reporters and editors.  As an unfortunate result, sensationalism, speculation and speed trump research, analysis and accuracy.  This decline in editorial quality is driving a parallel decline in the trust of media.

Ironically, in an era of around-the-clock broadcast news channels and ‘always on’ commentary via the likes of Facebook and Twitter, we have a lot more content noise but actually far fewer news stories.

Stories are fundamentally important when it comes to educating, inspiring and persuading people.  Stories provide a way to tap into the subconscious mind and touch the feelings and emotions that drive daily purchasing and behavioural decisions.  At a time when brands are increasingly expected to act like people, stories form the fabric of human communication and, when used effectively, are very powerful motivators of attitudes and behaviours.

Leading brand strategists have long recognized that messages woven into a narrative are more compelling and attract higher recall than messages pushed at an audience via overt communications such as traditional paid media.  And yet the marketing conversation still tends to revolve around advertising and the role it has to play in convincing today’s new connected consumers.

Public relations practitioners, meanwhile, have spent their careers trying to persuade executives that they should invest more in ‘earning’ editorial media coverage of their brands in news stories rather than ‘buying’ paid coverage through advertising.  Because people can readily identify ads when they see them – and we tend to think that ads are supposed to be 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, people are less likely to be suspicious and more likely to trust brand messaging that isn’t visibly purchased.

As trust in media declines, though, the traditional wisdom is turned on its head.

If it is true that a declining media business can no longer generate an ample supply of compelling story content then what is to prevent companies from generating that content themselves? If it is true that resource constraints (i.e. too few journalists with scant time to prepare stories) are reducing some media outlets to automated and uncritical conveyor belts for pre-packaged marketing information passed to them by PR people, then what is to prevent companies from filling the void and telling their stories directly to the public?

The ability of modern corporations to build and enhance their reputations is no longer constrained by the traditional news media model.  The modern corporate storyteller has access to a range of digital communications platforms that can reach audiences in many different ways and draw them into the brand experience in a way that traditional media could never hope to replicate.

In many ways, the rise of digital storytelling is simply a natural progression for PR people.  We finally have the freedom, the tools and the channels to communicate in the way that, at heart, we have always dreamed about.  Now we need relationship connections not just between dozens of journalists but among thousands of people. Public Relations has always been about the artistry of relationships but because digital is by definition about data, now PR is evolving into an evidence-based science where results can be measured as never before.

When I started my agency life 21 years ago, the work of PR primarily involved pitching and placing publicity through interaction with journalists. This will continue to be of central importance to the profession. But these days we also need to know how to think like the media producer in programming content for scrolling social media streams while thinking like the researcher in applying an advanced mastery of analytics to campaign planning and accountability for results.

Where data meets design is the ‘sweet spot’ for digital storytelling. Information overload means we must tell complex stories in a simple yet compelling way in the blink of an eye and thus the rise of the infographic as the most transformative trend in PR at the moment.

Digital storytelling – and, by extension, brand storytelling – is not about pushing messages, it is about building relationships.  The scattergun approach doesn’t work here.  Instead, companies need to invest the time and resources to evaluate the relationships that drive their business, use the available channels to listen to the online conversation and then engage in a manner that is transparent, authentic and, above all, human.

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The art of mapping the science of PR

December 7th, 2009 / 4:00 pm

Around the world of public relations, I keep hearing that PR is becoming more a science than an art, thanks to the advent of new online tools that allow us to see how many eyeballs are looking at the content we’ve put into the public domain. As a lifelong maps enthusiast who collects antique world globes, I am particularly mesmerized by the plotting of online visitor data onto measurement maps, such as YouTube’s insight (screen shot from my channel follows):

YouTube insight stats for Bob Pickard's channel

PR professionals have historically specialized in sharing information with others, so that people will do or think what we’re hoping they will do or think. Typically we’ve relied upon the editorial media as the conveyor of content to target audiences. That took a lot of hard work to ‘earn’ coverage, pitching stories to serious journalists, making a case with compelling arguments and ‘proof points,’ thinking in advance about helping the reporter sell a story to an exacting editor (ever worried about producing news product that the marketing department could use to extract larger sums from advertisers interested in persuading the biggest possible audience).

Today with the shrinking of the news media ‘storyselling zone,’ PR people have new opportunities to communicate corporate narratives via social media directly with constituencies of all kinds. “Every company can be a media company,” Richard Edelman has repeatedly stated in many speeches lately (recently putting a finer point on his views in this post). You could also say that “every PR pro can now be a media producer,” because we are all so intimately and directly involved with the creation, programming and sharing of content. Because this ‘PR 2.0′ takes place online, we can measure what people click, where they are located, how long they spend somewhere, what they share with others, etc. This technology is not so new, but the widespread integration of such intelligence gathering into PR campaigns is coming on strong. Clients are also more impatient than ever, and they love the instant feedback from real-time sources.

During two decades in public relations, I have sat in a lot of long meetings across from many skeptical executives — especially those with financial and scientific backgrounds — who can’t appreciate the value PR adds absent the tangibility of numbers on a chart. So, the idea that we can visibly capture the contribution of PR and try to quantify it using richer tools is immensely attractive.

For years, we could count piles of press clippings, look for a client name in the headlines, classify articles as ‘positive,’ ‘negative’ or ‘neutral,’ comb paragraphs looking for key messages, and even try to calculate ‘equivalent advertising value.’ When it came time for the new business pitch or client performance review, we would wheel out these crude measures and package them as convincingly as possible. For my money, while such techniques did offer a useful gauge of how things were going, it was a highly inexact business at best and clients often didn’t feel they could trust what often came across as self-serving numbers.

Thus for time immemorial there has been this quest for the ‘Holy Grail’ of PR measurement, which is now gathering momentum because software platforms developed to monitor social media can now, I am told by experts like Alan Chumley, also be applied to measuring conventional media coverage. Plus we can use tools like word clouds to simplify and vivify what has been a complex and rather boring area.

Going back to 1995-96, when I helped develop the original version of this site in Canada as one of the first PR agency home pages on the Internet (and then this site in Korea and this one in Japan), I’ve been fascinated by visitor stats — using Web Trends, Webalizer, etc. — but clients didn’t share my passion because the numbers didn’t compute commercially. Now, fortunately, owing to the social media explosion and existence of powerful and free measurement systems such as Google Analytics, the Internet metrics seem to mean more to the bottom-line and now PR people can walk into client meetings where budget decisions are made in a more confident way armed with data that is seen as objective and compelling. Can we now attach a specific number to a PR campaign’s exact cash register contribution? Maybe not yet, but we are getting closer, and in the meantime, I’ll have fun playing with the map dashboards:

Visitors to from Korea

[When my good friend Hoh Kim in Seoul posted a link to my blog recently, I was curious to see how many Koreans would visit my site].

Since then — and this is a subsequently edited entry — I was interested to note the 100+ source cities of visitors to this new site within its first 10 days:

100 cities of visitors here within first 10 days

Recently I have been checking out some of the new Twitter apps that map followers, such as Analytics: Analytics

…and I’ve also been using the Friend Statistics application in Facebook for a long time:

Facebook friends

Categories: blog, measurement
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A revolution coming in Japanese media relations?

November 23rd, 2009 / 12:00 pm

Yesterday’s edition of The New York Times contained an interesting article that caught my eye: “New Leaders in Japan Seek to End Cozy Ties to Press Clubs.”

Japanese media event

When I was building a communications consultancy in Tokyo from scratch in 2005, I remember being told repeatedly that one reason foreign-owned PR firms would never be successful in Japan is the unique press club system of that country, where the mainstream media continues to loom very large with newspapers reigning supreme.

Like a lot of the dire predictions I heard in a discouraging way in those days (e.g. “Japan is too expensive for a profitable business,” “You will never find talented employees,” etc.), it proved to be grossly overstated, but I did experience the power of the press clubs and saw their critical role in making or breaking successful media relations campaigns.

I remember one time [2007] we issued a news release announcing the new CEO of a company. We distributed it via e-mail, with a picture of the new leader attached. We also dispatched one of our team to the relevant press club (who needed to seek permission to do so beforehand), and she distributed the release by hand, which was accompanied by a hard copy of the CEO’s picture (on photo stock). As the newcomer to Japan, I was surprised how much of the resulting coverage came from the hard copy material circulated via the press club rather than via electronic means.

These press clubs have been analogue anachronisms in a digital age, but that is part of the challenge and the charm of PR in Japan. This is a country where press releases are still credible, where large-scale press events remain commonplace, and where PR agencies still send faxes to reporters. It’s also a land where through ‘desk-side’ briefings, there can be a more friendly relationship-rich approach to media relations.

Neighboring Korea also had a similar system of press clubs, but with the propagation of e-mail addresses several  years ago came the ability to communicate with media point-to-point, thus breaching ‘the wall.’ Things can take longer in Japan — often for the better, sometimes for the worse — and now that there’s real reform coming in the ‘news cartel’ system in Tokyo, the pent-up demand for modern communications consulting will rapidly boost firms able to compete on consulting quality, not just media relations quantity.

Categories: blog, media relations
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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.

Categories: work
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PR secrets for NGOs

September 30th, 2009 / 12:52 pm

Here’s a ‘do it yourself’ guide to communications produced for NGOs – an excellent list of the ingredients to the ‘PR sauce’. It’s the latest release of PR’s ‘code’ to the wider public. As knowledge spreads, can price levels be sustained?

Categories: bulletin
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