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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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Below the radar: stories about subliminal

January 21st, 2010 / 3:00 pm

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about how tapping into the unconscious mind is the next big thing in marketing, thus the emerging term ‘neuromarketing.’ This reminded me about subliminal advertising, which going back to the 1950s has been a controversial and disputed means of persuasion (e.g. subliminal images are shown so briefly that the viewer does not consciously ‘see’ them). Every now and then, I stumble upon an article about this area and here are two recent ones:

  • Subliminal cues do work after all, says study: when subliminal advertising first came to the forefront during the ‘red scare’ 1950s era, people were afraid that the Soviet Union could use such surreptitious techniques to brainwash the public into supporting Communism. Later they were reassured when the results of a much-publicized study turned out to have been falsified. Now, however, with the benefit of MRI ‘brain scan’ technology, there is new evidence that “provided they were reinforced with simultaneous rewards, subliminal advertising could probably influence some of the choices we make.”
  • Subliminal messages work best when negative: so finds a study conducted by University College London, whose Professor Lavie says that “We have shown that people can perceive the emotional value of subliminal messages and have demonstrated conclusively that people are much more attuned to negative words.” She added: “More controversially, highlighting a competitor’s negative qualities may work on a subliminal level much more effectively than shouting about your own selling points.”

Hopefully this will not give too much succor to those who advocate negative advertising in politics. ‘Effective’ or not in winning elections, I think ‘going negative’ makes our increasingly fragile democratic institutions a loser by increasing cynicism and discouraging citizen participation.

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The persuasive storytellers

January 20th, 2010 / 9:00 pm

Today it was my pleasure to guest lecture two classes of PR students at Toronto’s Humber College. To say the least, I was impressed about the extent to which these bright and engaging students have a contemporary command of the forces of change shaping the future of public relations. Here’s a copy of my presentation deck:

Categories: blog, persuasion
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Are PR people incorrigible gossips?

January 11th, 2010 / 11:00 am

My wife said the other day that “PR people are such gossips!” Is it possible that she could be right?

At first, I pooh-poohed the idea, perhaps reflecting the conceit of a profession where supposedly the ability to keep confidences well is one of our distinguishing characteristics. After all, PR people have historically been the staunch enforcer of the embargo and the trusted custodians of news secrets (the strategic ‘leaking’ of which this article in The Financial Times says may have gotten out of hand).

Now, there is a difference between being a small-time gossip and breaching confidentiality big-time, but I suppose not enough of one to challenge the basis of my spouse’s contention because the two are such interrelated phenomena.

The number of PR people I would 100% trust to absolutely, positively maintain discretion no matter what is fairly compact. On the other hand, I’ve often been amazed at how often I’ve sought and secured solemn pledges of confidentiality before sharing sensitive information, only to find out later on that the secret was spilled to others under similar (in)secure conditions.

Indeed, when it comes to confidentiality in PR, the extent of hypocrisy can be breathtakingly pervasive. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard senior PR executives criticize others for a lack of discretion while evidencing a conspicuous lack of it themselves.

Why might it be that PR people are prone to promiscuous information-sharing practices?

One theory is that because we are under so much pressure to always keep information under wraps (until the right time for it to become ‘public’), in private there’s a corresponding need to feel less repressed by acting more liberally. Or maybe it’s because we have grown so adept at sharing stories with others (trafficking information to the right people at the right time), it has become habit-forming and we’ve just become too turned-on when it comes to spreading salacious things around. Another explanation is that there’s a lack of ample formal sanction in PR against such behavior; unlike lawyers, PR people cannot be drummed out of the profession for breaching confidentiality because our industry doesn’t yet have a mandatory professional credential (like attorneys and accountants, for example). That said, if someone is addicted to shooting their mouth off, word spreads informally and the repeat offender gets frozen out of the loop.

Perhaps because PR people have become arguably the world’s most powerful information workers, the information we have — which is scarce and exclusive — might be what makes PR people feel more powerful. Often ignored by media and under the client thumb, I can understand how some PRs seek that sensation.

I think Dr. Robert Cialdini’s findings on the self-interested nature of information-sharing may be the most compelling explanation: “The persuasive power of exclusivity can be harnessed by any manager who comes into possession of information that’s not widely available and that supports an idea or initiative he or she would like the organization to adopt.”

Perhaps PR folks are no different than anyone else when it comes to these modern ‘transparent’ trends. This is, after all, the age of social networks and with rising acceptance of less privacy and more ‘Re-Tweeting,’ I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised by a shrinking domain of trusted private disclosure and an enlarged sphere of public information.

Still, what a wonderful feeling when you know — through repeated confidence-building experience — that you can trust certain individuals with your reputation. The good thing is that word of how they can keep secrets well also spreads like wildfire, with such people enjoying all kinds of reputation benefits (e.g. being widely known as an executive of high caliber and sound character).

Categories: blog, psychology
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Which is more persuasive: time or money?

December 19th, 2009 / 11:00 am

This article in the Inside Influence Report produced by Dr. Robert Cialdini’s organization outlines the results of a new persuasion study which should especially interest PR people (as their product is professional time to which the market assigns a monetary value):

  • “A survey of the recent issues of four popular, high circulation magazines (New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, Money and Rolling Stone) revealed that out of a total of some 300 advertisements almost half employed a reference to time or money in their message. But does mentioning time or money influence peoples’ evaluation of the product or service concerned? And if they do which is more persuasive – time or money?”
  • “These [study] results…suggest that irrespective of the amount of money an individual might spend on a product…making references to time can influence people’s perception of a product’s attributes. Therefore it would seem to sense to initially include references to time rather than money when influencing others to consider your offers and proposals.”

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Thinking about public relations

December 14th, 2009 / 3:19 pm

I watched this BBC documentary series over the weekend, and it got me thinking about the origins of public relations, including its connection to psychology and early practice as propaganda. I suspect that many fellow PR people would be interested to watch The Century of the Self:

In watching the series, it struck me how so many PR people seem to know little about their own industry’s often wartime roots, and made me feel proud about how far PR has progressed ethically and in terms of sophistication since its early crudely manipulative origins.

I also just wrote a rambling article on this topic, much too long for a regular blog post: Thinking about public relations.

Categories: blog, thinking
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Thinking about public relations

December 14th, 2009 / 12:05 pm

by Bob Pickard

When I worked at Hill & Knowlton in the early 1990s, I knew that there was a John Hill and a David Knowlton who founded the firm in 1927, but for most of us employees then, the history of the firm didn’t loom very large. In general, I find this to be the case across wide swathes of the PR industry. I don’t think most practitioners know enough about their own company’s past or indeed about their own occupation’s roots.

PR people have been called the ‘world’s most powerful information workers,’ so especially if that mighty moniker is true, then we have a responsibility to take more time to actually think about our profession, to consider where it comes from and where it is going, and to be less ignorant of our own history. All too often, we are just swept along in a quotidian current of disposable information with scant opportunity to survey the whole picture and map our actions against broader contexts.

PR people aren’t just suffering from ‘attention deficit’ or ‘information overload’ or ‘continuous partial attention’ (multitasking is a myth as this NPR report shows). Regardless of how media of all kinds these days are now compressing forests of information into trees and increasingly twigs (with programming edited for flea-length attention spans), we still possess what has been called an ‘executive mind’ that is able to switch between different sources of information. The main problem is that we tend to switch between too many things too quickly. Therefore, to understand concepts more complex than a soundbite, we need to make a deliberate decision to use that mind and force its focused attention for ample periods of time on important issues that should command our interest.

Especially because we are in a position through our work to readily grasp things like the fragmentation of the public mass media commons into atomized private streams, we have a unique perspective to share; we need to illustrate a deeper and more profound view. Perhaps owing to legacy factors such as the PR industry’s past modest scale subservient to advertising, a service solicitous of journalists and gratified by client praise for the resulting publicity, I think we PR people sometimes have a tendency to be too conformist, too intellectually incurious, too timid about asking bigger questions. Then there’s the tendency to parrot (or just ‘Re-Tweet’) trendy-sounding but simple rhetorical explanations about our business from glib boasters or slick sloganeers.

“What’s past is prologue” said Shakespeare, and this is an apt expression for the modern public relations industry because I sense a lack of memory and of thinking (as opposed to just saying ‘yes’ to any passing fad and reflexively ‘doing’). Some trends that are actually old seem new again, but if we don’t recall history and apply its lessons, then it seems to me that we aren’t getting any wiser.

Recently I experienced an epiphany on this. I have been giving a presentation on PR campuses (next up is Humber College on January 20th) on the ‘digitization’ of persuasive storytelling, and emphasizing how the unconscious mind (or the ‘emotional brain’) is key in marketing and how metaphors can be marshaled when content is communicated as a ‘conversation’ to make PR narratives more compelling.

I include several contemporary sources in this speech, but also cite Dale Carnegie, whose 1936 book How to win friends and influence people remains a relevant classic. I don’t include any material from Edward Bernays’ seminal 1928 book: Propaganda. Most PR people who know of it are repelled by the book’s equating of public relations with propaganda, but I think it is largely unknown to most modern practitioners. It includes a chapter called “The Psychology of Public Relations” that contains some chilling parallels — written 80 years ago — with what some depict as modern communications practice.

Recently I came across The Century of the Self, a BBC documentary that looks at the roots of 20th century mass marketing (especially things like the unconscious mind and the psychology of persuasion), and was reminded that breathless digital jargon aside, many of the concepts that are being trumpeted as ‘new’ today go at least as far back as the First World War.

I certainly don’t agree with everything this TV series says, but I do think that getting alternative viewpoints helps us gain perspective on our profession. In that regard, The Corporation and Manufacturing Consent are two classic documentaries of the genre. These videos cast PR in a pretty sinister light, in an exaggerated, misleading way relative to what I know is current practice.

Even though it makes some of us feel uncomfortable to admit it, it is pretty clear that PR shares a common history with propaganda. However, I feel that there has been a clear divergence between these concepts. I’ve repeatedly chimed in with this point of view before, in The Japan Times newspaper and in BusinessWeek some years earlier.

When it comes to PR industry credibility, it does the profession no favors to pretend that all we do is “share perspectives” or “create relationships” or “listen to stakeholders” or “engage in dialogue.” It’s true that PR people do all of these things, but we’re not doing them for academic purposes or just for the heck of it. We’re in a persuasion business, trying to get people to do or think what we are hoping they will do or think.

In that sense, very little has changed in PR since its birth. What has changed is we’re transparently letting people know what we’re doing, and while deliberately misleading and manipulating people for nefarious purposes is now seen as the province of propaganda, PR has earned its distinction as a practice of ethically sharing information openly so that people can reach their own conclusions.

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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

Categories: blog, speaking platforms
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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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Authority versus persuasion

September 30th, 2009 / 1:03 pm

Managers often face a choice between authority and persuasion, says this HBS working paper.

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