Few periods in business history have been marked by such flux and shifts in the communications landscape as we are seeing today. For those responsible for heightening their companies’ public profiles, the rules of the game are changing by the minute.
Today, a corporate’s spokesperson is not just the CXO, but also the employees and stakeholders who have been empowered by technology and feel entitled to express their opinions fearlessly. Engaging with all these publics in a meaningful manner will be challenging on multiple levels. Engagement with this target customer now incorporates more ‘pull’ elements than ‘push’. Moving the customer along the scale from awareness to persuasion demands active and real time community engagement.
The death bells for superficial reputation management, controlled one-way monologues are ringing loud. Clients are going to be pulled out of their comfort zones.
If there is one discipline that is best positioned to absorb and adapt to these changes, it is Public Relations. That is because Public Relations has always been about connecting with the end customer at a granular level. We will have to lead from the front and help clients talk with and listen to their stakeholders in ways that they don't yet necessarily know how to do. And because we practitioners are tuned into multiple perspectives, including those of consumers, policy makers, journalists, analysts and commentators, we can play weather vane to the winds of public opinion.
As Public Relations professionals, we must be able to modify our tactics swiftly and seamlessly – swapping ongoing local community outreach for a one-time product launch, for instance, or directly connecting with the audience through an online portal rather than depending on spotty media coverage alone. Public Relations can be the nimble and sure-footed ally to help companies negotiate this shifting landscape and offer a holistic approach to solving client challenges; an approach that is both discerning and optimal to the situation at hand.
The current challenge for the industry is that its potential is not being plumbed to the fullest extent. Public Relations professionals have traditionally been viewed as masters of the media relations game. Clients are not willing to see or expect beyond the same. But the industry must now go beyond celebrating long established tactical capabilities and become more vocal about the value it delivers instrategic stakeholder communication that is guided by insight and geared toward results.
Real insight is the critical fulcrum on which solid campaigns rest. Many a successful campaign, for example, has drawn on a simple but essential nugget of knowledge gleaned about buyer motivation and needs. For instance, P&G touts the leak-proof characteristic of its diapers in the face of evidence that new parents want nothing more than a good night’s sleep for their babies. In promoting its anti-smoking nicotine replacement therapy in the Indian market, J&J drew on the insight that smokers need a little help from the outside, apart from willpower, to kick the habit.
Public Relations firms have to push for similar insights from clients and the marketplace in order to craft communication that is targeted and designed for impact. The underlying research results are often readily available through secondary sources or the clients’ own data troves. It is up to practitioners to cull the findings down to the bedrock inspiration of a winning campaign. We will have to adapt our outreach strategies to integrated platforms and work on nurturing brand advocates in an increasingly interconnected world.
A perfect case study in market making unconventionality comes from Apple Inc. The key to the success of its ‘Think Different’ campaign was not in the advertising and other mass media messages but in the way the company effectively communicated – through its mission statement, customer service delivery and its breakthrough designs – that it believed in shaking up the status quo. The fact that it also makes quality computers and mp3 players is incidental to this core belief.
It is this kind of holistic approach and innovative thinking that Public Relations firms should champion in their clients. We have to feel comfortable in counseling them to take risks and to push the envelope as needed. In this new era of connection and communication – of unprecedented dialogue between brands, organisations, consumers and stakeholders – are you willing to give Public Relations it due?
The author is Principal at The PRactice.