It’s pretty well documented at this point that PR has gone through something of a creative gold rush in the last decade or so. It used to be that a metaphor about lovemaking prowess could sum up our place in the natural agency order. But besides being a touch sleazy, to stop at this definition would be to sell ourselves short.
So how would I describe PR to someone coming to it for the first time?
I start by saying something along the lines of “PR earns people’s attention in a way that makes them care and talk about you.” I pour myself a drink, look them in the eye and say “but that’s not the half of it”.
I talk about PR’s evolution from securing coverage to starting conversations, from measuring column inches to assessing relevance, from trading in editorial to delivering insights, from press releases to multimedia content, from attention to action, from stunts to creative.
Three hours have passed. I pour myself another drink.
I start talking about how the average person is bombarded by 4,000 to 10,000 pieces of brand communication each and every day. “Does that shock you?” I ask. I tell them to think about TV, social, radio, podcasts, packaging, clothing, inbox, in-app, out-of-home — and that’s before you get into the world of sponsorship — events, stadiums, athletes, teams, shirts, street signs, smoking areas, political conventions, urinals, and even people.
And that’s when I hit them with the clincher: the average person has 6,000 thoughts per day.
10,000 brand communications, but only 6,000 thoughts.
They’re feeling dizzy.
I finish by telling them that PR is not a media or a channel choice. It’s a way of thinking that helps you cut through the clutter and EARNS your place in and among those 6,000 precious thoughts.
They’re feeling awed and inspired.
But from somewhere in the background, another voice pipes up. They’ve been listening. Silently seething. They’re from a different kind of agency. A fully integrated, all singing, all dancing creative agency — that just happens to make adverts.
They’ve been listening to me for five hours, and they think that I’ve got some nerve.
They tell me that all creative is about earning attention. And that the role of PR starts and finishes with making the headlines happen. They laugh, throw back their hair, readjust their turtleneck — “stay in your lane, and leave the creative thinking to us”.
I put down my drink and start to protest — but I hesitate — they’re right, the lines are blurring.
But it’s not PR that has changed. Yes, it has evolved with the times. But fundamentally, PR has always been about earning attention and delivering fame.
I have a crashing realisation: advertising is having an identity crisis.
It used to be content with bombarding us from on high. Demanding attention. Secure in the knowledge that it was playing a pretty smart numbers game: locations, repetitions and eyeballs. But that game stopped making sense a long time ago.
10,000 BRAND COMMUNICATIONS
And somewhere along the way, advertising got a taste for fame. Enabled by drumming gorillas, bouncing balls — and hard-working PR agencies behind the scenes — pioneering adverts snatched up the headlines. Fast forward a few years, we find ourselves in an era where adverts are about more than just selling products and many agencies believe that their sixty-second spot is saying something so profoundly important that global front pages worldwide will be held indefinitely until release day.
And so here we are. Identity crisis.
Advertising sells its big creative ambition on the promise of internet-breaking notoriety, yet bar a handful of elite agencies and their bravest clients (who routinely make brilliant ad campaigns with incredible PR ideas at the centre) it hasn’t quite developed the knack for it yet.
For every brilliant fame-making ad, you’ll see thousands of others that were plainly designed to earn attention but fell dramatically short.
However, I’m not here to dunk on advertising. The opposite, in fact. There’s a lot to learn.
Because let’s face it, PR folk — year after year, advertising agencies are cleaning up at Cannes in the PR categories. Adland’s levels of craft and creativity have never been higher. Standards that we are increasingly aspiring to in PR, with shops all over the world establishing pretty punchy creative departments (I sit in one such team).
But let’s not lose ourselves in a mad dash towards creativity for creativity’s sake. As I said, the adland way of demanding people’s attention is increasingly an unviable option — no matter how artistically crafted the mode of delivery. We must avoid the temptation to transplant that way of ‘doing creative’ into our agencies and instead play to our strengths.
Because at its creative best, PR can deliver brilliant campaigns for brands that are seen and talked about by millions of people — by cleverly earning its way into those 6,000 thoughts.