PR is dead – long live PR

When I hear – as I’m sure we all have – that social media has irrevocably changed the way in which people communicate with each other, and will therefore change the way in which brands (and their intermediaries) attempt to communicate with people, I reserve the right to remain sensibly sceptical.

Back in 2002 or so, I encountered a question in almost every client meeting I had, whether with existing or prospective clients.

“Do you do online PR?” I was asked.

Frankly, this question threw me into a spin – no PR pun intended. I would return to my desk and sit there reflecting on this question, or more to the point on my complete lack of a coherent answer to it. I felt like a latter-day Rip van Winkle that had woken up after a long nap only to find there’d been an unexpected shift of paradigm. The (PR) world had moved on without me.

You see, the problem was I didn’t even know what online PR was. Admittedly I wasn’t, back then, the grey-haired PR aficionado I am now. But I was no newbie either. And I had been the news editor of the UK’s foremost online news site. So, I felt if anyone ought to know what online PR was, and be all over it, it should be me.

But I didn’t. And that troubled me.

One of the nice(r) things about being a little older though, is you start to notice when things heralded as new are, in fact, a rehash of something that has gone before.

This brings me back to the issue of why I didn’t understand what online PR was? Because it never existed. In much the same way that social media has not and will not change the way people communicate – except, of course, at a fairly mechanical level.

I don’t know which was invented first – the fork or the spoon. But I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those implements was heralded as changing people’s relationship with food by some visionary or other. Sure, you scoop with one and, err, fork with the other. But the fundamentals remain utterly unchanged. You are eating. Transporting food into your mouth. Chopsticks will also do the job.

Back to PR. This is only my view, admittedly, but surely PR is the art of story telling – stories can be fact or fiction; if you don’t agree with me, ask yourself why some documentaries are more compelling than others, why some biographies are more gripping.

Story telling only works if you have something interesting to say and someone who wants to hear it. You can sit round the campfire, you can put it on a CD, you can go on stage and use performance art, you can make a movie or a one-act play, you can write a novel or even make a documentary. It is still, at some level, a story – words and images crafted to convey information in an interesting way.

I don’t doubt there are better and more sophisticated PR practitioners that will knock holes in my viewpoint with effortless ease. But I stand by the principle that if you can’t get the basics right – what’s my story and who do I want to tell it to – it doesn’t matter which medium you select for telling it.

Telling stories, human nature and social media

Since the very dawn of time itself mankind has told stories.

Ok, maybe not since the dawn of time perhaps “since the evolution of language” would have been more accurate. But that didn’t sound very story-like.

Someone once told me that all the stories we are familiar with are in fact based on just a handful of original story ideas that came into being eons ago.

That could be true.

Certainly many cultures have a rich story-telling tradition. Viking sagas, the Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, Greek myths, the Tales of 1,001 Nights – frankly there’s loads.

Stories don’t just come in that more obvious narrative format either. Cave paintings, totem poles, the adornments on boomerangs – graphical story-telling is a strong part of human history.

We’ve come a long way from sitting round the fire recounting our ancestors’ tales of derring-do or painting on cave walls. But stories are still a fundamental part of who we are as individuals, as nations and also in relation to how brands identify themselves.

The approach taken by advertisers and marketers just a generation or two ago looks naive by our sophisticated 21st century standards. It was, with some exceptions, “here’s our product – buy it.”

And while that approach still exists – and of course the motivation of generating sales is still hugely valid – consumers tend now to switch off to a lot of that stuff. We’re all so accustomed to being marketed to that maybe we’ve started to become immune.

Whether you call it PR, communications, marcomms, or whatever, those who ply their trade in the same sector as I are in the business of telling stories. Stories that will resonate with our clients’ target audiences and give them a sense of affinity with a particular brand.

This can be seen being played out in the digital space even more clearly, where the time between brand execution and customer feedback grows ever shorter.

But much like the crazy preacher-man berating the passing crowds at Oxford Circus I passed this morning, there’s a danger we end up trying to tell our stories to people who simply aren’t interested.

Again, the online world has made this trap ever more easy to fall into.

The fundamentals of story-telling – much like the fundamentals of human nature, in my opinion – remain:

  • Get the story right
  • Know who it is that you want to tell your story to
  • Be sure you’re talking when (and where) they will listen.
  • And who knows, maybe even ask them to share their stories with you too

We haven’t really come such a long way at all, in this story-teller’s opinion.

Although at least we’re not still writing on walls.

Ahem..!

Yes Facebook, I’m looking at you.