If you’ve ‘over-indulged’ on ‘pay for play’ during the last year,
now is a great time to make a New Year’s resolution
It’s that time of year again. After the exertions and indulgences of the Christmas period, in Europe – where I spent Christmas – Lent traditionally marks a period of abstinence, of New Year’s resolutions, and a chance to ‘detox’ from the season’s excesses. For PR professionals, now is the perfect time to return to our core calling . . . . storytelling.
And I don’t mean, a great campaign ‘ . . . supported by Sachin Tendulkar’, or backed by ‘a cross-platform paid media programme’ or, even, ‘an exclusive partnership with Times Group’ . . . I mean, storytelling.
Remember, during that epoch before big data, or ‘native advertising’ – or ‘pre-history’ as millennials call it! – where PR pros pitched stories, where they hustled their contacts about a feature idea, where the only criteria was to either inform or entertain the reader? Where nothing was ever guaranteed, but through a combination of fresh, topical information, access, creativity, relationships, and sheer reaction speed coverage could be secured, feature stories developed, quotes inserted, interviews booked? Uncertainty was part of the job – and one which I relished. Booking a media tour, filling a press conference, or securing drop by meetings at a trade event required teamwork, face time with journalists, and no little ingenuity. And certainly no cheque book.
When I started my career, PR was neither art nor science; a type of hybrid skill requiring a ‘slice’ of knowledge from a million sectors; from heath (for NGOs and hospital trust clients) to employment law (a firm of solicitors and recruitment consultants), from astrophysics (Cambridge University), to software emulation (Intel and HP). I preferred to call it a ‘black science’; since the knowledge required could be very specific – ‘ . . how many transistors now fit on an Itanium chip, again?’ – or very general – ‘As flood waters descend on Bedfordshire, homeowners are urged to be wary of unlicensed, ‘cowboy’ builders offering to complete building work for cash, says the Building Employers’ Confederation . . . .’.
None of these campaigns required paid ‘doping’ to secure traction; neither were they dependent on free tickets or product samples being distributed to journalists. They were based on the simple art of storytelling; the transmission of messages in a way that’s relevant to their audience, and that genuinely entertains or informs them.
But today’s multi-platform, multi-market environment is far more complex, and competitive post Internet; the ability to tell stories may be sufficient for Mark Twain or the Brothers Grimm, but corporations can’t afford to leave their reputations in the hands of storytellers . . . . !
Well, here’s news, it’s even more important than that . . . Storytelling is a practice unique to mankind which helped keep our ancestors alive; during real ‘pre-history’ this mechanism made it easier to retain and transmit the advice – which plants were safe, what were the best seasons in which to hunt. The earliest cave art yet to be discovered, in Lascaux, France1, is storytelling it its purest form (see left).
And why do corporates need to tell stories? Here’s a clue, last year in the US, ad blocking reached 45 million users; and of those not currently using the mechanism, 41% said that they could consider it if advert volumes continued to increase, according to Adobe and PageFair2. Add to this the heightened awareness of issues such as privacy and data breaches, particularly within younger Generation Z demographic, and it’s clear that corporates are going to have to find alternative ways to grab and maintain people’s attention. And I’m not sure that these are going to include celebrity endorsement or sponsorship.
So, let me challenge you. In 2017, when you see a new PR campaign, when someone presents creative idea, or when they share an innovative ‘best practice’; strip away the ageing sports star, reduce the ‘pay for play’, refuse the media house exclusivity deal and the native media, throw out the transatlantic FAM trip, and other sweeteners clouding the plan.
If what’s left resembles a story, then have the courage of your convictions and just start pitching. Make 2017 the Year of Earned; like any ‘detox’, it may require lots of willpower and hard work, but the results will be worth it. Just ask the cave painters from Lascaux!