The Right to a Good Story

A small visit to the Economist’s Big Rethink event got me… thinking.

I never fail to be amazed by the way some marketers talk of the time before I arrived in this industry.

On one hand, there’s all this chat about data. As if marketers used to operate by a kind of soothsaying intuition, divining the thoughts of audiences like oracles to the Gods. Maybe it was this way. But I doubt it.

On the other hand, there’s discussion of some heady, halcyon days when audiences had no way to avoid marketing messages. When you could just pump cash into channels and guarantee your target had it rubbed in their face.

By contrast, they seem to bemoan the fact that, today, you have to actually create material people want to pay attention to. They speak with a mottled nostalgia for the power and influence over opinion that money once bequeathed them. Can that be for real?

But (and without using the increasingly over-employed term ‘democratisation’) I think there’s something even more important in all this. And it gets to the root of why the PR and communications function is so important today.

And maybe it’s something that was always true in the background somewhere.

Control

There was a time when control — of the media, of audiences’ attention etc was a matter of buying space in the right place at the right time. PR relationships were ultimately just another way to buy media attention to complement your adverts. They’d force stories into the media simply because a journalist owed them a favour.

All of this created a warped and broken feedback loop. A great, effective story needs an engaged, interested audience. That’s how you know you’re onto something. One of a brand’s key missions, especially up front should be finding a sort of message/market fit, as one facet of their product/market fit.

If you cut out a key feedback signal i.e. “your story is boring/ this isn’t news/ I don’t want to watch this advert and stupid patronising message”, then you eliminate a key, valuable signal that tells you your story isn’t good enough. That you don’t have the right fit yet. And so, you never get better.

The right to better

If it sounds like I’m talking about some form of reputational justice here — where those doing something good and finding a story that matters are rewarded — that’s no coincidence.

In a time where this is so important, I believe there’s something to be said for the idea every company deserves the best possible shot at declaring and communicating what makes them great. Today’s brutal brand transparency should be empowering those organisations who are genuinely doing a good job. But that is only true if they can communicate what makes them great with clarity and power.

Just as lawyers must represent their client in court, agencies should look at their responsibility as identifying companies’ singular, core strengths and help them express that to thrive. Of course, noise alone won’t get them far, so the measurement, the strategy tied tightly to real business objectives — all these pragmatic elements are essential too.

But at its heart, the right to a good story is something I think even the worst and most incompetent companies should be able to enjoy. Because then, once you have given them every chance, if you still find them wanting, it’s because they are genuinely inferior or flawed.

#PRstack and PRgeeks.co give PRs the tools they need

Just recently, Danny Whatmough and I were discussing the future of PR tech on our semi-regular podcast “Digital Wake”. I’ve embedded it below (so now’s a good time to catch up…)

Toward the end of our discussion, we agreed there’s a long sprawling tail of agency-shaped businesses that know they could be adapting and upgrading their offering — but just don’t know how.

We must acknowledge that outdated techniques are not just suboptimal for those who deliver them — but bad for us all (not to mention the poor bloody clients.)

It’s with that in mind, that we’ve taken great pleasure working with Prezly and Stephen Waddington to launch a couple of initiatives next week — designed precisely to narrow this divide. In PR, there will be no such thing as the digital haves and have nots. Anyone will be able to find the tools they need — and implement them with smart strategy and advice.

#PRstack

#PRstack is the initiative that started it all — a creation of the indomitable Stephen Waddington, fresh off his year-long CIPR presidential stint. What began as a crowdsourced Google Doc, has quickly grown to over 150 tools for PRs in areas from measurement to management.

Prezly has stepped up to build a simple interface that makes it easy for any PR to find tools fit for purpose and get a short description of key characteristics. The new #PRstack front end is, quite simply, made for you.

PRgeeks.co

But if it was a matter of just finding the tools, this problem would have been solved long ago. In tandem, Prezly has created PRgeeks.co, a resource that guides everyone from novices to masters on putting #PRstack tools straight into practice.

And, just for good measure, it has a ton of useful top 5s as well, including everything from who to follow on Twitter to which regular PRchats will help unlock your inner PR Geek. Check it out.

We’ve got the PRCA on board (since I help run the technology group.) We’ve got the CIPR on board (through @GemGriff) and Stephen Waddington), we’ve got the infamous TechJPR group (formerly UKTJPR) involved. And we’re working on the rest.

This industry will only change if we take action. The breadth of tools and skills needed to understand great communications strategy today is greater than ever. But the ways in which they actually simplify our focus are often underestimated.

These tools and techniques are key to everyone doing a great job in PR. I hope you’ll all support and promote them as much as we plan to at Augur.

#PRstack and PRgeeks.co give PRs the tools they need

Just recently, Danny Whatmough and I were discussing the future of PR tech on our semi-regular podcast “Digital Wake”. I’ve embedded it below (so now’s a good time to catch up…)

Toward the end of our discussion, we agreed there’s a long sprawling tail of agency-shaped businesses that know they could be adapting and upgrading their offering — but just don’t know how.

We must acknowledge that outdated techniques are not just suboptimal for those who deliver them — but bad for us all (not to mention the poor bloody clients.)

It’s with that in mind, that we’ve taken great pleasure working with Prezly and Stephen Waddington to launch a couple of initiatives next week — designed precisely to narrow this divide. In PR, there will be no such thing as the digital haves and have nots. Anyone will be able to find the tools they need — and implement them with smart strategy and advice.

#PRstack

#PRstack is the initiative that started it all — a creation of the indomitable Stephen Waddington, fresh off his year-long CIPR presidential stint. What began as a crowdsourced Google Doc, has quickly grown to over 150 tools for PRs in areas from measurement to management.

Prezly has stepped up to build a simple interface that makes it easy for any PR to find tools fit for purpose and get a short description of key characteristics. The new #PRstack front end is, quite simply, made for you.

PRgeeks.co

But if it was a matter of just finding the tools, this problem would have been solved long ago. In tandem, Prezly has created PRgeeks.co, a resource that guides everyone from novices to masters on putting #PRstack tools straight into practice.

And, just for good measure, it has a ton of useful top 5s as well, including everything from who to follow on Twitter to which regular PRchats will help unlock your inner PR Geek. Check it out.

We’ve got the PRCA on board (since I help run the technology group.) We’ve got the CIPR on board (through @GemGriff) and Stephen Waddington), we’ve got the infamous TechJPR group (formerly UKTJPR) involved. And we’re working on the rest.

This industry will only change if we take action. The breadth of tools and skills needed to understand great communications strategy today is greater than ever. But the ways in which they actually simplify our focus are often underestimated.

These tools and techniques are key to everyone doing a great job in PR. I hope you’ll all support and promote them as much as we plan to at Augur.

Why Augur – 1 year on

Today, if you can imagine something, it’s easier than ever to create it. But in such a world, where anything is possible, intent has become crucial. Why must this particular thing exist?

At the same time, it’s not rare to see competitors race ahead of worthier foes simply by virtue of communicating their take on that ‘why’ with more volume or more breadth. It’s clear that even though you are patently great at what you do, that doesn’t immediately equip you to squeeze every drop of value out of your story.

It doesn’t have to be like this. And for Augur, this leads in to why we believe great PR matters today.

Augur is built on a simple concept:

“If you can communicate your true strength accurately, success will follow.”

Reputation reputation reputation

More than ever, PR and communications strategy isn’t a glossy sheen applied at the last minute, (or worse: in moments of crisis), it’s rooted in the bones of a good business. It’s exhaled with the excellence of your service.

PR has historically claimed to help you punch above your weight. Today, it can help you put on real muscle instead. In a world where where your reputation is inevitably jabbed day in day out, this is more important than ever. Especially since those punches are often coming, not from trolls, but newly enfranchised stakeholders with a way to get real attention.

Only substance can weather such incessant scrutiny.

Getting started

In the last year, we’ve learned a lot and we’ve done a lot. The new systems and business model we are pioneering are now certified ISO compliant, we’re PRCA audited (as well as running the PRCA Technology group), we’re active CIPR a members, helped launch #PRstack, have worked with 20+ companies and have grown the team in our HQ at Somerset House.

The exciting thing about writing up what we’ve learned in these 12 quick months is not just the substance of how we have developed. It’s the prospect of where we, our work and our clients will be in another 12. Then another. And another.

Thank you to everyone that has given us the opportunity to prove PR can be better and do better. And welcome to everyone reading this who may be considering that remit.

We’re ready for the next stage. I hope we’ll see you there.

For the Guardian: Marketers must get over their social newsfeed obsession.

We’ve started writing for the Guardian. First up, about how it’s hard to properly understand changing use of social networks if you stay hung up on your own expectations.

When your Facebook includes everyone you know, the feed is inevitably going to become like “an awkward family dinner party we can’t really leave”. You haven’t selected what’s showing up anymore, it’s just aggregated noise. Why should it reflect your interests? Especially when it’s only one of a number of sources most people frequent these days.

Read the full article on The Guardian here — and let us know what you think.

The Media Relations Paradox

Imagine if the most valuable thing you could offer was close relationships with journalists. Not to say there isn’t power and potential in those — but imagine if that was what your whole proposition hinged upon in 2014.

I can’t work out which way the chicken and egg of this value in the PR industry started — but it’s still one of those things people talk about when they talk about PR. Even some great companies approach Augur expecting us to talk about the strong links we have with major editors.

I think this perception is one layer too superficial vs PR’s real potential today. It’s one of the things  I talked about with Danny Whatmough on Digital Wake, our new semi-regular podcast about PR and technology (blame him prioritising his wedding over sitting with me in a soundproof room.) It also links up with Stephen Waddington’s recent #PRforPR campaign (more on that here.)

Why PR?

So what’s going on? And what about the voices out there in the PR industry who may be shouting “we’re good at the media relations thing, what’s so bad about that”?

Well, here’s the issue: we’re operating in a world where more or less all the marketing disciplines are converging on the same zone. Within that nexus, there’s one persistent priority. One point around which so much else revolves.

It’s the thing that comes before all the glitz and glamour of advertising, the chummy chatter of social or the obsessive optimisation of search.

PR can lead the charge in helping companies understand and articulate their Meaning.

PR fit for purpose

This is the opportunity. Because our industry has grown up sparring with the media, it has had a century’s head start in grappling with the scrutiny and cynicism of the journalistic mindset.

You couldn’t hope for a better training regime. Because PR has had to learn to harmonise with influential audiences for so long, it has become part of our way of operating. In the marketing multiplex, it defines the direction of our industry’s potential.

This is what I think we can focus on. Yes, journalists develop relationships with good PRs and yes there’s some value there. But they are the result of our real skill and specialisation: Identifying and amplifying a company’s meaning to tell its story, for whichever audience matters.

When it comes to propositions you can be proud of, I think that’s worth shouting about.

Photo Credit: Esparta via Compfight cc

Breaking the PR rules: 128 units

I was invited to a recent PRCA event, hosting 3x PR industry godfathers who founded and exited agencies.

Like so much with running Augur, I found it had to be analysed at two levels simultaneously. On one hand, there’s nothing like real experience. It’s a hard-won asset that money can’t buy.

But in dispensing the value of that experience, there’s a risk of being blinkered toward only what worked in the past. When it comes to agencies, that means a model that I don’t necessarily believe is the future or is the core of what Augur should be. 

It’s always risky to disagree with experience and the threat is you’re assuming you know better. I think the effective middle ground is based around this: Before you can intelligently break the rules, you have to understand what you’re breaking.

What’s the time?

I asked a question early on about timesheets. And it’s one I’ll caveat with the fact I once wrote an article entitled “Why I’ll always have time for timesheets”. 

My question was based on the idea that timesheets are really just an abstraction. They’re representative of time but ultimately, if we’re saying 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, roughly 4 weeks a month, that’s 128 units of abstract value that you sell to clients.

Why not simplify?

Why try to sell such granular batches? What’s the virtue of breaking it down into 8 units per day. I think there’s an illusion of efficiency and security that comes from the feeling you can now account for every hour of every employee’s time.

But does anyone who has worked in an agency really believe timesheets have that kind of precision? And is our greatest aspiration really to squeeze every last drop out of every team member?

If we say these systems are maybe 80% accurate, and that it’s probably only the last 20% of peoples’ time that you’re trying to increase the efficiency on, how can that realistically work?

I agree it’s unwise to try and manage an organisation without something in the model like this. But I wonder if you can get most of the value from a system that takes a fraction of the time to manage.

Why can’t we simply by reducing the number of those abstract units.

Time for attention

Instead of hundreds of made up hours, how about 4x units of attention per week.

Because more strategic work tends to require more focused, dedicated and, arguably, valuable attention, this currency has greater flexibility.

Lots of great writing may take up one unit of attention. Developing a strategic plan may take less physical time but in how it absorbs the team working on it with the focus of required concentration and experience, it’s equivalent. Maybe implementing it over a month is going to take another four units of attention.

So you spec a project by working back from objectives, establishing the strategy and calculating how much attention it will need. It’s not re-inventing the wheel, it’s just trying to find ways to produce them more efficiently and end up with a better vehicle. 

Obviously there’s no way to discuss this properly with a panel, without becoming that guy (or girl) whose question turns into a diatribe and a distraction. But for the value of thinking about this further, I have to congratulate the PRCA on creating a little haven for us to escape the day-to-day and really scrutinise what we’re doing and why.

Search, and the commercial clash of the information age

People are looking for things. You want them to find you.

But not just when looking for you, of course, that’s a given. Really, you want them to find you when they are looking for other things. Or, best of all, when they’re looking to buy other things.

And so the clash emerges. Because of how search works, if you want to be found, you have to essentially become that thing online.  You have to equate yourself with what your audience is looking for as they hope to buy.

Exceptions and expectations

But what happens if there’s a dissonance between what people are currently looking for and what you think they really should be looking for? It’s a classic issue in something like tech PR. Or communications. Or whatever you want to call the big converging soup of media and marketing.

How do you join the dots between the ‘wrong’ search and the right ideas?

If you can explain the difference, that should be a relevant, shareable, memorable way to tackle the challenge. That should be a good fight in the battle, not for some mysterious search blackhattery — but because you’re genuinely moving the subject forwards.

And even better, play your cards right and it should become a relevant source for the subject you think people should be searching for too. Because you’ve actually created value.

How do brands tell their story?

We recently took part in a discussion from MyNewsDesk about the ways brands tell their story.

Check out the recording below for our thoughts.

Product Hunt, PR tools and my advice for startups

Young companies that aren’t eager to spend thousands on a retainer still realise they need to get their story out to the people who count. But, based on the selection of tools showing up on ProductHunt, you’d think the future of PR was press releases and spamming media lists.

To anyone who actually has experience with PR, we know it doesn’t work like this.

Read the rest at Econsultancy