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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.

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

(For the record, if you want to understand why it’s so important to say as little as possible, this video is a pretty good demo in itself too. At such moments, I sympathise for every client that I’ve advised to control their passion for the subject in favour of clarity.)

Material and Content

I’ve written before about the difficulties of the word “content”. It’s too often bandied around in discussions that lose sight of its meaning to viewers versus its importance in their strategy. And that blindness is costly.

But you quickly find yourself drawing on it because it’s the common reference. Much of the time, that will remain true.

Sometimes, however, it’s worth thinking again to see if there’s another descriptor more suitable. Perhaps another descriptor that can focus on a different detail and a different priority and help you concentrate on what matters.

Made of more

I recently had the following conversation on Twitter. (Incidentally, it’s also one of those incredibly moments that hits home to me how social accounts and interactions can become such an enjoyable scratchpad for new ideas.)

Content’s not included

Material is like the fabric of something actually useful. It’s a bit more tangible. It’s something you iterate on and bang around in different directions — certainly when it’s commonly used in stand-up comedy.

It’s craft-like and something you develop and improve over time. You gather techniques to become competent then workmanlike then artisan. You invent or invest in technology to gain an advantage producing better material than your competition.

Material has customers rather than consumers. Your material must be top notch, it’s not just a snack between courses — it is a product in its own sense.

I’d love to hear suggestions of other words. Even if they aren’t used in conversation, I think clearer definition helps you think about things more strategically and accurately. The power of language is only beaten by the power of the meaning and association that underlies it.

What would you call content to make you appreciate it more?

Photo Credit: ch.weidinger via Compfight cc

Material and Content

I’ve written before about the difficulties of the word “content”. It’s too often bandied around in discussions that lose sight of its meaning to viewers versus its importance in their strategy. And that blindness is costly.

But you quickly find yourself drawing on it because it’s the common reference. Much of the time, that will remain true.

Sometimes, however, it’s worth thinking again to see if there’s another descriptor more suitable. Perhaps another descriptor that can focus on a different detail and a different priority and help you concentrate on what matters.

Made of more

I recently had the following conversation on Twitter. (Incidentally, it’s also one of those incredibly moments that hits home to me how social accounts and interactions can become such an enjoyable scratchpad for new ideas.)

Content’s not included

Material is like the fabric of something actually useful. It’s a bit more tangible. It’s something you iterate on and bang around in different directions — certainly when it’s commonly used in stand-up comedy.

It’s craft-like and something you develop and improve over time. You gather techniques to become competent then workmanlike then artisan. You invent or invest in technology to gain an advantage producing better material than your competition.

Material has customers rather than consumers. Your material must be top notch, it’s not just a snack between courses — it is a product in its own sense.

I’d love to hear suggestions of other words. Even if they aren’t used in conversation, I think clearer definition helps you think about things more strategically and accurately. The power of language is only beaten by the power of the meaning and association that underlies it.

What would you call content to make you appreciate it more?

Photo Credit: ch.weidinger via Compfight cc

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.

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

Check out the recording below for our thoughts.

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

In the effort to rule their industry, almost every player has ended up churning out the same old slurry by neglecting a key element of creating great stories.

It comes down to this: the world doesn’t need more content, it needs better editors.

A good editor establishes a fair, consistent point of view. They bring priorities, standards. They understand when to say no — and why.

It’s a concept that (forgive me) Steve Jobs brought to Apple, and rings through its most heartfelt advertising.

Leave it out

It’s not an instinct that everyone has. And marketers need to get a grip on this fact.

Too many marketing teams are kidding themselves that they can write, interview, or unlock the extra essence that takes the finished product to the next level.

And that word: ‘content’. It’s like calling a beautiful crafted cup of coffee a beverage. It misses what the substance is all about.

That’s not to say these teams are all awful, but look at it this way. While they trudge our generic slurry, there’s a huge crowd of talented, struggling, born creators that basically can’t manage to monetise their passion for what they love.

May contain posts

And what about form? Great editors know form and content are two sides of the same coin. In publishing, we’re seeing a grand resurgence of open-minded experimentation with how you present a story.

Forget Snow Fall, it doesn’t have to be anything so grand. Just presenting material in the way it’s going to be useful is improvement enough. And no, that doesn’t mean an infographic.

It means questions like: Why would you launch a blog with ‘tags’ or ‘archive’ in the sidebar? Why would you call it a blog, what does that mean in 2014? What could it mean?

What should it mean strategically for your business and what does it need to mean to stand out to readers and keep them coming back for more?

The real measure

Finally, good editors know how to measure progress and success. But they don’t just enslave themselves to making arbitrary numbers bigger.

They find a balance between instinct and iteration, confident enough to take chances and walk a more irrational path where their intuition dictates. But cautious enough never to lead everyone off the cliff.

Some of that comes with experience. Experience you won’t get by simply sitting your junior marketing person down in front of WordPress. The world of telling great stories that generate value for your business deserves a more dignified and confident approach. But the first step is admitting you have a problem

Forget content, find yourself a real editor.

(Originally published as a guest post for Econsultancy.)

“The internet is like an endless gong show for advertisers, with consumers only too willing and able to kill your interruption with a quick click of a red cross. This isn’t a “threat”, it’s a return to a more natural balance.”

Read the full post: Marketers and Time