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What the Heck is PR anyway?

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What the “P” and “R” in public relations stands for in the digital age of always on media and fragmenting consumption habits is open to interpretation but the future for the sector is in the hands of its practitioners, writes Jane McDaid.

When asked to contribute an article on ‘The Future of PR’ for the ‘PR edition of IMJ’, I first stop and ask myself; “‘Well, what do people think PR is and is it the same as my definition of what it is or is it completely different?”

So, whatever people’s perception of PR is, it’s their perception for a reason. Firstly, perhaps the industry has fuelled and shaped their opinion of what ‘PR’ is. Secondly, their own personal experience with ‘PR people’ (good and bad) have shaped what they think PR is. For others, perhaps the more enlightened, they’re happy to say, “I really don’t know what PR is.” And that’s ok too.

Generally, there’s an agreement that the letters P and R stand for Public Relations. But I think the agreement starts and ends there. If even.

Firstly – what’s public? Are we, the brands, brand guardians and marketers, not public too?

And Secondly – what are relations? The way we talk to people? The words we use, the colours we use, the methods we use, the movement we use, the energy we portray?

What’s a relationship? A one-night stand, a marriage, a quick fling?

So many questions.

The answer, in my opinion is that the term PR comes with a weighty, negative, old-school reputation that itself needs a rebrand. Public is no longer relevant as a word – we are no longer ‘engaging with public’ – we are all humans, engaging with humans. In a world where the guiding principles of ‘relationships’ or ‘relations’ (between organizations and brands) have fundamentally changed from a world of ‘loyalty’ and ‘relationships’ to a one that’s comfortable with, and excited by, exploration, curiosity and promiscuity.

So, now that we don’t know what PR is, what lies ahead for the professionals who’ve spent years, or even decades, trying to reassert the values of traditional PR?

Well firstly, we ask ourselves: ‘In the future, how will people get or read news?’

To understand the future, we need to understand the habits of young people. The Youth Lab, Thinkhouse’s insights team, unlocked the true news habits of today’s young people. Not surprisingly, we know that ‘digital sources’ are their number one news source. Young people today do not designate time, like previous generations, to catch up on world, local or celebrity news. Instead, it is integrated as part of their day, be it through conversations with their peers or as a result of their always-on social media culture.

However, today, news is speed-read with only 16% of young people reading word-by-word. News publishers that we spoke to as part of this survey / exploration, have admitted that getting young people’s attention ‘seems unattainable’ and instead they ‘seek glances’ – indicating that news outlets themselves are challenged when attempting to connect with this audience.

Getting young people’s attention ‘seems unattainable’ and instead they ‘seek glances’ – indicating that news outlets themselves are challenged when attempting to connect with this audience.

Today, young people’s trust levels in news sources are lower than ever before. Clickbait, fake news and, increasingly, fake ads have all caused a serious questioning of what is legitimate or authentic anymore. This scepticism is reinforcing consumers’ need for peer reviews as these are considered to be a more trustworthy news source.

This need has given rise to the emergence of prosumers (professional consumers) who are today’s evangelists of consumer confusion – helping consumers see through the click-bait, the fake ads and the hashtag ad content. This insight presents us with an opportunity. Now, we need to tell our stories through a new lens. We need to generate earned opinions and improve the searchability of trusted, sources, helping consumers see what’s to be trusted and believed and what isn’t.

What about media and journalists?

How will they respond to this new world? Well, we asked them. In response to this new world, Irish journalists are searching for news and stories that are real and true to human needs and interests. They also want news and stories that are valuable so that the reader feels rewarded for spending time reading it and maybe prompts a new thought. In addition, they are also looking for something that is contagious and infectious in its immediacy- something that will bring genuine excitement to the reader and a feeling that they’re finding something first or early.

In reaching beyond Ireland, to media who are responsible for writing stories for an international audience, they sought to write content that was: ‘practical’, ‘will have impact’, ‘will be relatable’. They also talked about resourcefulness in story hunting – outlining how they are aiming to unlock and write stories in an ‘affordable’ way. As we build our stories as brands, we need to consider these needs and create ideas that possess these characteristics.

If people want opinions, not facts, then how do we do this?

In asking ourselves what the future of brand marketing, or PR, looks like, let’s not just focus on the facts. Let’s focus on our opinion, on other people’s opinions. In assessing a brand story, or an idea – don’t ask ourselves, is it ‘PR-able’? Ask ourselves ‘is it true?’ and ‘who will actually give a shit about this?’

Finally, we ask ourselves, ‘What about the skills of a traditional PR person – are their skills relevant? The answer is yes. There’s always room for smart marketing people, and agencies, who invest time in deeply understanding the audience. There’s always room for phenomenal writing, beautiful imagery, compelling stories told in a creative, real, valuable and contagious way. How we do that, is up to us. There are no rules, no codes of behavior – they’re dead long ago. They’re the past. The future is what we make it. What P and R stands for, is up to us.

Jane McDaid, founder and creative director at Thinkhouse.

First published in Irish Marketing Journal (IMJ September 2017)© to order back issues please call 016611660