The two biggest PR agencies faced off last week in the pages of Jack O’Dwyer’s PR Daily. At issue: Which one was the 800-pound gorilla?
As if it mattered to the rest of us.
The chance of a small to medium-sized business working with one of their principals is remote. Not for a pathetic $10,000 per month. Working with the top guns in a small agency can be a lot more rewarding than meeting with the bottom guys of a big agency. More drive, more attention, more creative juice.
Recently, in a significant column on the passing of an advertising era, Chris Maher said, “I believe that one person with good ideas can be more powerful than the biggest agency on earth.”
Amen to that! At all levels in a field as battered as public relations, we need to get creative. It is deadly to believe there is an acceptable old way of doing things that somehow maps out the new conditions under which we work.
The Changed Ground
Now that the Internet has irrevocably exploded the communications monopoly enjoyed by publishers of top-down print and broadcast media, it’s clearly time to explore new creative options. The ground has shifted so rapidly that too many PR people continue to deliver products that no longer work to a media world that no longer exists.
Old PR depended on old media. The routine of expense accounts, parties, golf, and three-martini lunches with powerful editors who could make or break a campaign was fun – it still is – but not particularly creative. And with the decentralization of media, hardly effective.
New PR depends on new media, more a neural network of interactions than a broadcast channel. Every reader is a publisher; every click a vote in the marketplace of ideas, goods, and services. It is a data-rich world where every click and byte of each information transaction can be tracked through fortune cookies. Too various to be dominated, new media is a world that demands a creative response.
In the planning and evaluation of advertising and PR programs, we rely on metrics to deliver hard, digital, scientific data. The creative is the flip side of those attributes: soft, analog, intuitive. We’ve got the metrics down. It’s the creative that’s gone missing.
How Does the Creative Work in PR?
Being creative about PR means having some dynamic idea of what works and what doesn’t. Getting bloodied in the mosh pit of dot-coms and start-ups helps; getting embedded in the bureaucracy of a giant agency doesn’t – at least not much. Either way, in PR, creativity needs to be applied wall to wall.
Reaching out for new media is one creative action; evaluating the mix of print, broadcast, and online media is another. Creation and production of video news releases usually bring out creative PR agency resources, but what about targeting online streaming audio? IMG2, for example, has “The Webmaster Show,” a nationally syndicated radio show that broadcasts to between four and five million people every week via streaming Internet radio. Or, how about a creative day picking through the current crop of e-zines or studying writers’ beats?
This is an easy area in which to be uncreative. Sorting through email, fax, phone, and hand-delivered distribution options, we often make the knee-jerk choice. Here’s a case where I blew it through uncreative, in-the-box thinking.
You have to be on the receiving end to realize how pathetic press releases really are. The odds that any basic product release will fall into the editorial schedule of an editor or writer is about the same as those faced by a lowly spermatozoon swimming hostile waters north to the ovum.
Even knowing this, under severe time pressure, I shelled out more than $1,000 to distribute a release through one of the two major news distribution services. It bombed. Totally! All pickups of the story were a result of personal contact, direct emails, and heavy phone work. Sure, there are specific reasons to use news-release distribution services, but general distribution of a product release is not one of them.
I just acted reflexively, recalling the days a press release crossing a major commercial wire service might get picked up and into the hands of people who would actually read it.
The writers, the readers, and the media have all changed. It just doesn’t work like this anymore.
Copywriting and Production
These are obvious areas for creative work: headlines, subheads, leads, and email subject lines. In fact, though, the dead hand of tradition rules here with a blue pencil. What you generally see are boring releases filled with gobbledygook, boilerplate, and quotes nobody this side of election debates would ever actually utter.
When it comes to production, there is a crying need for creative input. Should we use HTML or plain text, or should we email full PR releases or link to web pages? What about photos, color, themes, jokes, dark humor, or stark seriousness? At one time or another, all work.
Maybe the most important thing a PR group really does is help a company nail down its positioning: what this company is in the world and how its product stands apart from others in the field. The few words expressing the corporate essence are at the heart of strategic creativity.