CommsCon: The public relations seven-year itch

After presenting at Mumbrella CommsCon last week, Poem co-founder and managing director, Rob Lowe, recaps his session on how Gen Z is shaping culture, and how comms professionals must learn to evolve.

I’ve been trying to scratch an itch recently that’s been bothering me.

A shift has been happening the last year or so and it’s always a little uncomfortable when this happens. It’s a power shift, a cultural shift, an industry shift. It happens at the point when the new generation starts to own the cultural narrative and what was once niche becomes a mainstream influence.

Gen Z culture is driving what’s being shared, what’s being talked about, and how it’s being talked about. They’re influencing media headlines and completely shaping how the media works.

That’s an issue, because it means traditional practices will become less effective and we need to evolve in order to keep our clients relevant.

Speaking to a packed room at Mumbrella CommsCon

To understand why and what is happening, it’s useful to look at when this has happened in the past.

Public relations’ seven year itch

Consumer PR has always evolved as society has evolved.

I believe there’s been 4 major periods of change that have happened roughly every 7 years since 2000. I think of it as the public relations equivalent of the seven year itch.

Media first PR (2001 – 2008):

It used to be that traditional media (TV, magazines, newspapers and radio) had a monopoly on people’s attention. It was the only way people could find out what was happening in the world, see the latest culture trends, form opinions on society and give them something to identify with. It gave the media a disproportionate amount of power.

It made sense for PR at this time to focus on media relationships and ways to influence media to write about brands and the goal was to get as much of this as possible.

Earned creative PR (2008 – 2015):

Then roughly 15 years ago, social media became a new consideration. People got inundated with information and were forced to triage what information to take in and what to ignore. Brands were forced to fight for attention in order to engage people. As the media landscape fragmented, ‘creativity’ was at a premium in order to stand out from the crowd.

Being creative was the super power in PR causing many agencies (including Poem) to rebrand as ‘earned creative’ specialists.

Consumer first PR (2015 – 2022):

Then, tools like YouTube, Instagram and finally TikTok, radically changed the balance of power between media and consumers, by democratising the ability to create content. Suddenly anyone could create content and share it with the world. It cost people nothing compared to what the media or advertisers were spending to create content and was 10x more engaging. It gave birth to creators and influencers, some of whom now are more influential than the most powerful media houses.

Consumers, not media, now had the power and consumer PR became a consumer centric skillset which required you to ask ‘Why will people care?’ first before asking ‘Why will media care?’

Consumer Culture led PR (2022 – now):

But now something new is happening…again!

Technology has provided us with the ability to communicate, create, share and explore content around the world in more intricate and personalised ways than ever before. Yes the media landscape has fragmented more, but more importantly, so has culture and our ability to immerse ourselves and explore niche interests. Culture now is fluid, constantly changing and driven by micro trends, entertainment and global reaching creators. People’s identities and social value is increasingly influenced by these micro trends, that start on the Internet and social channels like TikTok.

Our job now is to help brands be more human and earn a place in culture in order to be heard. They need to be as relevant to what people are sharing as what media are saying.

Here are 5 take outs to think about implementing:

1. A new formula for fame

Brands now need to consider not only what they’re going to say, but why people are going to care, and how this is going to be relevant to what’s happening in culture.

Poem’s campaign for Uber Carshare with Valtteri Bottas is a great example of this. As of my presentation at CommsCon, the hero content had over 25m organic views and editorial coverage has appeared around the world.

2. Merging of Social and PR

As PR professionals, we know how to run a tight press office. But as I have (hopefully) made obvious by now, the press office we once knew is increasingly only talking to a minority. PR and social are no longer separate departments with separate skill sets. The best PR professionals understand social trends, behaviour and content, and the best social media managers understand what is newsworthy and interesting about what the brand wants to say.

At Poem, we have adapted our press office model to our social retainers. So the teams are blended to create content that’s fast, reactive, culture-relevant and always evolving. We call it a ‘social press office’.

3. Culture led insights across media and social

Brand teams can’t be expected to know what’s going on in culture week to week. They’re too busy doing their own jobs. It’s our jobs as comms experts to be on the pulse of what’s happening, advise our clients and always keep them on the face of every cultural wave.

At Poem we run a program called Poem Pulse. This is a weekly meeting that looks at organic search trends, social listening, trending influencer content and feedback we’ve gotten from the team’s weekly journalist meet and greets.

4. Human content creation is at a premium

We have to educate the industry that overly produced brand content doesn’t always work. We have to create content in the same way consumers do and that means letting go of some control, creating on the fly, always evolving and removing a layer of polish.

The numbers show that this is the future of how to drive effective attention.

5. Human content increasingly performs better than advertising so invest paid in it

We need to work with media companies that understand internet culture, the need to test, optimise and target people with ‘human’ content on more channels than just the traditional ones in order to create cost effective and impactful results that drive a bigger impression than the impressions you pay for.

If you only remember four things from this article let these be it.

  • We’ve gone from editorial media first, to consumer first, to culture first
  • Brands need our help to be more human
  • PR teams need to be as much in culture as they are media
  • Earned content will increasingly out perform advertising

Rob Lowe is co-founder and managing director at Poem.


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