Don Draper should be working in PR

henry biggsIn this guest post, PR practitioner Henry Biggs argues that if he were alive today (and not in America and a fictional character) Don Draper would work in public relations.

I was late in getting in to the Mad Men phenomenon but just a couple of episodes in and I was ordering the box set and planning a five-series marathon. But as I watched, it occurred to me that that is all Mad Men is, a period piece no more pertinent to the modern media landscape than Mr Darcy striding around in his breeches is to the Britain I just left.

Advertising is no longer the default message delivery choice as we leave behind the culture of consumerism to enter what is being dubbed the age of engagement. As bought media begins to bow out, it is PR-driven earned media that is in the ascendancy.

As Andy Lark, CommBank CMO, said in his recent CommsCon address: “Any CMO worth their salt is willing to pour heaps and heaps of dollars into PR and PR programs because they are super-effective and super-efficient.”

don draper drinkOld Fashioned isn’t simply Don Draper’s drink of choice it is also an apt (if trite) descriptor of that traditional form of advertising in the post-social media world. Obviously agencies are taking notice given the number of advertising and creative firms growing their PR offering. Obviously every discipline has a valuable role to play but increasingly PR deserves, and is justifying, its place at the head of the table.

Clearly I am open to accusations of being partisan but the facts are there to support the view that social media has changed the game. A recent Neilsen survey of 28,000 people globally found less than half now trust TV, magazine and newspaper ads – decreases of 24, 20 and 25 per cent respectively in the last five years. The same time frame saw an 18 per cent increase in trust in earned media, up to an astonishing 92 per cent. Owned media is seeing a similar trend with nearly 60 per cent of consumers trusting company websites and half having faith in the email marketing they opt into.

The key here is engagement through conversation and this is where PR has always excelled.

Advertising and direct marketing has always been a one-way conduit, telling people what they should be eating, drinking, wearing and washing with whereas PR’s role has been in creating a dialogue with the media and listening and responding to the voice of the consumer.

Previously consumers have only been able to eavesdrop on this conversation, but thanks to digital and social media, brands have the opportunity to engage in a two-way discussion directly with their customers. This is public relations in its truest sense and it is the PR companies that are in the strongest position to start and manage these dialogues to create and build strong, trusted relationships. A viral video can be shot in hi-def on a Canon 5D and edited on a Macbook Air, exactly the sort of flexible, responsive, even ribald, conversational content that PR has always been strong in.

The rampant consumerism epitomised by Don Draper’s Baby Boomer generation has been displaced by a softer, more informed version driven by the Millennials or Gen Y. According to a survey carried out in 2011 these Connected Consumers are ready to engage with brands that demonstrate empathy and which they feel cares about them.

They are also very brand loyal – 70 per cent will keep coming back to a company they like, 58 per cent will share personal info with a brand they trust and a massive 86 per cent will share their brand preference online.

Social media is the ultimate Word of Mouth; 36 per cent of Millennials said they have purchased a product that was introduced to them by a friend in the preceding week either directly or by sharing earned media. Facebook is the gateway into the social web but Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest are the windows to engagement; sharing is the new selling.

Brands themselves are becoming their own channels as consumers’ interest in traditional media wanes. Brands now have networks with more followers than media companies. For example, Coca-Cola has more than 60m fans on Facebook whereas CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC combined reach an estimated 35 million people in the US. The Top 10 brands on Facebook have a median of more than 4.5 million fans.

Consumers are the co-creators of your brand through sharing experiences on social networks and the results of online searches and interactions. These are audience, ambassadors and influencers rolled into one and they take their cues not from advertising but from media they trust; bloggers, consumer websites and the Twitteratti. Connecting up all these spheres of influence and using them to deliver coherent, consistent content is where PR excels and can contribute the most to the overall marketing effort.

Digital and social platforms mean that earned media has huge consumer confidence and engagement so it makes sense that PR agencies take the creative lead and develop the strategy and messaging across all the communications conduits. Advertising may be able to place a billboard on a brick wall but it is PR-driven emotional engagement that prompts people to Tweet, Like and Share your brand’s message on their Facebook wall. Content is no longer king, it is everything.

The last word can goes to Andy Lark: “You should be the owners of content, you should be developing content and managing communities… So walk through the door and say I’ve got a better way to build brands and sell products and it’s called PR and this is what it looks like.” As PR practitioners our challenge now of course is to seize this opportunity.

If he were around today, Don Draper would probably be working in PR.

Henry Biggs is the creative and content director of PR agency Stellar Concepts


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