Why PRs are jumping on the VR bandwagon

Increasingly, brands doing a public relations push are turning to virtual reality - whether its activations at events, promotional VR films or simply giving away headsets. Abigail Dawson speaks to communications professionals to find out if it's worth the hype and how to take advantage of the PR and branding opportunities VR offers, while avoiding the 'gimmick' factor.

Virtual Reality. VR. You’ve heard the phrase. Read about brands doing VR activations in shopping centres, at events and as part of competitions – and probably seen instances where the term is being misused simply to attract attention. Whether or not brands are using it properly though, there is no denying VR is rapidly increasing its presence in adland. PR companies are not immune – jumping on board in an attempt to enhance their brands and products, and earn media. 

For PR agencies, the new technology is becoming an increasingly popular offering, seemingly giving them more options for creativity and innovation. But what can PR agencies actually do for their clients with VR?

For the founder of digital agency Afk, James Sugrue, the VR world offers  experiences consumers can immerse themselves in – which cannot be achieved by other channels.

Sugrue says: “It really requires goo- quality content and that’s what has been perhaps lacking”

“It opens up a whole new type of branding experience, the technology allows the brands to do a lot more to really excite their customers – but there has to be a really good narrative. The content has to be really really good and there has to be a narrative in there that makes the consumer want to engage,” he says.

UX and design director at Edelman Australia, Ian Shying, agreed with the digital agency boss, attributing VR’s popularity with PRs to its ability to drive innovation, tell stories, and attract consumer and media attention.

Shying says: “It offers an opportunity to really connect with people on an emotional level”

“PR has always been about earning people’s attention and telling brand stories, and VR is really a natural extension of that history.

“VR is generally coming of age, a lot of the tech limitations are being overcome and we are now in a position to create those really incredible experiences. Once they’ve experienced it, they really get it and it then becomes top of mind potential solutions for those clients and to us, pitching ideas.

“It gives us new opportunities to tell more immersive brand stories and not just linear brand stories as well to really give people an experience they can’t have any other way.

“It offers an opportunity to really connect with people on an emotional level, unlike a lot of other mediums, and while its new it’s still really news worthy, the key is avoiding the gimmick factor and making sure that it’s still story first and technology second,” says Shying.

Its development and presence in the market ultimately comes back to what clients want – innovation – says Russ Tucker, creative director at Eleven and FleishmanHillard.

Tucker says: “V,R like all tech trends, is not more than tech unless it has an idea”

“Clients want innovation, not specifically VR in briefs. Good agencies are using VR as a story telling tool, to push an idea or experience.

“As tech develops, we might see more VR application in how we communicate with clients and share ideas,” Russ continues.

Although it has its benefits to adland and ways of fast-tracking innovation, Roberto Pace, managing director at Eleven, suggests PRs should keep storytelling as the primary focus – using the technology only to enhance innovation and the ideas they’ve already formulated.

Pace says “PRs should always look at ways to be better story tellers”

“PR’s should always look at ways to be better story tellers. VR is one way of doing this, but we shouldn’t ever rely on the tech, VR or other, be the hero.

“The future for PRs is about creating culture with VR and the likes being a way to facilitate it, but not be the story itself,” he says.

Sugrue agrees, saying the content provided by PR agencies is key, urging agencies to keep storytelling and decent content at the centre of the task.

“It really requires good quality content and that’s what has been perhaps lacking.

“The key thing in the VR experience is the narrative, making sure that the narrative is really really compelling and its been well thought through,” he says.

Edelman’s Shying concurs, saying the focus shouldn’t be on the technology itself but rather the emotional experience the technology can deliver, reiterating that brands must understand how the experience can help bring the client’s story to life.

Looking to the future, he says although VR isn’t changing PR, the industry as a whole is only just scratching the surface of the technology – leaving a lot of room to grow.

“I’m not sure that VR is really changing PR, the game is always the same, but I think it’s the technology and the environment around technology and PR that’s constantly changing, and why we need to constantly evolve with those changes.

“We are only really scratching the surface of VR, its only just now becoming viable and it still really hasn’t hit the main stream,” says Shying.

The digital agency boss Sugue agrees, saying the technology is still young and has a long way to go.

In order for it to reach its full potential in the PR world, agencies need to “be a little bit brave and jump into the space and not be be afraid of giving it a go and just experimenting with it”, he says.

“We need brands to be braver, VR is not going away – you can tell by the growth.

“One of the biggest issues is brands don’t jump on this curve at an earlier point. If they start to jump in now and do some projects they get a bank of knowledge that they can then proceed with and make better content and understand the technology better.

“Brands just don’t jump on new tech and really embrace it until it becomes more main stream,” he explains.

The resistance to try something new is one of the biggest challenges for VR in adland, says Sugue, urging clients to take more risks.

“There’s  a really good opportunity here for brands to get on that curve with just the right time and to build up their bank of knowledge and to become market leaders in the space – in order to do that it takes brave clients that are willing to make mistakes in the early days to become pioneers of it.”


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