Opinion

‘That’s not a PR idea’: Why it’s time to leave labels behind

303 MullenLowe's Lee Robson discusses the opportunities that lie in getting PR out of its pigeonhole.

“That’s not a PR idea” was a phrase I used to hear a lot earlier in my career. Back in the noughties, breaking out of your agency silo was particularly hard, and it’s gut-wrenching to think how many great ideas never saw the light of day because they were deemed to have stepped outside an agency’s patch of grass.

Attempts to ring-fence PR in or take bites out of it have been a consistent by-product of convergence. The rise of social media agencies and departments meant what used to be PR ideas executed across social media were increasingly annexed and ring-fenced by social media professionals. Media agencies started creating shareable content and SEO agencies began publishing and distributing news and opinion-led articles.

It was okay though; only PRs knew how to influence journalists and deliver earned media. Which was fine to cling onto until one day everyone began looking around to find that there appeared to be a lot less journalists than there used to be, with traditional outlets reaching fewer people.

Those already sceptical about the role of PR were able to question more than ever what the discipline brought to the table, and where the creative points of difference lay.

The discipline of creativity

Entering the hyper-bundled world of the full-service agency – where creativity is virtually dripping off the walls but there is still a need to harness and channel it – appreciating the value of good PR ideation is as important as ever, though the opportunity to be leveraged by ingraining that understanding in all channels and disciplines is greater than it ever has been.

Creativity exists as a commodity and a dedicated resource in full-service agencies, quite different to the conventional PR agency set-up. As someone who’s spent much of their career switching creativity on and off when I’m required to do so, the ability to tap into a pool of creatives whose reason for getting out of bed five days a week is to have ideas, is both empowering and liberating.

But as well as being a gift, creativity is also a discipline and disciplines are shaped and moulded by the structures and expectations of the models they are formed and operate within. Which is another way of saying, innate creativity doesn’t automatically lead to good PR ideation. So what does?

Unfinished stories

Engaging PR doesn’t come off a conveyor belt. Proprietary planning and creative processes of course help, but they’re still no guarantee your rigorously crafted strategy and creative will be any more engaging than the lightbulb moment from a talented account manager operating in the thick of it.

A key challenge lies in trying to delineate between different types of creativity and their channel outputs. We’re all storytellers in the media and creative industries. Engaging with consumers, creating emotional connections… no one channel or discipline can lay sole claim to these ambitions. The key difference lies in how far we try to lead our audiences along this path.

Creatives are masters of the art of shaping their story into whatever channel and duration they’re challenged with. But typically, the solution lies in delivering a beautifully packaged beginning, middle and end.

As PRs, the last thing we want to do is finish the story ourselves; we want to pass that privilege over to our audiences. If we’ve taken our readers to the last page, what reason is there for them to ever pick up the book again?

Architects of intrigue

Tapping into, or creating, moments of cultural relevance are undoubtedly among the best articulations of PR’s biggest value add. That’s what the discipline brings to the table that other channels aren’t engineered to deliver as effectively.

Good PRs are outward looking every bit as much as they are focussed on their own message. They’re architects of intrigue but crucially they’re conscious of context. That’s where the vital importance of empathy comes in and the ability every good PR should have to transport themselves into the shoes of both the audiences they’re targeting and the journalists and influencers who remain a crucial conduit for their messages.

For me, the litmus test for what makes a good PR idea in nine out of 10 cases still comes down to whether or not the idea can be seen in a headline. I’m not suggesting column inches must be the end goal, but I still believe that if you can’t imagine your idea flowing as a news story then there is probably something fundamentally flawed with its value as a talking point.

A few metres of carpet

The principles of good PR can be learned and developed, but challenges still lie in communication and receptivity among those not au fait with the practice. The difference between cross-discipline idea and information sharing when separated by a postcode or just a few metres of carpet is immense. I don’t care how in tune you are culturally and ideologically with your partner agencies, there’s no substitute for being able to swivel round on your chair and ask somebody a question who knows more about their specialism than you do.

No matter how good you think you are, it’s no longer enough to be an expert in your own field of marcomms; you have to be a good multi-channel integrated solutions provider and you can’t do that without access to all the channels, disciplines and experts at your disposal.

So what does make a good PR idea? There are plenty of guides and checklists out there to be found with principles and key components to be followed, but I’d rather round things off with the more affirming reminder that PR, like every field of creativity, is subjective and ever-evolving.

It can’t and shouldn’t be owned, boxed up and shielded, despite the temptation to do just that as channel borders and boundaries continue to blur.

Audiences don’t consume information and entertainment in paid, owned, earned and shared silos and they don’t care how we label and package our ideas and executions. But we do want them to care and good PR is still the best way of eliciting the desire to share an emotional reaction to something.

There should only be two definitions of ideas: good or not good. If they’re good, there’s a strong chance there’s PR value in there to be leveraged somewhere, but if you find that’s not where the value lies, don’t allow the opportunity to wither and die. A good idea deserves the chance to grow, even if that means planting the seed outside your own patch of grass and being content to simply enjoy the view.

Lee Robson joined 303 MullenLowe as managing partner, communications in November.

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