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A small visit to the Economist’s Big Rethink event got me… thinking.

I never fail to be amazed by the way some marketers talk of the time before I arrived in this industry.

On one hand, there’s all this chat about data. As if marketers used to operate by a kind of soothsaying intuition, divining the thoughts of audiences like oracles to the Gods. Maybe it was this way. But I doubt it.

On the other hand, there’s discussion of some heady, halcyon days when audiences had no way to avoid marketing messages. When you could just pump cash into channels and guarantee your target had it rubbed in their face.

By contrast, they seem to bemoan the fact that, today, you have to actually create material people want to pay attention to. They speak with a mottled nostalgia for the power and influence over opinion that money once bequeathed them. Can that be for real?

But (and without using the increasingly over-employed term ‘democratisation’) I think there’s something even more important in all this. And it gets to the root of why the PR and communications function is so important today.

And maybe it’s something that was always true in the background somewhere.

Control

There was a time when control — of the media, of audiences’ attention etc was a matter of buying space in the right place at the right time. PR relationships were ultimately just another way to buy media attention to complement your adverts. They’d force stories into the media simply because a journalist owed them a favour.

All of this created a warped and broken feedback loop. A great, effective story needs an engaged, interested audience. That’s how you know you’re onto something. One of a brand’s key missions, especially up front should be finding a sort of message/market fit, as one facet of their product/market fit.

If you cut out a key feedback signal i.e. “your story is boring/ this isn’t news/ I don’t want to watch this advert and stupid patronising message”, then you eliminate a key, valuable signal that tells you your story isn’t good enough. That you don’t have the right fit yet. And so, you never get better.

The right to better

If it sounds like I’m talking about some form of reputational justice here — where those doing something good and finding a story that matters are rewarded — that’s no coincidence.

In a time where this is so important, I believe there’s something to be said for the idea every company deserves the best possible shot at declaring and communicating what makes them great. Today’s brutal brand transparency should be empowering those organisations who are genuinely doing a good job. But that is only true if they can communicate what makes them great with clarity and power.

Just as lawyers must represent their client in court, agencies should look at their responsibility as identifying companies’ singular, core strengths and help them express that to thrive. Of course, noise alone won’t get them far, so the measurement, the strategy tied tightly to real business objectives — all these pragmatic elements are essential too.

But at its heart, the right to a good story is something I think even the worst and most incompetent companies should be able to enjoy. Because then, once you have given them every chance, if you still find them wanting, it’s because they are genuinely inferior or flawed.

Just recently, Danny Whatmough and I were discussing the future of PR tech on our semi-regular podcast “Digital Wake”. I’ve embedded it below (so now’s a good time to catch up…)

Toward the end of our discussion, we agreed there’s a long sprawling tail of agency-shaped businesses that know they could be adapting and upgrading their offering — but just don’t know how.

We must acknowledge that outdated techniques are not just suboptimal for those who deliver them — but bad for us all (not to mention the poor bloody clients.)

It’s with that in mind, that we’ve taken great pleasure working with Prezly and Stephen Waddington to launch a couple of initiatives next week — designed precisely to narrow this divide. In PR, there will be no such thing as the digital haves and have nots. Anyone will be able to find the tools they need — and implement them with smart strategy and advice.

#PRstack

#PRstack is the initiative that started it all — a creation of the indomitable Stephen Waddington, fresh off his year-long CIPR presidential stint. What began as a crowdsourced Google Doc, has quickly grown to over 150 tools for PRs in areas from measurement to management.

Prezly has stepped up to build a simple interface that makes it easy for any PR to find tools fit for purpose and get a short description of key characteristics. The new #PRstack front end is, quite simply, made for you.

PRgeeks.co

But if it was a matter of just finding the tools, this problem would have been solved long ago. In tandem, Prezly has created PRgeeks.co, a resource that guides everyone from novices to masters on putting #PRstack tools straight into practice.

And, just for good measure, it has a ton of useful top 5s as well, including everything from who to follow on Twitter to which regular PRchats will help unlock your inner PR Geek. Check it out.

We’ve got the PRCA on board (since I help run the technology group.) We’ve got the CIPR on board (through @GemGriff) and Stephen Waddington), we’ve got the infamous TechJPR group (formerly UKTJPR) involved. And we’re working on the rest.

This industry will only change if we take action. The breadth of tools and skills needed to understand great communications strategy today is greater than ever. But the ways in which they actually simplify our focus are often underestimated.

These tools and techniques are key to everyone doing a great job in PR. I hope you’ll all support and promote them as much as we plan to at Augur.

Just recently, Danny Whatmough and I were discussing the future of PR tech on our semi-regular podcast “Digital Wake”. I’ve embedded it below (so now’s a good time to catch up…)

Toward the end of our discussion, we agreed there’s a long sprawling tail of agency-shaped businesses that know they could be adapting and upgrading their offering — but just don’t know how.

We must acknowledge that outdated techniques are not just suboptimal for those who deliver them — but bad for us all (not to mention the poor bloody clients.)

It’s with that in mind, that we’ve taken great pleasure working with Prezly and Stephen Waddington to launch a couple of initiatives next week — designed precisely to narrow this divide. In PR, there will be no such thing as the digital haves and have nots. Anyone will be able to find the tools they need — and implement them with smart strategy and advice.

#PRstack

#PRstack is the initiative that started it all — a creation of the indomitable Stephen Waddington, fresh off his year-long CIPR presidential stint. What began as a crowdsourced Google Doc, has quickly grown to over 150 tools for PRs in areas from measurement to management.

Prezly has stepped up to build a simple interface that makes it easy for any PR to find tools fit for purpose and get a short description of key characteristics. The new #PRstack front end is, quite simply, made for you.

PRgeeks.co

But if it was a matter of just finding the tools, this problem would have been solved long ago. In tandem, Prezly has created PRgeeks.co, a resource that guides everyone from novices to masters on putting #PRstack tools straight into practice.

And, just for good measure, it has a ton of useful top 5s as well, including everything from who to follow on Twitter to which regular PRchats will help unlock your inner PR Geek. Check it out.

We’ve got the PRCA on board (since I help run the technology group.) We’ve got the CIPR on board (through @GemGriff) and Stephen Waddington), we’ve got the infamous TechJPR group (formerly UKTJPR) involved. And we’re working on the rest.

This industry will only change if we take action. The breadth of tools and skills needed to understand great communications strategy today is greater than ever. But the ways in which they actually simplify our focus are often underestimated.

These tools and techniques are key to everyone doing a great job in PR. I hope you’ll all support and promote them as much as we plan to at Augur.

Today, if you can imagine something, it’s easier than ever to create it. But in such a world, where anything is possible, intent has become crucial. Why must this particular thing exist?

At the same time, it’s not rare to see competitors race ahead of worthier foes simply by virtue of communicating their take on that ‘why’ with more volume or more breadth. It’s clear that even though you are patently great at what you do, that doesn’t immediately equip you to squeeze every drop of value out of your story.

It doesn’t have to be like this. And for Augur, this leads in to why we believe great PR matters today.

Augur is built on a simple concept:

“If you can communicate your true strength accurately, success will follow.”

Reputation reputation reputation

More than ever, PR and communications strategy isn’t a glossy sheen applied at the last minute, (or worse: in moments of crisis), it’s rooted in the bones of a good business. It’s exhaled with the excellence of your service.

PR has historically claimed to help you punch above your weight. Today, it can help you put on real muscle instead. In a world where where your reputation is inevitably jabbed day in day out, this is more important than ever. Especially since those punches are often coming, not from trolls, but newly enfranchised stakeholders with a way to get real attention.

Only substance can weather such incessant scrutiny.

Getting started

In the last year, we’ve learned a lot and we’ve done a lot. The new systems and business model we are pioneering are now certified ISO compliant, we’re PRCA audited (as well as running the PRCA Technology group), we’re active CIPR a members, helped launch #PRstack, have worked with 20+ companies and have grown the team in our HQ at Somerset House.

The exciting thing about writing up what we’ve learned in these 12 quick months is not just the substance of how we have developed. It’s the prospect of where we, our work and our clients will be in another 12. Then another. And another.

Thank you to everyone that has given us the opportunity to prove PR can be better and do better. And welcome to everyone reading this who may be considering that remit.

We’re ready for the next stage. I hope we’ll see you there.

You may know we have more strings to our bow than just agency life here at Augur. We write — in this case for the Guardian, making the front page of the tech section.

It’s our strong opinion that great material has value. But, from music to writing, somewhere along the chain this perception of value faltered.

In the Guardian, we looked at where this started, what this means and how humans might cope with the diminishing respect (let alone cash) that we pay creators.

I can pinpoint the moment it all went wrong. “It holds 1,000 songs – and it goes right in my pocket,” he said. That’s when the value of digital content was irrevocably changed for the masses. No longer was it good enough to shuffle around an envelope of your five favourite albums or half a dozen mini discs. It became all or nothing.

 

Perhaps more than most, the technology community believes in its ability to transform how things are done. But when you apply that to government, the chain breaks. Seemingly, we’re only just generating the connections that directly link our technically savvy with our politically powerful.

Soma Salon is an effort founded by TechCrunch honcho M.Butcher and supported by a group including Jonathan MacDonald, David Bailey, Daniel Appelquist to address this need. To assemble multi-disciplinary experts, identify key themes, stimulate discussion and ultimately draw attention to the problems that matter from the technology industry’s point of view.

Yes, the perspective requested is broad but it’s through the technology lens that our interests focus on social areas like government, privacy, education and more.

Most importantly, it’s an attempt to do so that doesn’t just generate hot air. Sister group Soma Labs is the first output of the Salon, assembling a small team to help turn the discussion into addressable and specific challenges.

So, can it be done?

Mind the mind gap

Attending on Tuesday night, it took an hour or so for the attendees of maybe 60-70 to identify key topics for groups to split up and discuss. Having spun out into the media group (for obvious reasons), the conversation included 30 minutes of anecdotes, observations, short discussion and ideas about how the media landscape and publishing have changed.

We touched on native advertising, the responsibility of the mainstream newsfeed algorithms as the new equivalent of the mainstream media, the idea of a sort of ‘free advertising’ where material that was reacted to positively on networks should build up currency for the publisher, which they can then use to favour their posts in the feed.

Here’s three big ideas I’ve been thinking about since the conversation.

1. Organic posts, sharing and interaction already acts as a more meritocratic curating algorithm.

Yes, if a Facebook brand page posts something, they probably have to sponsor it to get it into your feed. But if three of your friends all post a link to an article or piece of material then Facebook probably wants to assume that’s something you’re interested in.

We obsess with the questions of how we get material to reach potential targets. But nothing will ever trump being great and interesting. Start slowly and build a genuinely interested community and spend five years growing it. Sustainable will always beat immediate.

2. What’s the incentive to create important journalism?

Maybe I’ve been reading too much Ben Thomson recently but I’ve become more and more interested in the topic of misaligned incentives. In the case of the media industry, they pursue traffic. That’s fine, a company can do what it chooses to generate profit.

But what’s the incentive for creating useful meaningful news, the kind of stuff that makes democracy tick instead of lurch? What news organisation is motivated by the impact of traffic (you’ve got to reach people after all) multiplied by the effectiveness with which is informs the populace with clear unbiased information. It doesn’t exist — maybe it can’t. No, screw that, of course it can. But first we need to pay careful attention.

3. Where’s the BBC of the algorithm world.

Few things make me proudly British rather than a member of the World. But one of them has to be the BBC. In a time when publishers drove what people paid attention to, it was awarded a mandate to break free from the forces that can corrupt news production. For better or worse, it was designed with a social purpose.

These days, the Facebook algorithm is classically held up as one of the ‘editorial systems’ that determines the kind of news most people see. So, if you were to try and achieve something with similar goals to the foundation of the BBC — but with today’s media landscape — how would you go about it?

Do we need a public sector algorithm, kind of news.gov.uk that’s designed to identify and reward rising stories not about beach bodies or drunk celebs but the themes that matter in a democracy? Will it always be a flawed attempt? Probably yes. But is it worth doing and would you benefit by iterating based on how it ran over time? I think definitely.

What’s to come

It’s clearly early days for the Soma initiative and its various moving parts. Passion is clear but all too often it fades before potency can follow. The fact of the matter is, there’s no value in being cynical about the potential of this group. It’s unproven. It follows in the footsteps of countless other attempts that didn’t manage to turn the hot air into inflation.

But if it produces even a few sprouts of progress, how can it not be worthwhile.

Hopefully we’ll see you at the next one and find out what role the tech community will play in this brave, new world.

Imagine if the most valuable thing you could offer was close relationships with journalists. Not to say there isn’t power and potential in those — but imagine if that was what your whole proposition hinged upon in 2014.

I can’t work out which way the chicken and egg of this value in the PR industry started — but it’s still one of those things people talk about when they talk about PR. Even some great companies approach Augur expecting us to talk about the strong links we have with major editors.

I think this perception is one layer too superficial vs PR’s real potential today. It’s one of the things  I talked about with Danny Whatmough on Digital Wake, our new semi-regular podcast about PR and technology (blame him prioritising his wedding over sitting with me in a soundproof room.) It also links up with Stephen Waddington’s recent #PRforPR campaign (more on that here.)

Why PR?

So what’s going on? And what about the voices out there in the PR industry who may be shouting “we’re good at the media relations thing, what’s so bad about that”?

Well, here’s the issue: we’re operating in a world where more or less all the marketing disciplines are converging on the same zone. Within that nexus, there’s one persistent priority. One point around which so much else revolves.

It’s the thing that comes before all the glitz and glamour of advertising, the chummy chatter of social or the obsessive optimisation of search.

PR can lead the charge in helping companies understand and articulate their Meaning.

PR fit for purpose

This is the opportunity. Because our industry has grown up sparring with the media, it has had a century’s head start in grappling with the scrutiny and cynicism of the journalistic mindset.

You couldn’t hope for a better training regime. Because PR has had to learn to harmonise with influential audiences for so long, it has become part of our way of operating. In the marketing multiplex, it defines the direction of our industry’s potential.

This is what I think we can focus on. Yes, journalists develop relationships with good PRs and yes there’s some value there. But they are the result of our real skill and specialisation: Identifying and amplifying a company’s meaning to tell its story, for whichever audience matters.

When it comes to propositions you can be proud of, I think that’s worth shouting about.

Photo Credit: Esparta via Compfight cc

(For the record, if you want to understand why it’s so important to say as little as possible, this video is a pretty good demo in itself too. At such moments, I sympathise for every client that I’ve advised to control their passion for the subject in favour of clarity.)

Material and Content

I’ve written before about the difficulties of the word “content”. It’s too often bandied around in discussions that lose sight of its meaning to viewers versus its importance in their strategy. And that blindness is costly.

But you quickly find yourself drawing on it because it’s the common reference. Much of the time, that will remain true.

Sometimes, however, it’s worth thinking again to see if there’s another descriptor more suitable. Perhaps another descriptor that can focus on a different detail and a different priority and help you concentrate on what matters.

Made of more

I recently had the following conversation on Twitter. (Incidentally, it’s also one of those incredibly moments that hits home to me how social accounts and interactions can become such an enjoyable scratchpad for new ideas.)

Content’s not included

Material is like the fabric of something actually useful. It’s a bit more tangible. It’s something you iterate on and bang around in different directions — certainly when it’s commonly used in stand-up comedy.

It’s craft-like and something you develop and improve over time. You gather techniques to become competent then workmanlike then artisan. You invent or invest in technology to gain an advantage producing better material than your competition.

Material has customers rather than consumers. Your material must be top notch, it’s not just a snack between courses — it is a product in its own sense.

I’d love to hear suggestions of other words. Even if they aren’t used in conversation, I think clearer definition helps you think about things more strategically and accurately. The power of language is only beaten by the power of the meaning and association that underlies it.

What would you call content to make you appreciate it more?

Photo Credit: ch.weidinger via Compfight cc

Material and Content

I’ve written before about the difficulties of the word “content”. It’s too often bandied around in discussions that lose sight of its meaning to viewers versus its importance in their strategy. And that blindness is costly.

But you quickly find yourself drawing on it because it’s the common reference. Much of the time, that will remain true.

Sometimes, however, it’s worth thinking again to see if there’s another descriptor more suitable. Perhaps another descriptor that can focus on a different detail and a different priority and help you concentrate on what matters.

Made of more

I recently had the following conversation on Twitter. (Incidentally, it’s also one of those incredibly moments that hits home to me how social accounts and interactions can become such an enjoyable scratchpad for new ideas.)

Content’s not included

Material is like the fabric of something actually useful. It’s a bit more tangible. It’s something you iterate on and bang around in different directions — certainly when it’s commonly used in stand-up comedy.

It’s craft-like and something you develop and improve over time. You gather techniques to become competent then workmanlike then artisan. You invent or invest in technology to gain an advantage producing better material than your competition.

Material has customers rather than consumers. Your material must be top notch, it’s not just a snack between courses — it is a product in its own sense.

I’d love to hear suggestions of other words. Even if they aren’t used in conversation, I think clearer definition helps you think about things more strategically and accurately. The power of language is only beaten by the power of the meaning and association that underlies it.

What would you call content to make you appreciate it more?

Photo Credit: ch.weidinger via Compfight cc