One of the pioneers of public relations, Edward Bernays said, “The three main elements of public relations are practically as old as society: informing people, persuading people, or integrating people with people.” This last point of integration is the key for the future of public relations.
In the early days, propaganda and ad slogans were the foundation of the public relations profession. After all, sales are an effective means of storytelling. The propaganda during World War II was incredibly successful, with “Uncle Sam wants YOU!” and “Rosie the Riveter” posters (Rosie is a Hoosier, btw). I believe one of the greatest public relations campaigns of all time is De Beers depicting the diamond as the pinnacle gem, which it isn’t. Based on the De Beers model, one could infer that most public relations campaigns might be disingenuous, and you are right — they are. It’s storytelling at its finest, creating a desirable lifestyle around a product.
In the business news realm, working with tech companies and apps that rely on data (which is the most coveted item on the planet — more valuable than diamonds), there is little ambiguity regarding the product a tech company is selling. My job, and my specialty, is to humanize businesses. However, the challenges facing the media industry are making my job increasingly more difficult.
Acquiring earned media has become challenging. Why? The answer is due to an increasing number of magazines and news outlets that have adopted the ‘pay to play’ model. The competition within the media vertical is fierce, so I don’t fault them for the switch. The impact, however, is being felt in a number of ways: integrity of reporting, credibility of sources, and a filtering of what is available for us to read.
Speaking as a corporate public relations representative, all of this points to the importance of the authenticity of a company and their story. Messaging is becoming far more important and relies increasingly on partnerships and the ability to humanize them, which is what I am paid for.
In a world of polarization, ironically, partnerships are what will save public relations efforts, and in turn, sales. Trusted sources of news are becoming scarce. Social media is a mess. Working with a multitude of corporate clients, I can share from experience and observation that the scope is narrowing for public relations. In fact, the term, “public relations”, is taking on a quite literal meaning. It’s coming full circle to Bernays’s comment.
Aside from the integrity gut punch that media outlets endure and attempt to dodge, the lack of trust ripples out. Cue the partnerships. Cue the authenticity of the individuals involved within a company. Cue the civic engagement and relationships that happen outside the walls of a business. These are the things that I review before I agree to work with a company.
Social media is far more commercial than it is social at this point. Twitter, aka The Titanic, is tanking. Facebook + Instagram have turned into online shopping catalogs with occasional personal posts. And several studies prove social media is damaging to mental health, which presents an inherent ethical conflict about whether to utilize it. The bottom line is if your business does not pay for engagement, it won’t get it.
So what options are left? Maintain your corporate credibility, for one, and two: partnerships. Partnerships include membership organizations, associations, and companies whose business models complement one another. There is power in lifting one another up. Create a strong network of support. There should be a flow chart on the wall in an inner office that shows the warm markets for news and announcements of a company. This should encompass all employees, investors, professional service providers, partner organizations, and personal connections. If investors aren’t liking or sharing posts for their portfolio companies, that’s a sign of trouble.
For all these reasons, authenticity of messaging is increasingly important. Integrity is at the core. Collaboration is the key to public relations and so is having a creative marketing team, and (ahem…) superb writing skills in your wheelhouse.
Kara Kavensky is the founder and CEO of The Storyteller Agency, karakavensky.com