Revolutionary Measures

Time for PR to change its name?

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain exactly what public relations is (and what it isn’t) to generally well-informed and otherwise clued-up friends, relatives and people at events. No, it isn’t just Absolutely Fabulous, Max Clifford-style celebrity scoops in the tabloids or undercover lobbying on behalf of big business. Instead it should be a core business function – a way of getting your messages out to the right audiences, through the right channels and at the right time, with the aim of engaging people, managing reputation and achieving business goals.

That’s why the CIPR’s new #PRPays campaign is a welcome step in the right direction. It aims to demonstrate the strategic value of PR to organisations through interviews with senior managers at some of the UK’s biggest companies. The first video, with John Holland-Kaye, the CEO of Heathrow Airport is great. It shows that he sees and understands what PR brings to his business in multiple areas, from communicating change to supporting expansion.

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However, there is a big ‘but’ coming. Holland-Kaye keeps talking about communications in its widest form, from talking to passengers and other stakeholders to getting key messages across to employees and politicians. This got me thinking – why are we even talking about PR at all? At best it is a loaded term (see examples in the first paragraph), and at worst it puts a barrier up between the industry and the people we are trying to talk to. Why don’t we simply replace Public Relations with Communications? I can see four good reasons why we should:

1          It is simpler
Everyone communicates – it is one of the key human characteristics. So, people understand what the term means and the skills that it involves. Yes, that could be said to remove mystique (and as the saying goes, where there is mystery, there is margin), but to be honest the barriers to entry in PR are low to non-existent anyway. All you need is a phone, a laptop and an internet connection, and despite the admirable efforts of the CIPR to professionalise PR, that is unlikely to change soon.

2          It is comprehensive
“No, I don’t do that – that’s internal communications/public affairs/social media (delete as applicable).” That’s been the response of many PRs when clients ask for something that it outside their skillset. But rebranding PR as communications gives us the legitimate right to extend what we do into these neighbouring fields, at both a strategic and tactical level. The basic idea of understanding a company’s aims, and then creating and communicating messages that will successfully deliver these objectives is common to many areas of business – as communicators we should be applying our skills to help organisations in all of them.

 3          It is clearer to business
John Holland-Kaye’s interchangeable use of PR and communications shows exactly the issue that the profession has. Even those that champion what we do are a bit vague about exactly what the borders of our work are. Therefore, if we want to be seen as a strategic imperative for businesses, it makes sense to be clear in our own messaging and language. Talk about communications, and business leaders will see the value, helping the profession to be seen as a key part of successful organisations and ultimately boosting status and budgets.

4          It gives us room to grow
The rise of the internet has clearly transformed communications and given rise to wholly new disciplines such as Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and social media. Agencies mushroomed to take advantage of the budgets that clients were looking to spend in these areas. Lots of PR companies missed out, either because they didn’t see the opportunity or didn’t understand the technology. Communicating is now more important than ever – and at the same time no-one knows what the future will bring. Will brands need to convince the likes of Amazon or Google to feature their stories on voice assistants? How will AI transform how organisations communicate with their publics? No-one really knows, but if PR acts now and widens its scope, it will at least have a fighting chance of being at the forefront of future changes, rather than looking back in 20 years time to find it has been marginalised.

As I said, I applaud the CIPR’s efforts to demonstrate the strategic value that public relations brings. But I think the whole profession needs to go further – we’re communicators, so let’s be upfront and adopt a name that reflects what we do and gives us room to expand in the future. From now on, I’m not a public relations consultant, I’m a communications consultant.

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September 26, 2018 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sound – the new frontier for marketing

When it comes to media today, people today have a multiplicity of choice. From the internet and social media to traditional TV, catch-up services and the likes of Netflix the range feels literally endless. No wonder that marketers find it increasingly difficult to reach and engage with audiences as they are scattered across different platforms and devices.

Yet, amidst all this disruption one medium – radio – is actually growing its audience. According to Ofcom nearly nine in ten people (89.6%) listen to the radio at least once a week, and average listening time increased by six minutes per week in the year to November 2017.

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And given that these figures don’t include the likes of podcasts, I think the figure is actually higher. Essentially it is part of a wider trend – as humans we are programmed to respond to sound going back to our hunter-gatherer days. Add in the fact that it is easy to access audio through smartphones and you can see why listening is increasing.

Sound is also playing a greater part in how we interact with technology, thanks to the likes of Alexa and Siri. They may be a long way from perfect, and unable to offer a real conversation (and prone to laughing uncontrollably in the middle of the night), but they provide a new way of controlling our increasingly smart homes. Devices that include Audio Analytic’s technology can even recognise the noise of breaking glass or smoke alarms going off and warn homeowners.

Given the importance of sound, it is still amazing how few marketers are using it to engage with consumers. Viewers frequently say that the music is the best thing about ads, and we all know how hearing a particular tune can bring memories flooding back.

Look (or rather listen to) the impact that the Intel Inside ‘bong’ had on creating a major consumer brand out of a technical chip supplier – memorable audio branding is proven to increase name recognition and connect with target markets. And when I talk about marketing with sound, I don’t mean annoying radio ads or jingles, but simple melodies that somehow encapsulate and sum up your brand. Companies already invest heavily in ensuring that they use the right colours and images to attract their target audiences – I think it is time that they extended this to cover sound. You know what your brand is seen – but how is it heard?

March 14, 2018 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Making it work – the marketing challenge behind smart technology

We’re now in the midst of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which sees more than 170,000 people descend on Las Vegas to view and play with the latest technology. And with consumer electronics now covering everything from connected cars to smart appliances and household robots, it provides a real glimpse into the future of how we will live, work and play.

And if people think that this is hyperbole, just look at the speed at which innovations such as Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant and electric cars have entered the mainstream. Morgan Stanley predicts that 22 million Echo devices, which feature Alexa, were sold in 2017, while countries such as the UK and France have banned the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040. You can even buy those sci-fi staples jetpacks and hover boots.samsung-ces-2018-7971

That’s why the issues tat LG’s new Cloi robot suffered at its CES debut should be a wake-up call to marketers. The device, which is designed to help consumers manage their smart homes, initially co-operated at an onstage demo, but then simply gave up and refused to do anything apart from blink when asked when the presenter’s washing would be ready and what was for dinner. As the owner of an Amazon Echo Dot, I know exactly how the poor chap feels, and have to commend him for not shouting abuse at Cloi in public.

But what this shows is that complicated technology is exactly that – complicated. It can be difficult to get it set up correctly in the first place, to then get the best out of it or link it to other devices in the home. Compare this to the analogue products that most people are used to interacting with, and you can see the problem. They work straight from the box and are designed to be simple to use and get value from.

In many ways this follows the classic framework set out in Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, setting out how new technology is adopted. This is the order it provides:

  • A small group who don’t care about things going wrong and have the skills and knowledge to fix them
  • Early Adopters – a bigger group that simply wants the latest thing and puts up with idiosyncrasies
  • Early Majority – pragmatists who adopt the technology when it is mature
  • Late Majority – conservatives who adopt the technology late on, perhaps within existing products that they are familiar with
  • Laggards – sceptics who will only adopt new technology when absolutely essential

This model worked in the past, but I think the acceleration of tech means it is no longer accurate. We all have constant exposure to technology, such as smartphones, and the falling cost of devices, and their omnipresence, means that the majority/laggards often don’t have a choice about adopting them. This potentially divides society into the technologically-skilled and the Luddites who cannot manage to stay on top of innovation, and consequently miss out on the advantages it brings. In turn this leads to resentment and, I believe, drives frustrations which can be manifested in concerns over the future and consequent support for populism and insularity.

What does this mean for marketing? Essentially, we need to stop just pitching technology at the Early Adopter, but make sure that it appeals to everyone. We have to be clear on the advantages, clear on how it used and provide the support to assist people in getting the most from it. And by support I don’t mean an impenetrable, jargon-filled manual or a premium rate phone number – I mean tailored assistance that shows how users can benefit.

No doubt CES 2018 will see a whole raft of wonderful technology innovations unveiled – but in order for them to be really successful companies have to address the fundamental marketing question of “What does it do for me?” in a much better, more understandable way.

January 10, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

4 challenges to the rise of the virtual assistant

Home automation is the next battleground for technology. Following on the heels of Amazon’s launch of its Echo and Echo Dot devices, which feature its voice-controlled personal assistant Alexa, Google has unveiled its plans for a range of hardware to control the smart home. The Google Home speaker features a virtual assistant, excitingly called Google Assistant, that lets you give commands and then either provides information or controls your smart devices. For example, you can stream music, control the temperature and turn the lights up/down/off, as with the Echo. And Amazon and Google are not alone, with Apple announcing its HomeKit standard which will allow users to control devices through their iPhone via either apps or Siri.amazon_echo

When it comes to mass adoption, it is early days in the home automation market, and each one of the major players will need to overcome four big obstacles:

1          Do we need it?
Smart home kit has yet to really take off, with many consumers not willing to pay extra for internet-enabled light bulbs or thermostats. While Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa can do more than control your home, with the ability to find information, check the weather/traffic, book an Uber taxi etc., you don’t really need a separate device for this. You have one – your smartphone. So what each player has to do is find ways of encouraging people to adopt it, developers to create apps that use its functions, and manufacturers to incorporate it into their own hardware. Given that we’re talking about white goods such as fridges which are replaced infrequently and are normally price-sensitive purchases, this last point is going to take some time. As an early adopter I’m going to give Alexa a go, but I can’t see a compelling reason for mainstream consumers to buy an Echo or Home, until the ecosystem around them are more mature.

2          Is it clever enough?
As an existing Siri user I know that for a smart assistant it can be pretty dumb. It doesn’t really know enough about me to provide helpful answers and most attempts at ‘conversation’ end with switching it off and trying a Google search instead. Amazon and Google promise that their assistants will be much cleverer and will learn about you in order to provide a personalised experience that understands your context, location and previous behaviour. The jury is still out on whether it can be intelligent enough to replace human interaction for basic tasks.

3          Is it private?
The self-learning promise of Assistant and Alexa also has a darker side. Essentially, you are putting an internet-enabled microphone in the heart of your home, where it can listen and learn about you, before sharing that information with Google and Amazon. While both have privacy safeguards, the less you let it share, the less useful it will be. Many people will be concerned about where their data is going, and how it will be used – particularly given the amount of information Google and Amazon already possess about us all.

4          Are we going to be trapped in silos?
For me the main issue behind each of these platforms, is that essentially they are silos. You can’t play any music stored on iTunes on either of them for example, but have to either rely on Amazon Music, Google Play Music or Spotify. Even in an age of technology giants, very few of us rely on just one platform – we tend to use bits of each and value the fact that we can pick and choose where we get email, buy products or listen to music from. By their very nature, rivals are not going to push their competitors’ services, and no-one wants to have to buy multiple hardware to cover all their bases. What is needed is some form of interchange between all platforms, a kind of one ring to rule them all – but I can’t see that happening soon.

As with any innovation there’s a lot of hype around virtual assistants, and the hardware that they control. What is needed is some equally smart marketing that overcomes the objections listed above and really focuses on the benefits – otherwise mainstream consumers are likely to simply keep their dumb homes as they are.

October 26, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments