Should boring = less newsworthy?

The sovereign debt crisis that started with Greek governments spending habits and has caused financial markets to take a beating in recent weeks has received remarkably little press considering it could result in the world being pushed in to a double dip recession.  Indeed a quick look at the major headlines of the NYT and WSJ in recent weeks will show you that they have covered the story for sure but that other items such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have garnered greater attention.  Similarly you havn’t seen the debt crisis trend on Twitter.  I can only speculate as to why and my speculation is that the topic is both boring and complex.  Two factors that ultimately make it less likely to get picked up and talked about.  But just because something is dull and complex shouldn’t prevent it from being talked about if it’s important.  Surely?

I grew up in an era where the BBC covered stories because of their importance, not because they were easy to understand and interesting.  I learned to be interested in the Middle East issues simply because the BBC kept on covering them.  I worry that in an era of self publishing and an era where traditional media will do anything to get a reader/viewer, the complex and potentially less interesting stories will get short shrift.  This would be a terrible outcome.  Sometimes we need to be forced to consume news that we find tough to get through.  That may mean devoting less time to stupid human tricks on YouTube and more time to the complex economic issues going on in Europe right now.  I say this, not because a focus on Europe would necessarily improve the Greek debt crisis but because today’s Greek debt crisis is tomorrow’s equally dull story that has a more immediate impact, much closer to home.

PR needs a rethink

PR is all about managing people’s perception of a person, brand or organization.  In the last 20 years that has meant getting them good press, having them show up in the right places, connecting them to the right issues etc.  Today, people’s perception of a brand can change because of a tweet, a Facebook comment, an review or a blog post.  Indeed at a dinner this week I was told a story of a startup that had been well covered by the WSJ but saw far more customer interest when it appeared on a blog.  In other words for many brands media isn’t necessarily the best route to influencing people’s perceptions.  What struck me when I thought about this is that the change in medium also offers a chance to change the approach we take to perception management.  Today in PR we still focus on persuading content creators (journalists, bloggers etc) to produce material that benefits our clients.  When we produce our own content, it looks awfully like the content these journalists and bloggers would create.  Why?  Because we rarely take a big step back and ask what would it take to make people think of the brand differently.  In other words we use standard techniques that tend to deliver incremental results.  This is not that surprising.  Most of the time we are simply giving our clients what they expect but maybe with a small amount of innovation thrown in.  Indeed if we go too far there is a real risk the client will freak out and hire someone else even if our thinking is amazing.  But let’s assume we can get our clients to be bold (most actually want to be, they just need convincing that a risk is worth taking).  If they’ll take the risk then it could mean us spending their budget on creating some very different content – video, a game, an application, a community on Grouply or Ning.  We may not even talk to an editor or blogger.  Believe it or not some agencies are doing this.  It scared them at first but the clients are loving the results.  Is it PR?  You bet!  Its just not press relations.

The “re”-hiring has started

PR agencies are hiring again  What’s interesting is that by and large agencies seem to be trying to steal talent form each other, rather than use this as an opportunity to bring in people from outside the industry.  This is understandable at one level but a massive, enormous, huge (did I make that clear?) missed opportunity at another.  Hiring great talent is what makes great agencies for sure but we also need to keep any eye on where the market is going. Right now the market is moving away from traditional PR towards digital at heck of a pace.  Now is our chance to hire people from other disciplines that offer new skills and new thinking.  I know some agencies are doing this but many (read almost all) seem to be saying they are transitioning their agencies towards digital but are then hiring people with traditional skills.  Make any sense to you?  If you owned a railroad business that was transitioning to become an airline, would you hire train drivers or pilots?

How should brands behave post recession?

In Silicon Valley the recession is over.  Houses are selling, people are being hired and consumer spending is up.  While the same may not be true of the rest of America, or of many countries in Europe, it’s clear that most of the major economies are clawing their way out of recession.  This creates an interesting challenge and opportunity for brands, not just in terms of financial gain, but also in terms of how they are positioned.  During recessions consumers behave differently, they measure brands differently.  In recessions price, for example, is king.  Other factors such as what the brand says about our status, matter a lot less.  In other words consumers are wired differently in recessions and will listen to different messages and join in different conversations about brands.

So what should brands do when the good times return?  First, they shouldn’t wait.  Any brand that hasn’t already defined how it will adapt as the economy improves will get left behind.  But to do that brands need to understand the exactly what their customers are talking about now that they weren’t talking about six months ago.  This kind of research can be done by analyzing social networks and other online communities but it has to be done properly and taken seriously.  Indeed I’d argue it that this research in to the attitudes and opinions of the post recession customer is the most important act a marketer can undertake right now.  Good research will provide the platform for the brand for the coming years.  And let’s face it the next few years are crucial in the brand wars.  To make the point, I worked with brands that studied how customers attitudes had changed going in to the recession.  This research changed their messaging and their behavior at a crucial time.  One of these brands has since been widely recognized as a poster child for dealing with a recession.

Of course the research is only the first step.  Brands need to figure out how how to act on that research.  They need to decide what conversations they can now leave and which they can now join, how to behave in those conversations compared to the past.  In short it’s a whole new playbook.  For brand heads sitting there without a post recession playbook, this ought to be a worrying time.  For those with one in hand, these are the good times.  Enjoy!