Can PR firms survive without traditional media?

In the last year news about traditional media has been all bad.  Circulations of newspapers and magazines are dropping like stones and TV networks are struggling to attract viewers. Much of this decline has been blamed on the emergence of the Internet as an alternative way for people to spend their time.  So with traditional media getting ever smaller, competition for space increases (given the number of companies who want to be on the cover of a magazine doesn’t decline), yet the value of that space also declines as it is seen by fewer people.  This all suggests that agencies who rely on traditional media are going to really struggle.  But in truth I don’t know an agency that does rely on traditional media anymore.  When you think about that it’s amazing that our industry has undergone such change in such a shot time.

Given this situation you may come to the conclusion that traditional media no longer matters and that any smart PR business will plan for it being a tiny fraction of its revenue in the coming years.  This is where I take issue.  I think traditional media is like many other businesses that for a long time had no apparent rival and then all of a sudden they wake up and realize that they are in danger of going out of business because of some rival that simply crept up on them.  But like most of those businesses they start to re-invent themselves AND a new natural equilibrium emerges.  I think we are still searching for that equilibrium right now but I’m convinced it will come.  Traditional media isn’t going to disappear it is going to evolve.  Plus there will become a point when a hard core audience will emerge that is much harder to erode.  I think we are still some way form that point but within the next few years I believe we’ll get there.

I predict we’ll get to a place where we have a smaller traditional media but one that is no longer traditional.  The essence of traditional is largely the way the media is delivered.  Newspapers are delivered daily, news shows air at certain times etc.  Thanks to DVRs and the Internet the delivery mechanism has been challenged and largely destroyed.  That leaves the other mainstay of the traditional media world: content.  Traditional media is guided by largely unwritten rules about the way its content is generated.  In the case of news there is an expectation that that news will be accurate.  We don’t always have the same expectations of news that appears on social media sites though.  Equally, traditional news has always been a one way dialog.  Now that’s changing, with many online news sites encouraging feedback and comment.  In other words traditional media is embracing social media tools to stem the tide of readers departing.  But you guys all know this.  So why am I writing this?  Well I guess I want to make the point that we are in a content and distribution war in which the best content with the best distribution will win.  In that world there is no reason why traditional media has to lose, it simply has to adapt AND accept that people have a lot more choice than they did ten years ago.  That means they’ll never have the circulations, viewerships or listeners they once did.  Instead they’ll have to take a share of people’s attention.  But as we all know, one ‘share’ can be a lot more valuable than another.

These are horrible days for traditional media and its likely that it will go through a LOT more pain and change before it hits bottom.  But I’m convinced it will hit bottom and when it does find its role, PR will find it still has a very important partner.  So don’t abandon traditional media just yet!

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Do trade shows still make sense?

Let me be clear – I’m one of those people that hates trade shows.  I’m not good at small talk, I hate all the hassle of trade shows, the lines, the crappy gifts, wearing a name tag etc etc.  Indeed I hate them so much that I’ve been predicting their death for years.  Yet as the big consumer electronics (CES) show gets underway in Las Vegas  this week, it’s clear that these trade shows have a role in their industries.  They create a deadline by which companies have to make decisions, they create meeting places where collaboration on future projects start; and they create a showcase for the introduction of products both good and bad.  In short they are a good way of getting people to pull their fingers out and get stuff either done or started.

In general I know the trade show business has been through years of decline.  Apple doesn’t even attend Mac World anymore and once famous shows like COMDEX have vanished.  For those of you who weren’t around for the COMDEX madness, hotel rooms were like gold dust and cab lines in Vegas were routinely over an hour long.  But they did have great parties.  Even without shows like COMDEX there are still plenty of major shows around.  What seems to happen is that someone either evolves the content of the show or the format (or both) to stay in lock step with the way the industries they serve are evolving.  That said it is somewhat inevitable that trade shows will get smaller.  With social media tools now so prevalent, many of use don’t need to attend the show to get the news and feel like we were there.  Indeed the only part we really miss is the networking.  And let’s be honest, not much truly valuable networking takes place at these shows that couldn’t take place elsewhere.

I therefore confidently, without any hesitation whatsoever, formally predict that trade shows will carry on existing.  They’ll just be different from the way they are today.  How’s that for a stunning prediction?  More seriously though I think the really successful shows will be smaller and more focused and their format will evolve in ways it’s hard to imagine today.    COMDEX crashed and burned after it opened itself up to the public.  That turned the show from a must attend event into a must avoid event.  At the same time conferences such as TED and D appear to be flourishing.  This shows that people still crave the content and the connections.  They simply want to consume them in a smaller, more exclusive environment.

Trade shows are by definition, for the trade.  So unless your trade is so big that you really do need 200,000 people to attend your show, then an event that pulls in a small fraction of that number seems destined to be a better route.  Long live the specialist, awfully small trade show, that I’m not invited to.


Can PR turn around a business or a brand?

PR agencies will at some point find themselves faced with the opportunity to work with a company that at one point in its history was a great.  The brand in question was so well known that it was a household name.  Years later that brand has lost its way and some rival has eaten its proverbial lunch.  PR people, being the optimists they are, love the idea of making the once great business great again.  Of course, deep down even they know that their chances of success are tied to what the brand in question actually does.  If the client has finally start making a good product again, and started solving pricing and distribution problems, then PR can really step up and be a major part of the turnaround.

I recall being invited to try and help a once great Canadian business (there’s aren’t many Canadian tech businesses that were huge so you can probably guess who they are).  I met the CEO and we talked about how they could tell their story in a better way. I threw out a tag line that summed up this approach.  Following the meeting I heard that he loved the thinking that I and a colleague had given him.  We were excited to be a part of this future success story.  Then things went quiet and then, rather odly, we heard that our contact at the client had been asked to leave and then we heard that the tag line we’d given them was being used for all their adverts.  We were paid nothing for that tag line btw.  Indeed it seemed they’d used the meeting to get some free advice and were then acting on it.  Of course the free advice didn’t really save the company and it has now filed for bankruptcy.

I truly believed the advice we had given was great advice.  But at the end of the day the advice was about how they managed their communications and not about how they managed their business.  What they needed was a better business model, not a new tag line or better messaging.  When you realize that PR alone can’t really save a business it makes you (as a PRO) feel a little sad.  We’d all like to think that with our help the business can be turned around.  But unless the problems that got the business in to trouble in the first place have been solved, then PR will at best slow the process of decline.  So next time you are faced with an opportunity to turn around the image of a company, be sure to find out that that is all that is needed and that the business itself is taking the steps it needs to to fix its underlying business.  Otherwise you too could witness the death of a brand that has really sharp positioning but little else.


Why do we want to be entertained?

My wife is convinced I have ADD.  She may have a point in that I struggle to stay focused on anything for longer than 20 minutes and in truth I struggle to read most newspaper articles in their entirety without my mind wandering off.  Part of my problem is that I struggle with content that doesn’t grab my attention and then make a serious attempt to hang on to it.  Like my own blog for instance.  I need content that gets me thinking, makes me laugh, cry etc.  A good book, movie or TV show can do this for millions but what is it about this content that keeps us engaged while other content causes us to head for the coffee maker?  The answer to this question has enormous importance for people in marketing and yet when I’ve subtly, and not so subtly, asked this question to marketers they, like me, have no real answer.  Like me they tend to… well, make something up.

If like me, you decide to look up on the web what keeps people’s attention you will find some pretty weird blog posts that tell you to use the word ‘and’ a lot and to put confetti in your envelopes (I pray that doesn’t happen to me).  Indeed it seems that to holding people’s attention either nobody has written the definitive work, OR the person that has figured it out is Warren Buffett or Bill Gates.

And yet, just as we all like to get attention we all love to give our undivided attention to great content.  Just think about the number of times when talking to friends to talk about books, TV shows, movies and concerts you’ve seen, read etc.  It seems we like both the process of being engaged AND the process of reliving that engagement.  When I started work the founders of my company spent hours each week recounting lines from various Monty Python films or shows.  They derived huge satisfaction from this, much more in fact than they did from the actual work as far as I can tell.  That level of engagement is a marketers dream.  Yet I doubt for a second that anyone who had responsibility for the Python franchise knew why people loved their content.  They just knew they did and they made every effort to take advantage of that.

Of course it may be that trying to capture engagement in a bottle and analyze it is a fruitless exercise.  It may be that the ingredients of fun are a secret we shouldn’t learn.  That said, authors, movie makers and comedians do have formulas they use to create successful products.  We all know that these formulas fail from time to time though.  Witness the Bruno movie that repeated the Borat formula.  In other words even the best of us know only parts of the formula.  As a result the secret ingredient that makes an idea work either shows up and turns it in to good work, or takes a vacation and leaves us bored and rather annoyed.

What is clear is that humans love to be entertained and engaged.  We love a book (Kindle) that we can’t put down.  We love a movie that makes us laugh for days afterwards.  I for one have no idea why we crave this in the same way we crave food that is bad for us but we do.  We seek out great content as if it were that food.  Unlike fattening food, however, this content stimulates our brain and gets us thinking.  Sometimes it gets us to think about profound issues, and sometimes it gets us to think about topics so irrelevant we get to escape our daily lives for a few minutes.

In short, therefore, it seems clear to me that the marketer who could figure out some magic formula for grabbing and keeping our attention will make billions.  Until then we will all keep guessing at that formula time and time again.  Sometimes we will succeed and other times we will fail.  But at least we’ll have fun trying!


Looking our best isn’t natural


I’ve been giving some thought recently as to why companies have to try to look their best. For some time I’d believed that looking your best was simply a matter of the right training and discipline and then eventually it would simply become second nature. When taking a photo of my eldest daughter I had a revelation. I asked her to smile. She duly obliged and I got my photo. She then went back to her more normal expression. In short she looked great for a few seconds. Of course like most people she wants to look her best most of the time. When I asked her why she didn’t smile like she did for the camera more often, she said “it’s too much like hard work.” Of course few, if any, people look their best all the time (I look awful most of the day and especially so in the mornings). So why do we expect companies to be any different? It’s also no wonder that like many of us who struggle to smile nicely for the camera, some companes that are trying to look their best, look like they are putting on a false face. I guess the real answer to all this is not to train companies to put on their ‘camera’ face but instead, teach them to exhibit their real qualities – and of course encourage the people observing them to use the right lense. Now say ‘cheese’.


Same destination, different route

It’s easy to believe that when the economy changes, so does the mission of a business. The reason it’s easy to believe is because it’s at least partly true. If the economy changes, so does the economic opportunity… at least in the short term. However, I would argue that looking longer term the goals of a business should remain unchanged. This means if a business is aiming to lead or create a market it should still aim to do so. Of course its timescales may get modified but the destination shouldn’t (Unless of course the economy wipes that market off the map!). So if the commercial objectives remain unchanged but the means of achieving them get modified, then I’d also argue that the communications objectives should remain while perhaps the strategies may be reviewed. So as the storm clouds around the US economy continue to build, I’d encourage communications professionals to remind their staff not to take their eye off the prize but instead to look again at the route they may take to get there.


The next big thing

Spent the last few days at TED, a pretty amazing event that feels a bit like a meal. Presentations from movie producers, software engineers, poets, physicists, Paul Simon and Bill Clinton. The reference to the meal being that some of this has been like ‘having to eat your greens,’ while other parts have been like being given a great dessert. If there’s one theme that has pervaded the event so far it is again that we all need to work on saving the planet. This was very much the message of John Doerr who ended his speech in tears and has been a passing reference by almost all the other speakers. From a communications perspective it’s hard not to walk away from this feeling that for brands to succeed they must put greater emphasis on this aspect of their social responsibility if they are to succeed. Of course you may argue that consumers are the ones that will be the judge of that. I’d argue, having been bathed in the ‘we have to save the planet’ message for a few days by leaders from all walks of life, that this is not a passing fad. equally it’s a message that is getting the attention of some pretty important minds. Therefore I’d argue that what we have here is something really important. It’s what VCs have been searching for since the dot com bubble burst. It is the next big thing. Kind of funny when you think about it. The next big thing isn’t some amazing new algorithm or financial model, it’s the thing you’ve been standing on for most of your life – the planet.