We live in a world of digital marketing wizardry I helped create. Today’s digital business landscape is wonderful as the amazing land of Oz was, but it’s becoming all the more important to know who’s behind the curtain. A few weeks ago, a brilliant lady who’s a professor at a Greek university made the mistake of offering up PR (public relations) as a minor function of marketing, which is what prompted me to write this report. Even though the industry is hindsight for me now, it is the nature of her error and its commonplace adaptation these days that compels me to be corrective.
The Wizard Has Spoken!
I’ve worked with some of the world’s most brilliant marketing and PR people in the last 20 years or so. So, in order to illustrate for businesses what’s being lost in the marketing effort, I will turn to the real Wizard of PR, Richard Edelman, CEO of the world’s biggest and most important PR firm. Back in 2013, Edelman was in a battle offering the dissenting view on the roles communicators and marketers play in today’s business world. As it happens, I was involved in this argument briefly when my wife and I owned Everything PR News, which was once one of the world’s most trusted public relations news authorities. At one-point Richard and another industry icon named Dave Senay, who was the head of Fleishman Hillard marketing agency Fleishman Hillard. I still remember the emails back and forth where Edelman and Senay defined their ideas and concepts. It was this argument that catalyzed the transformation of a great many marketing entities trying to metamorphose into combined agencies with marketing and not PR as the driving thrust. For the sake of my report here, let’s just call this moment the “Armageddon of business communications.”
Today, the world still wrestles with an exact definition of what PR is and what its value is ultimate. Richard, of course, came as close as anyone ever could to defining what modern public relations look like. I quote from my original article from back in 2013 as to his definition of new PR.
“We are going to take full advantage of the inherent advantages of PR, which are credibility, speed, two-way interaction, and continuous story creation. In the end, the consumer may not care about the source of the content, but quality counts.”
Right here I can differentiate in between what marketing does as opposed to what is involved in a PR effort. First, marketing is a three-function mechanism that begins with the analysis of said market, followed by preparation of the marketing strategy, and finally “presents” the product or service to the market. Marketing is not about personalization or relationships, even though most marketers will try to assure you their content and inherent advertising is. Marketing is about manipulation and about understanding the end result of that manipulation. In comparison to PR effort, a marketing strategy is more like artificial intelligence versus human interaction. AI can do things humans cannot, but the lost humanity factor is where real bonds in between business and people are made. I can attest to marketing’s inherent use of manipulation since me, my partner Mihaela, and almost all our colleagues in the early digital space experimented with every conceivable online tool in order to help marketers leverage things like social. Facebook and Twitter to the long since dead Propeller and MyBlogLog, Digg, Diigo, you name it and the first adopters of social media figure “you” the customer out long before you ever joined a community. As mercenary as this may sound, I assure you every digital endeavor from SEO to mommy blogging only exists to serve conversions. Even though many of us had more altruistic intentions in our quest to understand this new realm, the “ad men” still pay the bill. With this in mind, let’s discuss how the “relations” in PR was and is the better (and more economical) side of the communicative equation. Let’s begin with words from the most brilliant communicator of this age.
Now, I can differentiate once again using Richard Edelman’s words, in between marketing and PR:
“PR is more than a set of tactics or tools. It’s a mindset; the ideas that come from PR people are different than those that come from advertising people. Both are engaged in storytelling, but the PR idea stimulates discussion and has the potential to play out over years. A PR idea has to start with relevancy and newsworthiness.”
The part where Edelman insists PR ideas are a story developing over “years” is paramount for business people to understand today. In my original story I quoted Edelman cementing public relations’ real value with this from his blog post at the time:
“We see massive white space opportunities with media, squeezed by declining print circulation and diminished digital advertising rates. We can accelerate promising content through promoted tweets and sponsored lists that go viral. We are going to reinvent the advertorial in cooperation with mainstream media. We will propose topics for special reports financed by a sponsor but with editorial autonomy. We will create a place for intelligent debate, from salon dinners to Twitter newsfeeds and industry conferences.”
Keep Clicking Your Heels, Dorothy
For those of you who saw The Wizard of Oz, what if Dorothy clicked her heels 100 times to return back home to Kansas, and nothing happened? Click, click, click! And a fade-in to 2,000 hotels with the very same Google Ads competing. Then, a movie land transition that shows a million “Dorothy’s” clicking, clicking, clicking away with brilliant content created by genius copywriters, sent to editors that no longer even need journalists. That experience, consumer journey, and influence my genius friend Brian Solis advise the world’s biggest companies to embrace; it eventually levels out into a digital buzzing hum that is only differentiated by volume. And the volume control knob can only be turned with more money. In the end, smaller businesses cannot even compete, and genuine human communications have evaporated. What’s left over is a genius marketing construct, which only imitates authenticity. Our communication becomes one big (and very costly) advertisement. This is where we are today.
I cite Brian Solis many times because he is the one “digital geniuses” who understood and could who could adapt to the dynamic changes everyone is experiencing. Solis, who was perhaps the most successful public relations actors for the digital age, helps chief marketing officers (CMOs) develop more intrinsically customer-centric marketing strategies these days. Here’s tidbit from an article he’s featured in on MarketingTech news:
“I think the one thing CMOs miss was that if you want to make a mark, and you want to have a seat at the board or the attention of the C-suite, then make marketing a business tool. Drive towards those business objectives, and that’s where you start.”
Interestingly, public relations and genuine communications skill are what makes Solis such a powerful speaker and advisor, but the “Oz” that has been made of the communications landscape has now stifled the real story. Click those heels, Dorothy, pretty soon even the Tin Man won’t be able to help differentiate you.
Returning to the Script
I have a great friend who lives not far from us here on Crete name Minas Liapakis. We met some years back because he was building a leading hotel marketing firm called EyeWide Digital, and because my wife’s PR company was representing some of the travel industry’s biggest names. When I retired from the firm, we moved to Crete in part because I wanted to start telling the stories of this amazing place and its people. Minas and I frequently talk about the need for hoteliers and other businesses to understand the importance of marketing, media, and PR communications. Our discussions, almost always, end up hitting the brick wall that is the European mindset on digital business – a reluctance to adapt. While almost every hotel entity understands the need for ads, OTAs, and travel agencies to fill their rooms, not one I’ve met really understands where their guests really come from. TUI and other agencies fill up “X” number of rooms for “Y” price – Booking.com and TripAdvisor Ads produce “this” ROI – And mostly the hospitality industry here seems satisfied to survive. Things like margins lost opportunity costs and the profit that “could have been” totally escape most Greek business people rooted in traditional sales.
As a retired PR professional, I know this because the average business person here cannot even take the time to accept a free media handout. Trust me, the front page of the New York Times covering a Crete hotel would not even put a tiny smile on the face of the average hotel owner here. And this is true from Paris to Moscow, for the most part. Earned media coverage, something public relations and publicity used to thrive on, barely even exists anymore. Not even owned media like hotel blogs get the attention they should, even though experts like Minas Liapakis’s company recommend and provide content for them. It’s as if business owners have resigned themselves to simply pay the OTAs and Google, and accept any residual loss they might have incurred. “The Story” is supposed to be the most valuable component of every marketing effort, but all any customer ever gets is the movie trailer. Content distribution writers reel off 800 words or an infographic, a fashion model gets paid to share 3 Instagram posts with an article on her blog, and the marketers’ Google Ads team applies advertising wonders without a genuine bit of humanness involved. Things like reciprocity and politeness are shoved aside by the razor crisp value proposition. Marketing becomes a kind of short-lived drug, that has to be applied over, and over again, so clients keep up. Let me show you an old example of earned media now.
Since my retirement, I’ve committed a lot more time to write, analysis, and storytelling via a few dozen media outlets worldwide. Sometimes I get paid for stories, and other times I am sought after to provide a traditional copy in the old way newspapers and magazine used to operate. For the purposes of this report, a story about a stunning innovation by a local doctor here published at The Epoch Times is a perfect example of earned media. For those unfamiliar, earned media is special because it comes from the weight of the story that spurs its creation and the publishing of the content, and not ownership or financial commitment. Now let me show you real economy and real balanced marketing genius, for those who have forgotten.
The doctor I mentioned is Cornell professor and ophthalmologist, Dr. Ioannes Aslanides who owns an eye clinic here on Crete. A chance visit to get eyeglasses for my little boy led me to discover a Greek research team having invented an amazing diagnostic breakthrough called RADAR, which is an innovative tool that can screen kids who are dyslexic like no previous method. I approached my editors to report on the discovery, and the resulting print and online stories are perfect examples of the kind of media many businesses are losing out on these days. As you can see below, the print version of the RADAR piece takes up a full page at Epoch Times, which has a print distribution of between 1.5 and 2 million readers. I’ll get to the importance of print in a moment but let me address the value of digital reporting media first.
The average marketing CMO never even considers earned media these days. It’s just become too hard to explain to clients the time and cost of developing the relationships necessary, and it’s still difficult to prove the return on investment of PR since its effects are not easily measured. But I can show a meaningful example here. A reporter, that’s me, runs across your “story” in real life. Said reporter, that’s me, pitches your story to the editor, who in turn sees value for the newspaper’s (that’s Epoch Times in this case) readership. Consider what you are looking at in the image of the print article below.
I did not include the whole article because it would take up too much space, but it covers the front page of the section in Epoch Times. This is important for a number of reasons, but there are a couple that is paramount to understanding the long-lasting value of PR and media relations. As a former tech reporter at the dawn of the digital age, it was people like Brian Solis, then the founder of Future Works (FW) public relations, who pitched me stories about things like the first iPhone, or Facebook, Twitter, and hundreds of other innovations. It was his expert, honest, and straightforward presentation of “stories” that led to my writing and the writing of dozens of other authors about the technology you use today. For the sake of brevity here, let’s just call this organic publicity. Now let’s move on to real gems.
What you are staring at here is the effective media equivalent of a full-page native advertisement that is more contextual and genuine than any contrived advertisement ever created. And trust me, in the reader’s mind the difference registers whether they are conscious of it or not. However, as important for companies the intrinsic truth of this story is the actual cost and the value derived. To establish this, I have a perfect example from another great friend of mine, the former marketing director of WIHP Hotels Marketing, Martin Soler, who made the biggest possible marketing bang ever for several leading hospitality startups. For a comparison with the “free” news of RADAR, I asked Soler about media ads at outlets we’ve both worked with over the years. I wanted Soler to refresh my memory about the two of the most famous travel news entities, Tnooz and Skift. I’d looked at Tnooz’s media kit from 2013, but only Soler could affirm that a year’s ad package cost $34,000. And that’s just for banners, video mentions, and 12 months’ email campaigning. On Skift, the former SnapShot CMO reminded me that a full collaborative research paper with them cost $45,000 dollars. Please take note, Soler’s efforts at marketing the suggested companies were completely necessary and effective. I am just using these numbers to illustrate the balance I was talking about initially. To continue…
The organic RADAR story there’s a reward there that very few hoteliers will catch. So, let me explain. First of all, a full-page printed story subscribed to be 1.5 million people actually reaches 1.5 million people in a physical and indelible way. Who among us has not read every page of a newspaper cover to cover? And who among us has ever read an entire website, a landing page to the last page? While you digest this, let’s move on to Epoch Times online, and to their 5 million readers. There’s good and bad digital news for RADAR and other companies investing ads or getting organic news. The good news and bad news where digital publicity is concerned. The good news is, there’s a lot of eyeballs that potentially land on your story, and your brand stays on the Epoch Times website as long as there is electricity. The bad news is, paid ads to disappear the instant you stop paying, and unless Google or social media sends people, your story, nobody ever sees it. Let me break this down for you. Marketing inherently creates an advertising narrative; public relations promotes news and storytelling. With one arm of communication you get market understanding and strategy that leads to effective advertising, and with the other arm, you get more cost-effective and long-reaching branding and conversions. The image below shows how a tiny outreach to media contacts at the influential Greek Reporter resulted in not just RADAR reach, but in reciprocity, for the media outlet, no marketer on this world would ever attempt to give. Note the Facebook “likes” for my story versus an important news piece. There are over 200 Facebook shares versus 17, a strategy of reach and reciprocity that NEVER resonates with ANY CMO. Not even my good friends Minas Liapakis, and Martin Soler hold out any hope the boardrooms will ever get public relations reward. Greek Reporters’ editor in chief and owner will know what I did here, and that there is an inestimable dollar value in it. Let’s just call this part of the balance I am talking about.
Taking Emerald City Home
Some of my colleagues will argue that PR is truly dead and that most media these says is paid. I must admit they’re mostly correct. The days of paying huge retainers for PR firms are probably dead and gone because digital business has become far too fickle and unpredictable. However, having PR agents in-house or as freelancers will certainly see a resurgence if I am right. Marketing just cannot get the optimal result speaking advertising language. We see this more and more. The customer consciousness is already overloaded with marketing, and ad-speak. Even brilliant strategists like Brian Solis seem to be struggling a bit to help business rebalance itself. In the MarketingTech story, Brian points out how CMOs and whole marketing departments are having trouble finding their place at the boardroom table. And while the Altimeter Group legend tries to reframe marketing in a gentle way, the obvious is being overlooked. Solis talks about the underutilized role influencer marketing (IM) plays for businesses, but his overall theories point to PR’s traditional roles. On CMOs and their disconnect with the overall business strategy, Solis says:
“It’s, therefore, a quandary for the CMO. Have they not been reacting quick enough? Have they been reacting at all? The great vision of what influencer marketing was, how it was perceived, funded and executed was very tactical. You have this cart and horse challenge where you’re not going to gain greater sponsorship from the CMO or the [chief digital officer] unless you can justify its impact on the business objectives.”
And there it is, only most people will fail to recognize Solis has framed the best argument for PR’s role ever. How so, you ask?
Not one CMO I know is a communicator or storyteller. Marketing genius is all analysis, strategy, and short to mid-term results. PR geniuses like Richard Edelman or Brian Solis cannot just come out and proclaim “Hey, move over and let us lead the internal and external relations,” CMOs and CEOs these days, they just won’t have it. Their logic and their sense of priority is all marketing, and nothing to do with organic. Marketing sold itself that well, but the coming problem for every business is going to be a kind of apocalyptic loss of trustworthiness. It’s already taking place. Born communicators are needed in every field from politics to soap sales, more so now than ever. Don’t take my word here, instead consult Richard Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2018, as follows:
“The 2018 Edelman TRUST BAROMETER reveals a world of seemingly stagnant distrust. People’s trust in business, government, NGOs, and media remained largely unchanged from 2017 — 20 of 28 markets surveyed now lie in distruster territory, up one from last year. Yet dramatic shifts are taking place at the market level and within the institution of media.”
In conclusion, I’ve summed up marketing’s intentions for analysis and manipulation of media, the true role of organic storytelling, and the genuine needs for authentic communicators. In an age when world news and presidents are questioned, how can we expect a formulated advertising strategy to resonate for long? My RADAR example is but one of hundreds. I’ve done a lot of idealistic reporting in two decades, and I know of many more writers more famous than I who have. In my view, the world should have listened to Richard Edelman and not Dave Senay all along. It’s not that Senay isn’t brilliant, it’s just that he was wrong in morphing PR into marketing and advertising. He shot FH and a lot of other entities in their feet doing so. Right now some lady just wrapped a flower pot with a story about some Greek researchers trying to help 700 million people. The outside of the pot shows a fragment of the image above. It sits on her front porch where a glance reminds her of her granddaughter who has reading problems.
Somehow, I am not seeing this same grandma turning the world upside down to find her marketing newsletter or that ad that disappeared 5 years ago. For the sake of everyone’s business, I hope the right people read to the end of this report. It’s possible to take the story of Emerald City back home to Kansas.