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Watching Church and State Slide Down the Slippery Slope

This article originally appeared at PRDaily.

The intersection of Church and StateThere’s a common request I’ve been receiving, and it has me simultaneously annoyed, disappointed and scared for the future.

The question comes (via email) in one of two forms:

  1. We’re interested in doing an editorial story on your client. For a small fee, we’ll be able to put together a feature story including an interview with your CEO.
  2. We’d love to develop an entire issue on your client including an interview with your CEO, several other members of the leadership team and a feature video that will run online. In exchange, all we ask is you provide us with a list of partners we can contact to see if they’re interested in purchasing advertising in the issue.

The initial request is usually followed up with something along the lines of “we do have a line between our editorial and advertising departments, but we also have to remember that we’re running a business too…”

Infuriatingly, these inquiries aren’t just coming from scam sites like The Leading Edge or Worldwide Business. I’ve been getting them from legit magazines, newspapers and websites, and even when I am working on something that’s purely editorial, it usually doesn’t take long for someone from the advertising side to reach out and ask if I’d be interested in purchasing an ad as well. I’ve even had publishers call me directly and tell me they keep editorial and advertising departments separate, but if I bought an ad, he’d “talk with the editor and make sure we got a story in there for you.” The worst scenario is when a reporter is interested in a story but is only willing to run it if you buy ad space, too.

Thanks to the popularity of native advertising and the shrinking of editorial departments, this pay-for-play approach is becoming more prevalent, and sadly, more accepted. There used to be a very clear separation of church and state, and now this line isn’t just blurred, it’s become almost non-existent.

For a PR guy like myself, this trend is disheartening for a number of reasons, not the least of which is it minimizes the work I do earning an authentic interest in my clients’ stories. No, the more concerning consequence of this mixing of church and state is the audience no longer knows the provenance of the content they’re consuming. Are those headphones really a best buy for Christmas, or did the publication include them because of that headphones ad that’s also in the issue? Is that thought leadership article really the work of a visionary, or is the author the CEO of a company that happened to do a media buy with that same publication?

In an era of “fake news,” Russian social media bots, and Bell Pottinger, this is a very dangerous development. What was once an outlier is now becoming more mainstream, and by fundamentally undermining the credibility of the media, this administration has created a self-fulfilling cycle of mistrust between the media and the public.

If the public no longer expects impartial reporting, then why should we even try? If the public is OK with pay-for-play content, then why wouldn’t we offer more of it?

The convergence of PR, marketing and advertising has only worsened the issue. While I may view these quid pro quo arrangements between advertising and editorial as abhorrent, many of my colleagues with marketing or advertising backgrounds celebrate it. Why wouldn’t they? They get the article, the editorial control, the timing and the impressions they want, all guaranteed for a dollar figure they can plan for versus paying someone like myself to try and earn that coverage with no guarantees. Add on surveys and studies that show the public doesn’t care if the content was paid or earned, and you’ve got an industry-wide ethical crisis on your hands.

What’s the solution? It’s going to take more than well-intentioned letters to the editor or codes of ethics to solve this problem. After all, the problem lies primarily with practitioners outside the confines of organizations like PRSA or CIPR. It’s marketers who view this as another extension of native advertising. It’s media buyers who think they’re doing PR people a favor by negotiating editorial as part of their ad buys. It’s CMOs who only look at the impact on their marketing campaign instead of the impact on their business.

Maybe Unilever’s threat will spur other brands to take a more active role in media ethics, but history tells me otherwise. As these walls between editorial and advertising tumble down, it’s become more and more difficult to spot pay-for-play content in the media, even for people in the industry like myself.

The answer must start and end with the general public. Call out lazy, biased reporting. Flag fake news as such. Check multiple sources. Report undisclosed sponsored content to the FTC. Pay for journalism so the media isn’t forced to rely on brand dollars to survive. A free and impartial press is integral to our democracy. Insist on it—for all our sakes.

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Omnichannel Marketing is the First Step, Not the End Game

This post originally appeared in MediaPost.

Dominoes

True omnichannel marketing is about understanding how the dominoes fall across the entire organization, not just in marketing.

Congratulations on your integrated marketing plan, your omnichannel marketing strategy, your paid-earned-shared-owned media strategy — you’ve now completed the bare minimum of what customers expect.

Just because marketers have finally started to consistently create integrated cross-channel plans doesn’t mean we should toot our horns too much. After all, we’re the ones who embraced channel-specific media plans over integrated strategies and working with dozens of specialized agencies instead of one or two integrated agencies-of-record. The fact that we’re now unpacking these silos, because customers have demanded a more consistent experience, is simply the beginning.

This was a problem of our own doing. And rather than focusing on the real challenge — creating a consistent brand experience at all touchpoints — we focused too much on the how rather than the why.

Over the last few years, I’ve worked with plenty of clients, spoken at dozens of conferences, and connected with hundreds of colleagues. Unfortunately, a common thread has emerged – every customer touchpoint has become specialized and sophisticated. And while that’s made each channel more efficient and effective, it also results in a fundamental fracturing of the customer experience. In our rush to optimize every tweet, email, and click, we’ve created inconsistency and unpredictability not just for customers, but for people in the organization too.

When someone talks about “omnichannel marketing,” they’re usually talking about the channels marketing controls — social media, digital, TV, print, PR. The list goes on. Unfortunately, just because it doesn’t fall under marketing doesn’t mean it’s not a marketing channel. If you want to create a true omnichannel plan, you better make sure you’re also addressing channels that are supported by other departments. The following questions don’t have easy answers. But guess what? The customer doesn’t care about your politics. They care about the experience.

  • Before you start brainstorming the next big campaign, are there other departments doing something incredible that could be proof points?
  • How are you going to use internal communications to activate employees?
  • Have you equipped the customer service team with new talking points?
  • Does the investor relations team have new messaging for the next quarterly report?
  • Does the new campaign impact the advocacy issues your government relations team is tackling?
  • Are operations committed to making marketing a reality on a day-to-day level?
  • Is the C-suite aligned with how you measure success?
  • Is sales using the content you created? Or are they using what they’re comfortable with instead?
  • Can your IT team even create that microsite you’ve proposed?

Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for cross-department collaboration challenges. The reality is it requires more human-to-human communication and conversation. It can’t be fixed via a memo from the CEO or an employee town hall meeting. It can’t be fixed with a steel cage wrestling match between the CMO, the CIO, and the CSO either. What it requires is a fundamental shift in marketing strategy. And marketing cannot be the sole owner and creator.

This may seem obvious but it’s become abundantly clear, to both employees and customers, that more often than not, “omnichannel strategies” really mean “consistency across a few different-channel strategies.” Let’s start creating true omnichannel strategies that address all of the channels available to us.

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Create Content for Humans, Not Machines

Let me preface this post by saying that I’m the current Director of PR and Content Integration at an agency. I’m telling you this so that I can tell you this – I really hate content marketing.

Well, let me rephrase – I hate what marketers have done to content marketing. Content marketing used to represent the new era of marketing – a less offensive, less intrusive, and more useful way of advertising. Brands realized that interrupting what their customers were doing only to shout at them with CTAs were getting their ads blocked and fast-forwarded with increasing regularity.

The content marketing revolution was upon us! Brands came to understand that if they started creating really useful and entertaining content, people would not only stop avoiding it, they would even (gasp!) search it out. This led to brands creating everything from full-blown magazines to films to video games to how-to videos. Life was good. Brands stopped shouting at customers and started delivering more of what their customers were looking for.

Unfortunately, just as marketers did with commercials and TV, spam and email, banner ads and the Internet, we’ve reduced content marketing to nothing more than yet another way to score some impressions, views and likes. Rather than solving problems, telling stories, and collaborating with our customers, we’re poring over analytics and algorithms to figure out ways to optimize clicks and shares.

Engineers, analysts, and data scientists have wrested control of content marketing from the creatives, writers, and storytellers. We’re letting Facebook’s, Twitter’s, and Google’s algorithms decide what to create and when and how to share it. And like a Las Vegas casino, those algorithms are put in place to help the house, not you the brand, and surely not the end user. And so on we go feeding the machine, creating and sharing more and more content, all in an attempt to get these algorithms to smile down upon us with the occasional huge payout.

Las Vegas slot machines.jpg

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5709790

We’ve even gone so far as to remove humans entirely from the process. Chatbots are taking over customer service (oh good, the digital version of “Press 1 if you are having an emergency”), blog posts are being written by machines, even native advertising is being standardized and placed programmatically.

Here’s the problem. In our big data haze, we’ve forgotten the whole point of content marketing. How much of the content we create anymore is truly for our customers? How much of it actually builds our brand? How much time and money are we spending on creating content that serves another platform’s goals more than our brand’s business goals?

Creating content for a social media platform is a lot like feeding the slot machine – put in a lot of cheap coins to trigger an algorithm and hope for a jackpot. Instead, let’s start creating content for people, not machines. Let’s take back control of our brand’s story from the social platforms. Let’s get back to creating content that benefits our customers. Let’s get back to using data to enhance our decision-making, not make decisions for us. The data that we have access to now is exponentially more powerful than it was even just a few years ago, but rather than using that data, we’re just abdicating our decision-making to it. Data should be used to help us identify what our customers actually need, not just what they’ll click the most.

Sure, that video interview with your head of customer service may have taken a lot more time to create and probably won’t get as many likes as that cat GIF you shared the other day, but it was probably a hell of a lot more effective at telling your brand’s story and educating your customers about who you really are and what you can do for them. I’m guessing it’s also a lot easier to justify the time and expense of creating a customer service video than a series of cat GIFs.

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PR is More Than Just a Workstream

A version of this post first appeared in the PRSA PRSAY Forum. 

PR pros have to start thinking of themselves as more than just the “earned” bubble of the PESO model. If and when they do, they’ll realize that while they’ve been focused on writing press releases, pitching the media, and planning events, marketers from other disciplines are not only playing in the earned bubble too, they’re increasingly doing it better than we are.

We live in a world of integrated marketing whether we like it or not. Ad agencies are winning Cannes Lions for “PR campaigns” and PR agencies are winning for “ad campaigns.” We may be the only ones still drawing a line between PR and marketing and between paid and earned media.

This “us vs. them” attitude is the same argument we were having 20 years ago. Today’s consumer doesn’t care. And increasingly, clients don’t care either. As Kieran Donahue, VP of Marketing Americas at Hilton Worldwide said,

“The whole idea of PR versus marketing is crap. You are all connected.”

The things that make great brand marketing are the things that PR should have always been about – authenticity, newsworthiness, shareability, transparency, creativity. Think about the best marketing campaigns. They are filled with content that you seek out, that you watch willingly, and that you share with your friends. That’s the type of content that PR has always talked about. And as more and more people use ad blockers, DVRs and subscriptions to avoid interruptive advertising, PR thinking is finally showing real business dividends.

So while PR pros are sitting around arguing about how we should have a seat at the table, other disciplines have started doing PR work better than our own industry. That invitation to the table that we’re always waiting for? It’s not coming. Seats at the table go to the people with the best ideas, not the people in a particular box on the org chart. If we want a seat at the table, we have to earn it, and once we’re there, we have to be better guests.

We have to compete on the strength of our ideas, and that means changing how we think, how we talk, and how we present ourselves. We have to think of PR less as a workstream, as a functional specialty and start thinking of it as a mindset, as a unique perspective you can bring to marketing. I spoke about this topic at the PRSA International Conference earlier this month. In my presentation, I shared five things PR pros have to start doing to improve the quality of those ideas.

  1. Get inspired. Stop reading PR-only articles and blog posts. Stop going to PR-only events. Stop talking to PR-only people. You’re not only allowed to get out of the PR bubble, it is necessary for your survival. Broaden your horizons and start checking out what other marketing disciplines are doing. Understand how they talk about themselves. How they present their ideas.
  2. Learn their language. Saying “I went into PR because I hate math” may be said jokingly, but every time it’s said, it sets our industry back. We may have different functional specialties, but we’re all business people with the same business goals. Learn about aided and unaided awareness, share points, RTBs, CTAs, CPMs, CTRs, and USPs.
  3. Think critically. Rarely is a business problem solved solely with PR. We have to stop and think with our business hat on more often. Let’s ask “is that really the problem we should be solving? Is that the real problem?”
  4. Own the big idea. We’re all tired of being asked to “PR this” or to “get coverage” for something. Why are we sitting and waiting for “the big idea?” What would happen if we were the ones coming up with the big idea? What would happen if we were driving this bus from the beginning instead of jumping on at the end? Do we even know what a “big idea” is? Instead of training our people to come up with big ideas, we train them to be smart and detail-oriented. We have to work harder to come up with our own “big ideas” – ideas that work across paid, earned, owned, and social. They have to impact the business in a profound way.
  5. Sell in the big idea. Coming up with ideas is easy. Getting them sold in to your boss, to your client, to the finance department – that’s the hard part. And unfortunately, that’s the part we don’t do well. Here’s one example of how PR is losing that battle. Leo Burnett and MSLGroup’s Always’ #LikeaGirl campaign was one of the most iconic campaigns of the past year. Not surprisingly, it was awarded the Cannes Grand Prix in PR this year. Here’s the submission video they created for Cannes, the “Oscars” of advertising and creativity:

Pretty inspiring, huh? I’ve got three daughters and that video got me thinking they’re going to change the world. What a great way to showcase that campaign. Note how it uses video and striking imagery to tell a story and inspire people. That’s what sells in big ideas, not complex slides and detailed bullets.

If you’re interested in checking my whole presentation, it’s available here. PR is what makes great brand marketing today, so shouldn’t we be the ones leading the charge?

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