Over the past few years, the PR discipline has experienced something of an identity crisis (although crisis may be too strong a word – let’s call it questions of identity). Following his appointment as chairman of the PR Council in 2014, Chris Graves, chairman, Ogilvy Public Relations, coined a term that provided the industry with a new way to explain the important work PR practitioners undertake for their clients today: earned influence.
Chris asserted the traditional definition within marcom, “earned media”, had become far too limiting to capture PR’s expanding and evolving role. It certainly fails to take into account that modern PR campaigns cross earned, paid and also owned and shared media. The latter two have become very critical to reaching audiences, in no small part because of the incredible rise and impact of social media.
Of course, earning influence has always been a cornerstone of PR, even if we didn’t quite define it that way. And for as much as the media and business landscape has changed – requiring PR practitioners to expand their skills to evolve along with it – we are, first and foremost, the experts in securing voice, narrative and the right to persuade.
It’s this core expertise that will make our industry even more relevant in the years ahead. I’ve found earned influence also a helpful lens from which to look at and navigate two important issues to brands right now, branded content and the shifting factors consumers are increasingly considering before making purchases.
In recent years, PR has become expert publishers for clients and their owned channels. But like all new surges, a flooding of the market can have unintended consequences. A new report by TrackMaven analyzed 75 million interactions with more than 50 million pieces of paid and organic content from brands. Over a 12-month period ending in 2015, the report found content marketing output actually increased by 35%.
Yet by the end of that same period consumer engagement dropped by 17%.
It may not be possible to assert a direct correlation but intuitively it confirms what many of us are feeling. When content output spiked in October 2015, engagement levels also suffered the sharpest downturn. “There is a ceiling to how much content can be consumed, liked and shared,” concluded the report. “Brands and social networks alike are competing now more than ever for their share of engagement.”
Earned influence has to be exactly that – earned, because there is so much branded content in competition and it’s only going to get more crowded. This is where PR has an ability to excel, by providing rich and meaningful content for clients with text-based and visual narratives, such as video, infographics and memes. Brands can then start to earn the trust of consumers, who will in turn start to become key brand advocates and influencers.
On the other hand, there are also more and more studies which confirm what we all know from our day-to-day work: consumers want more and different information from brands. This information can influence their purchasing decisions, in addition to their levels of brand engagement and social media endorsements.
One of the latest studies from Deloitte, Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) shows that more than half of Americans surveyed weigh “evolving drivers” – such as health and wellness, safety, social impact and transparency – in their purchasing decisions, rather than just traditional considerations such as taste, price and convenience.
Jim Flannery, senior EVP, operations and industry collaboration at GMA, notes, “Today’s consumers have a higher thirst of knowledge than previous generations and they are putting the assessment of that information into their value equation.”
The opportunity for PR is to provide relevant, timely and appropriate content that informs and entertains. Our industry can and should be influential in helping the wider marketing industry create content that matters to consumers. PR can help solve this problem. If we don’t then it will become increasingly difficult to earn the influence which shapes and challenges consumer and stakeholder sentiment.