Opinion

Falling on deaf ears – why the PR industry needs to stop trying too hard

Never has the PR industry had so many platforms through which to communicate a brand’s message, but audiences and journalists still couldn't care less about what you have to say – unless you're making a mistake that is, writes Adam Pitt

The technologies we use every day have made brands more reachable than ever before, but the way we communicate is creating a mess that looks more like a child’s bedroom than a multibillion dollar global industry.

Two of the biggest challenges that continue to resurface, involve trying to sound too smart and trying too hard. To emphasise this point, I once had to edit a newsletter produced by the Beijing office of a luxury multinational car company with a headline “love and care on the wheelchair”, in reference to a story about customers with disabilities. 

In another article, a member of the sales team shared how he was quick to notice that a regular client was on her period because her “smile wasn’t as bright as usual”. Luckily neither of these made it to the media list’s inboxes, but there are no shortage of scandals out there from when the wrong message slipped through. 

While brands are seemingly aware of the need for both creative writing and really knowing your customer, many tend to fall short in their PR executions. 

But, trying to sound smart and trying too hard is not just about the words you use, it is about how you use them. In Asia and the Middle East, the way advertising and publishing industries have evolved has led to the perception and expectation that everything should read like an advertorial.

And this sentiment is coming from top-down: my experience with account directors at global public relations agencies has shown a complete inability to distinguish between the tone, language and content of a speech and a feature.

Then there is the crutch of our industry – the press release. We’ve been sending them out to journalists for more than 100 years, but still haven’t grasped the idea that they are intended to improve efficiency by reaching out to audiences simultaneously. Yet most journalists seem to concur that the press releases they receive are not worth the cost of sending the email in the first place. This begs the question, why are our communications going so wrong in an era with so many platforms at our disposal?

We’re trying too hard to communicate

Everyone loves a trier, but if there’s one things businesses should stop doing, its overthinking things. The big reason social media influencers have become so, well, influential, is because they communicate on a level that we haven’t reached yet. We’re happy if we’re talking personally, but as soon as we step into the office it’s as though a mist of darkness descends and we’re unable to function without a strategy. The lesson is, brands have nothing to fear from being spontaneous.

We’re investing too much in press releases

The press release is not dead, but they’re being slaughtered. They have either got too much content, not enough of the right content, or the time spent producing them doesn’t yield the desired return on investment. No matter how they read, there are also only three decisions a journalist has to make anyway: CTRL+C, delete or a rewrite. But really all you need ultimately is a good angle and a solid quote. Let the journalist figure out the rest.  

We’re trying to say everything all at once

Some communications are so detailed, it’s hard to know what else there is to say. Avoid the temptation to reveal everything. Instead, leave a few cliff-hangers and don’t be afraid that we’ve all suddenly got the attention span of a goldfish. If it’s interesting, people will come back. It’s a tactic that’s been used in television. Good journalists will ask for more details if they’re needed. When they do, you can package them as exclusive.

We’re trying to own every hashtag we use

I can already see the alarm bells ringing in the minds of social media experts. Owning a hashtag is great for brand recognition and it certainly feels good when you find a good one, but this happens through habit not through strategy planning meetings. In political theory, if you don’t own something you can bandwagon, balance or withdraw. In layman’s terms, use an existing one, create one as part of a group, or just don’t use one.

Additionally, if you don’t want to find yourself on the wrong side of the digital divide, invest in a good storyteller, be prepared to break the rules, and consider the role of video and voice. As the technology industry continuously informs us, the next billion mobile users will rely exclusively on these mediums to keep in touch. So it’s likely soon your journalists will see press releases in exactly the way you see VHS. Totally obsolete.

Adam Pitt is a formerly Asia-based communications specialist, and now senior content manager for a leading Dubai-based holding company.

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