I have been fortunate enough to have experienced the world of communications from many different angles: I was a client for many years, then I had an agency offering communication services and now I am a Head of Marketing and Communications.
As a Client I did not worry or care too much for Communications: I was mainly interested in its results, that is, visibility for my brand. I knew the Brand was an important element of my go-to-market strategy and I expected Communications to “set the stage” with a positive perception when I had the opportunity to meet a new potential customer.
It was the 80’s and the role model was – no doubt – Microsoft who did an excellent job of establishing their brand in the minds and hearts of people who did not really understood what the product was or did.
I was with Lotus Development at the time, and while we prided ourselves on a superior product (which at least for a while was true), we failed to understand something Microsoft understood only too well:
You can’t create a Brand, except in the hearts of the consumers.
Ultimately this was the reason that drove me to leave the company, as I had become acutely aware of this mistake but when I tried to move from my job as Country Manager for Italy to one of Marketing, my boss (a man who otherwise had excellent management skills) did not understand why I was doing that and neither did he support it, so I grew frustrated and left.
This was the start of my agency experience: I had zero prior understanding of the consultancy business model, but I understood our market very well.
In fact, this was perhaps the single most important reason for our success: I was “one of them” with our customers, since I understood what the challenges were, I understood the technology and was able to add value by turning the otherwise dry technology into exciting material.
I must say that I found myself often a little too ahead of the times for my clients: even with the Client that I enjoyed the most stable and fruitful relationship with (IBM), my attempt to claim that they had to focus on the consumer at the end of any B2B pipeline did not resonate much, until they came up with the Smarter Planet campaign in 2008, at which point the Chairman Sam Palmisano made it clear I had been right all along. Sadly, he did not even know I existed and the change of mind was the work of more capable advisors in the US.
Over this same 35 years stretch of time, the rest of the world also changed: namely,
The digital revolution made the business model of most media obsolete, without replacing it with another one that could be equally sustainable.
Access and Credibility
While I navigated these different roles, I never stopped thinking that a Brand’s primary responsibility is of establishing itself with its audience, the media being a mere conduit; this, however, is a faulty line of thinking.
The media did not merely provide access to the audience, it provided credibility by means of best practices such as fact-checking, second sources and so on.
Sadly, what the market paid for was Access, and not Credibility.
Access had many components: media had the container (TV Channel, printed newspaper, radio station) it had the distribution (whether physical or on-air) to reach millions of consumers, it had the analytics (albeit not very sophisticated) to target specific section of the audience with a specific message. In fact, media grew so good at selling Access, that it started being mistaken for the real product: in short, Media started believing it was in the business of selling Access to the Audience.
Fast forward 30 years, and this unique grip that Media had on Access has all but vanished: the container has been disrupted by digital containers, distribution being carried out on the Internet which also enjoys far better analytics.
Brands do not need Media to Access their Audience any longer, therefore they stopped investing in Media, wreaking havoc on their business model: any Brand can today self-publish whatever content it comes up with, publicize it on Social Networks and attract an Audience of millions. As Dan Gillmor (1) said it over 10 years ago, truly now We are the media.
Any Brand can now cement their direct relationship with the Audience without having to pay for any middlemen: the hundreds of good journalists who lost their jobs are only too eager to join the ranks of enterprise publishing, offering content or equal informative or entertainment value.
There is one big difference, however: Credibility is gone.
Silver-tongued spin doctors can now roam free because nobody is checking on what they say. Storytelling has become a buzzword, because the only measure for the quality of produced content is its ability to engage the Audience.
Triumph of Propaganda over news reporting. Or is it?
The fact to the matter is that the Audience still values Credibility: maybe the Media did not do a good enough job to underline how important it was to THEM (in fact, it wasn’t, as they were into selling Access, if you remember), but it’s not like the Audience does not care about Credibility.
To get a confirmation, all you have to do is speak to someone who lives in a country where independent media never really existed: either because of the lack of a developed market economy, or because of widespread Governmental control, the Audience in these countries was never able to use Media to get an independent account of facts.
In 2012, I got to speak at a PR Conference in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and was very surprised to learn that one of the key issues in the Kazakh PR community was how to deal with trolls?! While the western world communities have had the time to learn how to protect themselves against people who abuse the social media and spread slander or propaganda, these behaviours were hard to tackle in that young communications culture.
Restaurants forced to close because of false negative reviews, or politicians whose career was ruined through the skillful use of rumors and accusations… the case studies piled up.
Given the possibility to abuse, people WILL abuse, and unless there is a strong, closely knitted community that can react quickly to isolate trolls, the damage will be significant: in fact, the damage will ultimately cause the death of that community itself, as people will stop believing what they see as genuine content and “tune out”.
Once again, a perfect demonstration of the fact: what the Audience wants is Credibility, and once it disappears, so does the Audience.
The consequences for PR
This outcome is, of course, undesirable for everybody except the Audience itself: as we know, there is plenty of alternative channels available, and if Yelp gets too infested with bogus reviews, I will stop using it in favour of Trip Advisor or any of the hundreds of alternatives.
In fact, authenticity (a.k.a. Credibility) is so important that companies whose business is founded on Credibility go to extraordinary lengths to ensure it is preserved: see for example all that eBay does to make sure its feedback is realistic. Even in that case, however, what was conceived as a fairly detailed and granular feedback mechanism, turned into an “all or none” flip switch. Professional sellers insist on you not posting ANY feedback if it is less that the maximum value, and to resolve any issues offline without reporting them.
Which is good, as it shows how genuinely they care about their customers, yet it does not provide the next prospective buyer with ANY information on how often mishaps occur, therefore voiding much of the value in the feedback itself.
As PR professionals, we used to play the role of our Clients’ advocates, upholding their views even when they were unbalanced: our task was to make the story interesting, attractive, and slick. Although most quality professionals would refrain from an outright lie, the reprimands were of an ethical nature, rather than a utilitarian one.
Today, we have a completely different situation: there is nobody on the other side to double check our story or to look up the facts, but the stakes are much higher.
For, if our Audience “tunes out” of our Media, what’s the point of hiring us in the first place?
(1) We, the Media (Dan Gillmor, O’Reilly Media, 2004)