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AfricaMoney | October 19, 2017

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PR ExpertSpeak: Social media has changed marketing dramatically

PR ExpertSpeak: Social media has changed marketing dramatically

Content creation and conversation are the two most important ways that public relation people can benefit from what is going on in the digital world, says Paul Holmes, President and CEO of the Holmes Group. (Image: Marie-Lorry Coret/AfricaMoney)

Paul Holmes, President and CEO of the Holmes Group which provides insight and analysis into the global PR industry, spoke to AfricaMoney on the sidelines of the African Public Relations Association (APRA) conference in Mauritius. Our PR expert, who chairs the judges of the SABRE awards – the world’s largest competition for public relations programming – and manages the Global Public Relations Summit, tells us authoritatively what it takes for a PR firm to be successful in the digital era.

Edited excerpts from an exclusive interview:

According to you, what is the importance of Public Relations for a company?
A company has critically important relationships with its stakeholders —employees, customers, shareholders, regulators — whether it manages them effectively or not. If it fails to manage them, the stakeholders can turn hostile and can make everyday activities from recruiting the best people to building new factories more difficult. If those relationships are managed well, not only do those challenges become easier, but the company can find itself with valuable, credible brand ambassadors, who can act as advocates in the marketplace, recommending its products and services to others and boosting its reputation, hence generating positive word of mouth and positive media coverage.
The only question that it seems to me companies must ask themselves is: “Do they want to turn these relationships into a competitive advantage, do they want them to be positive relationships?” And public relations then is simply the art of managing those relationships, for what I would call their mutual benefit.

One of the biggest challenges for PR right now is how to integrate digital. Can you give some tips on how PR agencies can successfully tackle this challenge?
In some ways, digital is simply another channel. Certainly I believe it is important to view communication in an integrated way, to make sure that digital, broadcast and print are all working together to tell the same story about the company.
Having said that, digital is different in a couple of ways. The first is that it encompasses social media, which are much more conversational that the traditional media companies have used. The challenge is to create new ways to get content into the hands of consumers, and so in that respect I think that PR people need to learn how to become content creators. Public relations people need to ensure that their social media activities are credible and authentic—because any dishonesty or exaggeration will be discovered swiftly and punished severely—and also based on dialogue, which means listening as well as talking. Most public relations people, I think historically, have been much better at words than images. I think there should be better visual communicators, better visual story tellers. The second difference is around conversation, dialogue. Digital allows the company to reach out to customers and other stakeholders directly, rather than through intermediaries. So PR people need to learn to create compelling content—YouTube videos, blogs, etc.—that is entertaining, emotionally powerful, and informative. There are conversations now taking place all over the internet and in the real world too but on the Internet, it is easier to find them. There are conversations which are taking place and public relations people need to know how to join these conversations without being disrespectful, talking like a real human being and participate in a way that does not seek to tell people what to do and what to think but helps them come to the right decision. Content creation and conversation are the two most important ways that public relation people can benefit from what is going on in the digital world.

Also, you mentioned in a recent interview that in making the business case for the value of relationships, ultimately, it comes down to measurement. How can PR agencies make their work more measurable and hence demonstrate their value-add?
The PR industry is still alarmingly dependent on counting clips or media impressions. We can talk with confidence about how many people we reached with our message, but not what they did as a result. Often, the budgets for that kind of research are difficult to come by, but we have to make more of an effort to measure impact. One metric that I would like to see widely adopted involves measuring how many new “fans” or brand advocates we have created as a result of our efforts, and how many critics or detractors we have convinced to change their minds. This idea—similar to the “net promoter score” developed by Fred Reichheld of Bain—speaks to our strengths and has a direct impact on business performance.

You also mentioned in the same interview that much of the most interesting work is taking place outside the PR industry. Can you site some of your personal sources of influence?
If I remember the interview correctly, I was probably talking about thinking in fields like cultural anthropology, behavioral science, neuroscience, and even big data. These are areas PR people need to understand better, and there are interesting works being produced that will have a real impact on how PR people do their jobs. I think communication is becoming scientific and that there are a number of areas which overlap with public relations. Historically, we thought about public relations mostly in terms of journalism and media relations.

Can you give us insights, from your experience as the founder-editor of the Holmes Report, into significant PR trends and issues across the globe?
The most obvious trend is one we have already discussed, which is the rise of social media. Social media has changed marketing dramatically: it used to be the case that brands were the result of what a company did— its advertising, its sponsorships, its website; today, brands are the result of what other people say—the discussions taking place about a brand in social media. In such an environment, traditional advertising is less effective, and engagement—something PR does well—is more valuable.
Another important trend is the expanded use of data. Data has become more accessible and affordable in the digital age, and PR people are learning to use both big data and more intimate information—gathered by a process akin to cultural anthropology—to derive the strategic insights that drive campaigns. In the new world, the person with the best insights and the best strategy will win a central role in marketing campaigns, and PR are now competing on a more level playing field.
And finally, there is a convergence of disciplines going on that gives PR people the opportunity to think beyond earned media. Many of the things PR is now being asked to do involved either “owned” media (websites and YouTube channels) or “shared” media (Facebook pages) or even paid media (advertising). Certainly, PR people can no longer focus exclusively on press releases and press conferences.

Given that the island economy often suffers from the perception of being a tax haven, can PR platforms help Mauritius showcase its real economy and get rid of the ‘tax haven’ tag?
I am by no means an expert on the situation in Mauritius, and so I hesitate to offer any specific advice without knowing more. But I will say that any campaign to overcome a misconception must be authentic and honest. Start by acknowledging what is true about the tax situation in Mauritius, but then going on to look at other stories that show an economic story beyond those facts: tell success stories about entrepreneurialism in the country, and about the lives of ordinary citizens whose lives have been made better by the economic opportunities they have received. There are many ways of telling these stories: in print, via traditional media relations; or in videos on a YouTube channel; or via a website.

Do you think effectively leveraging PR can serve as a thread for the expansion of Mauritian companies on an international scale, and how?
I believe any company that is looking to expand internationally needs to use public relations. A good PR firm should be able to help a company understand the culture and values of the new markets it is entering; tell its story in a proactive way to potential employees, customers and investors; and prepare to any difficulties or challenges. There are PR agencies in Mauritius which have a good understanding of the local market here and which can help multinational companies.

What would be your advice to Mauritius in order to improve the value that is placed upon PR in the island economy?
I think that everywhere the public relations industry needs to promote higher professional standards. When a public relations is doing its job, it has an incredibly important role to play in society generally. Good public relations aligns the behavior of communications of institutions with the expectations of the society in which they operate. The PR community needs to start telling that story, needs to go particularly to universities because they need to convince young people about public relations being an exciting and worthwhile opportunity, that they will be doing something valuable, important and above all, ethical. It needs to make it clear that bad public relations – spin and dishonesty – is not acceptable because if PR has an untrustworthy image, it will not be able to convince people that they should trust its clients. We have to keep raising professional standards and communicating what we are doing to achieve that. There are local firms in Mauritius that are moving the industry forward and those firms should be supported.

Finally, at the APRA conference, there was a discussion about ‘paid-journalists’. In what ways is this unethical?
There are sometimes occasions when it is fair for a company or institution to provide travel expenses to journalists but I think in terms of payment you have to ask yourself “would I be happy if a rival newspaper publishes this story saying that I paid a journalist to cover my event?” And, more often than not, that would be embarrassing both for the client and for the journalist, hence it is wrong. I do not think that paid-journalism should be encouraged. People trust the media rather than advertisements, hence they deserve to read and hear good stories, honest stories.

- By Marie-Lorry Coret and Cecilia Samoisi

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