Relating to the Public

A particular conversation last night sparked an expanded thought process to a topic I touched on earlier –Nothing beats the bond of a real world experience between a company and a brand in whatever form that takes.

No doubt that online is a crucial conduit to a steady flow of information and insights but there are certain nuances that are missed when not also connecting in person. Focus groups, in-person events, sponsorships, experiential marketing, “street teams;” they are all additional relations efforts to connect with consumers and discover truths that will help the company better relate and develop a better user experience. The combination of utilizing both is what’s accelerating the new world order of “PR.” Both communication streams (online and offline) are necessary to connect with consumers in a truly lasting way.

I love pointing to Tony Hsieh as an example of social media done right from a corporate point of view and to illustrate mine I will use him again. I follow Tony on Twitter as do most folks I know. We all root for him, think he’s a likable guy and admire what he’s built. Most of us have never met him. It doesn’t matter.

His authentic voice and what he says are enough that we support the company and offer feedback and encouragement about the company. I would hazard a guess that some of these people (including myself) have never actually purchased anything from Zappos. Endearment is high but how much more would they love Tony and Zappos.com if they hosted a meet-up in 10 cities (some not in the 10) and it was only for folks that followed Tony on Twitter? How many would show up and shake his hand and like him all the more and feel a deeper sense of enthusiasm and connection to the brand? Is an event like this considered marketing? Or is it a form of public relations, as in Tony and company, creating an experience to relate and connect with their public? I think the latter.
I had been thinking that public relations was disappearing into marketing but of late I’ve been inclined to lean toward marketing being largely swallowed by this new and emerging definition of PR. At least based on what I’ve witnessed and heard from a very vocal selection of PR and Communications professionals (as if there’s a difference between the two.)

PR professionals I know, mostly with a tech background, have a strong grasp (even conceptually) on what it takes in this age to build a reputation. More and more PR programs, on their most ambitious level, propose a multi-pronged approach for launching and building brand awareness and customer connections. But the ideas are now overlapping with what was more typically marketing territory. Co-partner promotions; direct mailings to support a corporate effort; social media engagement through blogs; mailing lists; forum and customer communications; micro-blogging; social networks, etc. etc. etc. And let’s not forget ideas around viral tools like videos or links that reward the consumer somehow.

Any number of these items, and many others, are often recommended by PR strategists, combined with the mandatory media relations efforts, of course. A lot of which is often performed merely for the benefit of coverage to please investors and potential partners during the sales process — not as a vehicle that will establish a relationship with a consumer. Curiosity might be peaked but have they related and connected yet? Hard to do with just a newspaper article. Yet that’s how PR is largely judged these days.

So then I got to thinking, the Internet has ushered in this advent of consumers claiming this massive voice which has sent a majority of companies spinning up a steep learning curve, adjusting traditional communication and marketing strategies to include this wide uncontrollable information channel. But, this channel plays by different rules and they’re set by consumers. Companies have to alter their entire approach, the way they communicate, even what they communicate, when engaging in online conversations.
“It’s all about being authentic!” we say. “Showing what’s real!” Well, if that’s the where the new consumer mind-set is, and is wholly heading, then: aren’t we all a lot more interested in being “related to” than “marketed to?” Don’t we deserve better in a forum that we, as consumers, control?

Aren’t we tired of being force-fed assaulting attempts at “marketing” exercises in the bathroom, the supermarket floor, billboards, blatant movie placements, and anywhere else you have see logos flashing before your eyes? Does this work? Does it create a connection?

No.

As a reminder, PR represents the words: Public. Relations. I don’t see the Internet going away any time soon. Or the DNA nature of social media that we’re building on. Or, the facilitation of online connections being carried offline. The new necessary practices that companies need to keep up with the conversation, let alone lead one, are rooted in being able to “relate to their public,” not “market to their public.” Which one has the better ring to it? Which one do think is going to give you the best pay out in the end with the people who spend money with your company?

Relating to the public. It’s a beautiful thing.

(To read an additional viewpoint on the need for Public Relations online casino to be re-defined, check out the upcoming book, “Putting the Public Back in Public Relations” by Brian Solis.)

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