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Content wars: creativity and PR porn

Blog post   •   Jun 25, 2013 12:20 BST

Heather Sophia Athie, Key Account Manager and Agency Relations at Mynewsdesk, shares what she learned at Mynewsdesk and PR Moment's #mynewsnight "Content Wars" event.

The event at Skills Matter in Farringdon on 13th June was brimming with in-house communicators, agency types and social media nerds. I just showed up for the pizza, but couldn’t help being inspired by the boundless enthusiasm of our diverse speakers and delegates. 

The “content wars” theme provided an excellent platform for dialogue. As our industry changes and we try to anticipate new trends, we must become masters of new media without veering too far off course from what we know to work. As communicators we must negotiate the balance between instinct and technique in telling our brand story, which can be as precarious as it is rewarding. 

The speakers' talks ranged from practical advice (add photos, be relevant) to the more esoteric (what does it mean to be human?!?) and were at points, controversial.

I learned a lot. Not least of which being the meaning of “PR porn”.

(I’ve included a link to a tear-off take away menu of discussion points raised so if you’re on the bus, iphone in one hand, weekly shopping and laptop in the other, skip to "related material" at the end.)

Stop, collaborate and listen

Campaign success stories are enjoyable to watch and listen to, but I have rarely heard discussions on how internal teams are structured to achieve this.  

Laura Chilvers, PR Manager at John Lewis, gave us a refreshing overview of how leveraging her internal resources contributed to creating meaningful content. By collaborating across a number of teams and then sharing those results internally she used the influence of her company’s best ambassadors (its employees) to guide her. Sharing these results motivated colleagues to continue contributing. 

Laura said of this approach that it is both a luxury and a challenge but I believe it is something we should all strive towards.

It’s not rocket science

Another key takeaway from the evening was simplicity. 

In many ways social media engagement is like going on a diet. Setting a ridiculously high goal for followers or likes is as sustainable as starving yourself for a month before your wedding. Sure, you can do the competitions and incentives but what for? You’re not creating a genuine base of interested parties when you’re in survival mode. 

Collaborations when teamed with direct access or face to face communication are often the most successful approach. We shouldn't forget that social media conversations are just a mirror of how we socialise offline.

So keep it simple. Be relevant. Get your subject line right. Don’t use attachments. Build a relationship. Include links. Put it online.

Stories are human

As communicators we need to understand our audience better. Not as customers, prospects or partners but as people. We want to curate and create content that speaks to people on a human level. Astrophysicists like funny cat videos too. 

To understand and speak to a defined audience means brands have to take a stand on who they are and what they represent. For example: Oreo sells cookies. Unlike the FT, it’s not business critical for Oreo to be perceived as hard-hitting, on-trend and newsworthy. Yet as publishers they have excelled in this. As a consequence they’ve had to vehemently defend their position on gay marriage, have campaigned against bullying and pulled a clever and speedy stunt when the superbowl lights went out.

3 oreo cookies


This example made me wonder: should we be talking about content wars at all?

It’s hilarious to think that a cookie (a cookie for godsake!) can be brave, principled, AND create more buzz than Beyonce’s bum at the largest sporting event in the USA. Beyond being front of mind, Oreo has been genuinely newsworthy. They are masters of the approach “think like a publisher, not like a marketer”.

In my view it is less about a content land-grab and more about emotional intelligence. What makes you popular at parties, influential at work, rhythmic on the dancefloor? Intuition. No one wants to be talked at, we want to be connected with.

Neil Henderson, Head of Communications at Mastercard, and Chris McCafferty, Founder of Kaper PR, shared how they succeeded in their remit to create “priceless moments” for the Brits 2013 by collaborating with artists with a young fanbase. Fans were encouraged to tweet for the opportunity to star in a remake of their idol’s music video. On the shoot the artist walked on set to surprise the fan mid-take. As Neil explained, this was a "three dimensional" campaign which engaged the audience and added to the event in a more meaningful way than just plastering the event with logos.

The key moment for me in this campaign was that split second where fans were shocked by the unexpected cameos. One could feel the tension as fans would go from shock, confusion, breathlessness until finally (before we all had a heart attack) landing on joy. It definitely achieved a priceless moment but for me that moment could have been created with lower production values and actually might have come across as more authentic.

Find your porn

Finding your porn as a brand is figuring out what turns your audience on. We’ve got to align our business objectives with personal insight about our target market. 

The phrase was coined by one of our clients, Kam Phullar, Digital Press Officer at HMRC. In their current campaign, HMRC's PR porn is a series of mugshots of tax evaders.

Our own CMO Adam Cranfield noted that the best way to bridge the gap between your bottom line and a desirable synaptic activity is consistency. Know your themes, build your content around this, share like hell then measure the impact.


We are demanding, hungry beasts

Tickle my prefrontal cortex and my funny bone while juggling cats and doing the Harlem shake. Please.

We crave the immediacy of social media because the constant hunt for content drenches us in dopamine. One insane piece of proof: video/photo messaging app Snapchat (whose USP is that the stuff you send is deleted after 10 seconds) was recently valued at one billion dollars. I’ll wait for that to sink in…

How can companies possibly tap into a product that disappears once it’s been viewed? As PRs, we rely on the long tail effect of keeping our stories online. 

Abercrombie and Fitch’s CEO hit the headlines, twittersphere and our conscience this year for a comment on A&F being an aspirational brand and fat kids shouldn’t wear their clothes. It led to an outcry, memetics of the highest order and a call to have him deposed. The thing is, he made these comments in 2006 and at the time no-one noticed or cared. The only reason this ever resurrected is because someone, somewhere was looking for it.

Overstimulation and our resulting reduction in attention spans is no excuse for dishing out crap, though. Brands need to be smarter than ever before to capture our imaginations.  

Tom Foremski called for the death of the press release in his aptly named article “Die! Press release! Die! Die! Die!”. But what he was admonishing was the misuse of the press release as a platform for disseminating marketing material, rather than a bulletin for journalists. The prescriptive tendency, the “oh I know how to write a press release, I can do it with my eyes closed” approach is what makes them so infuriating. In my view, the press release was never the problem, laziness was.

Wanted: cat video technologists

Starting off the evening with serious lols was James Taylor, founder of Taylor Herring. TH posted a cat video technologist job ad, ironically mocked up to look as if it had been published in a newspaper. It garnered plenty of coverage, brought in great applications and was retweeted by Lord Sugar. 

Cat Video Technologist

Business objectives + lols = success.  

Those people who waste time on the internet, making funnies in their sleep are actually of great value to agencies. As much as brands need to think like publishers, PRs need to think like journalists, comedians and designers. That’s why native internet content producers make the best partners. They know how to keep us hunting by leaving a little behind then surprising us. That moment of joy we all search for when we’re engaged in something is exactly the thing they know to hold back on. They keep us hungry and keep us wanting more. 

Hey girl, be creative

The Huffington Posts and Buzzfeeds of the world have challenged the old guard with consistently sharable visual and dynamic content because they know we want to laugh, cry, look at furry animals and campaign for marriage equality in equal measure. Distracting people from the daily grind is just as meaningful as providing breaking news on Brazilian protests. 

The Gosline

Taylor Herring jumped on the Ryan Gosling bandwagon when they teamed up with blinkbox. The news that our Gos was to take a break from acting spurred them on to create The Gosline for distraught fans who could ring up to hear a recording of his voice. 

In order for our brand stories to compete we must curate and create with intelligence and creativity, keeping our audience firmly in mind but without holding back. We need to package our human dynamism in a sharable, long-tailable, image-based platform. The brand newsroom approach is more relevant than ever. By the way, if you want one, call me ;)

Big PR budgets are priceless

There’s a palpable insecurity when it comes to content. Who should drive it internally? Who should advise us externally? PRs seem to have always felt like the ginger step child of the big ad agencies. Digital PR has grown up and got smart like that guy from school you ignored who is totally hot now. Earned media is proving more valuable in terms of brand entry than anything else. And yet PR teams still aren’t always given the representative budget.  

Chris McCafferty of Kaper PR had to be dragged off his soap box on this point. At first I thought, yeah easy for you to say, you worked with Mastercard! But then I thought about our startup clients who have fought for their digital budgets. However big or small your company is: fight for that PR spend. It is business critical that big, small, B2B, B2C, fat, thin, hairy or bald, you have to get smart about digital and social to compete.

Our changing industry has reminded us that a career in communications can be awesome. Let’s do away with meaningless quotations and pat-on-the-back phrasing and get on with the luxury and challenge of being communications ninjas.

Go! Get more internal resources, collaborate across teams, be funny, tap into your audience’s brains, be relevant, timely, smart, take risks and great pride in your work.

#Mynewsnight is run by Mynewsdesk in conjunction with PR Moment, if you'd like to attend, speak or contribute ideas for our next Mynewsnight tweet us @mynewsdesk_uk.

At Dawn We Ride