Many PR professionals are content calling themselves storytellers. It seems like a good catchphrase that sums up our profession. After all, stories shape our work day. With more content generated and consumed than ever before, the old art of storytelling is a great way to cut through the clutter. In today’s attention economy, knowing how to craft and pitch a story that connects with audiences is worth its weight in gold. But that’s only half of the … um, story.
The other half of course is strategic counsel. As practitioners, we don’t talk this up as much as we should – at least we don’t have a catchphrase yet. For agencies, this now constitutes a challenge as clients are taking a closer look at our consulting model, fee structures, digital prowess and value generation; triggering some serious soul-searching among PR pros. The many debates about ‘The Agency of the Future’ or ‘The Future of the Agency’ prove that client scrutiny over PR value and PR spend is a good thing as it helps us refocus on our core competencies. The final verdict may not be out yet but solid PR advice, based on experience and a firm grip on facts, data and audience sentiment remains a very valuable proposition. We have all arguments on our side. We just need to be clearer and more transparent about it.
Let’s contrast that with journalism. The media is feeling the heat on multiple fronts, from the reduced ad spend, the proliferation of ad blockers and the pressure on print to allegations of spreading fake news and the rise of Facebook and Google as news distributors – without running a single newsroom. Some of the most celebrated journalists had to counter allegations of made-up stories and repeat their commitment to the highest professional standards and work ethics. Meanwhile authoritarian rulers all over the world adopt the fake news battle cry. We would know very little about Trumpism and the Russian meddling – and many other news stories that defined this past year – if it wasn’t for reporters digging out the truth. The world is better for it. Under mounting pressure, journalism emerged stronger than ever. In fact, as other commentators have also noted, this could well be the golden age of journalism.
Looking at both PR and media, it is hard to miss the overlapping interests and concerns. As professionals, we have a shared interest in truthfulness and are equally concerned about the accelerating global erosion of trust. For PR practitioners, moving on from the convenient storytelling mantra and shifting the focus to the analytical and strategic aspects of our work would be a way to demystify what we do without oversimplifying it. That would make us more credible and strengthen our case. Strategic counsel is no echo chamber. We don’t tell clients what they want to hear but what they must hear. And based on the discussions that follow, we create compelling narratives that are truth-based and verifiable.
If we do tell stories, it’s no yarn. The spin-based PR model is assigned to the dustbin of history. Unethical behavior is no longer accepted – look no further than the Bell Pottinger saga and the PRCA’s role in promoting our industry’s professional standards. Some large networks are resigning questionable assignments. In the words of Richard Edelman: “Not every client deserves representation in the court of public opinion.”
The changes in public discourse and the daily threats to the foundations of trust are dramatic but only make our counsel more valuable. If PR is serious about building and protecting reputations, we must never lose focus on the main objective, which is to align corporate with public interests for general progress and betterment. That’s where our value is and where media and PR interests converge.
The new engagement model of shared values is only just emerging and fake news might be the wake-up call we needed. Trust can be restored because as PR practitioners we are truth-seekers first and storytellers second.