Why “that won’t work in PR”.

Something has been bugging me.

For years, I’ve wondered why we’ve not resolved the tension between ‘normal’ marketing creative and PR creative.

Why PR teams often incite eye rolls from frustrated brand teams as they explain that certain ideas “don’t work in PR”.

The struggle is real.

The teams have spent months refining a creative vision, honing the insight, testing with consumers and going through rounds with the board as each finer detail is challenged and tweaked.

Everything has been refined to within an inch of its life (and everyone’s tethers), and a fierce agreement has been cemented that we have arrived at a good idea.

Then the PR’s come in and ruin it.

At first, all seems well. They nod, show appreciation and generally make the right noises.

But then they disappear, and 9 times out of 10 return with a plan that seems to show little resemblance to the original concept. And even more annoyingly, their plan appears to poke little passive-aggressive holes into the thinking.

The ad creatives get upset that the purity of the idea is being destroyed. The board is confused about why this once ‘killer idea’ now appears at risk of igniting the Daily Mail's ire if it’s not changed. And the brand team now have the delightful job of trying to resew everything back together.

The worst-case scenario is that the PR’s thinking reduced to some ‘supporting’ consumer-facing research “designed to bring the idea to life” with a few influencers plus a household name thrown in for good measure.

Time and time again, this happens. And time and time again, I see teams brushing the mess under the carpet and running right back into the fire to make the same mistake all over again.

So, where does it all go wrong? Why didn’t those ideas that the ad agency had sworn would ‘live in PR’ (and even provided helpful thought starters) work? And why are PR agencies always adamant marketing ideas need more?

To answer this, a mate of mine has an excellent technique. Sit and imagine you are trying to capture the attention of a particularly irritated journalist — with an angry editor, hundreds of press releases clogging their Twitter feed and a need to increase their ‘ranking’ so they get paid. You have two seconds to land why readers care, and if they can smell an ad, you lose.

Honestly, this game is hours of fun—a real Christmas show stopper. If you can include a buzzer to be pressed once interest has been lost, then all the better.

You’ll soon find that normal marketing rules don’t cut the mustard. A clear, crisp message with the brand at its heart that sounds amazing in an ad loses something in translation to a journalists. And if they smell an ad, they’re going to start asking for money.

If you try to use PR as simply a media channel, it’s not very effective.

PR is not a crafty way to get your ad printed for free. I mean, it can do that — apply research/ influencer/ celebrity recipe here — but that’s a complete waste of a brilliant tool.

Because while PR can deliver fame and advocacy in a blink of an eye with smoke and mirrors (and lots of exhausted execs pounding phones), building real fame and advocacy is an art form. And it’s not from stunts and grip-and-grin celebrity endorsements.

“PR magic” comes not from black books but from sparking a meaningful unfolding conversation and connection with the people that matter.

It’s a trigger that draws people in and gets them to reassess the way they see the world — however, deeply or lightly.

You can go in hard and question value systems, for example:

  • Ask the nation whether they really know how healthy their kids are, as was done for the launch of Change4Life with the simple question “How are the kids?”
  • Challenge the desire for constantly new ‘gear’, as Patagonia did when it asked people why they needed to go new when old would do
  • Or if you’re IKEA, why not assemble the city of the future to explore how we build (flat-pack) back better (Sorry)

You can also go in with real charm and win over the hearts of the nation by connecting to a cultural quirk that only you can:

  • Kickstarting an ‘argument’ over what flavour a fabric-of-the-nation snack is superior, as Walkers did with ‘Do us a Flavour’ and many have tried to copy since
  • Paying homage to the nation’s attempt to recreate your recipe as KFC did post-lockdown #1
  • And I’m not going even to mention Weetabix X Baked Beans….

To be clear, I am definitely not implying that good PR requires direct audience-participation.

Beyond the journalists/ social commentators starting the discussion, the end audience doesn’t need to reply directly or do anything; they need to start talking.

And if you frame your campaigns around the right questions delivered in a way that lights the imagination, fame and fortune follows.

It’s why start-ups and disruptive businesses are usually so brilliant at PR. Their whole world is about asking questions of the status quo and finding better solutions.

It makes the creative so much more powerful.

So if you want an idea that works in PR, make sure it’s an idea that sparks a conversation. Good agencies will give you valuable insight into what gets discussed, what is likely to be discussed, and why people will talk about you.

They’ll give you the touch paper you can ignite to ensure happy faces all round — start to finish.

Strategist. Still learning.