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The Ongoing Struggle for Some PR Substance

The traditional role of corporate and agency public relations (PR) has reached an important juncture, as the growing body of informed citizen journalists gain market momentum and a multitude of social media platforms enable the potential for self-publication. Being relevant, and newsworthy, can be an ongoing struggle.

Historically, the distinction between advertising and PR was that the latter is meant to be inherently newsworthy. That said, most people on the receiving end of today's typical technology sector "professionally produced" press release would argue that this objective is not being met, most of the time.

Regardless, the vast majority of the current investment in PR is centered on this 20th Century activity-oriented marketing communications (Marcom) busy work. But the people who pay the bill for this activity are now demanding a measurable ROI, and this has forced PR professionals into a mode of creative exploration and experimentation.

Some PR folk talk of their newfound dialogues with constituents, and how they are really engaging stakeholders. Others talk of building and nurturing communities, and collaborating with their clients and/or end-customers. Mostly, it's all talk.

There are few examples I've witnessed where technology-oriented companies are truly collaborating with their customers. Granted, the term "collaboration" is used freely, but it rarely has any substantive meaning -- I see this ongoing process of "creating meaning" as a three-phase evolution of market development work, as follows:

The Monologue Phase -- company Marcom and/or PR agency pushes bland messages to the marketplace, and doesn't anticipate or want a response from customers. This is still the norm.

The Engagement Phase -- an enlightened Marcom team and/or PR agency opens the two-way channel and encourages a dialogue. However, all real decisions about content are still made in isolation, and the customer is merely told about the outcome.

The Co-Creator Phase -- this transition has significant organizational implications -- the whole marketing department is now exposed to first-hand customer insights, and truly collaborates with customers to create a value-added product or service perspective, and associated co-messaging. Customers are then active participants, not just spectators that "comment" on predetermined outcomes.

Some forward-looking technology companies have embraced the third phase by hiring an experienced customer advocate to facilitate this process. I have worked for clients in this capacity. In one instance, I was appointed as the primary thought-leader for my client's "Customer Council" program and I assisted the co-chairpersons (customer employees) in planning, development and execution of the various program elements.

The program activity included me identifying and codifying product application lessons-learned from my client's broad customer base, and from their internal professional services organization. These insights were combined with secondary market research reports that formed an evolving body of knowledge that met my client's customer requirement -- we called it the "show me, guide me, and inspire me" mandate.

All gleaned best practices were shared, of course without the disclosure of any proprietary information, with their global customer population via a quarterly newsletter which was also posted on a customer extranet with additional supportive materials -- where people could ask me questions, comment, or even request more background details.

I was also tasked with identifying and sourcing the most insightful customer speakers for a "case study format" Customer Council webinar that was hosted by my client on a quarterly schedule. Metrics, methodologies and meaningful results shared by the participants during the webinar were communicated back to all customers through the program newsletter.

This collaborative closed-loop model of co-creation was instrumental in propagating actionable insights for both my client and their customers. Meaning, my client's software developers were being directly exposed to valuable impromptu customer suggestions for product improvement. Moreover, their customer participation in the quarterly webinar meetings -- a key metric for the program's success -- grew threefold in a little more than six months.

So, what does this all have to do with substantive PR? While I was retained by a senior executive at my client, I actually invested the majority of my time working side-by-side with their corporate communications leadership and their PR manager team members. Why, you may ask?

My client wanted to go deeper and broader, across the horizontal silos, within their customer's organization and establish new relationships. Thanks to the collective output from the Customer Council program endeavor, they were now armed with substantive talking points, and meaningful business-related accomplishments. Also, editors at their target trade publications reacted very positively to finally receiving something truly newsworthy.

Together, we also created and launched a topical thought-leadership microsite -- designed to attract and engage prospective customers -- that applied their newfound collective deep-domain expertise. But, I'll save that story for another time.

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