As I scanned the monthly issue of PR Week (a thought that always makes me chuckle, by the way), I was startled by the glossy, full-page advertisements from a few of our industry's global firms. They literally jumped off the pages at me.
Each was exquisitely designed and executed. Each obviously cost a ton of money to place. Each said exactly the same thing. And, here's the kicker, each MISSED the most important word in today's strategic communications landscape.
Before I reveal the word, I must first share the holding company taglines:
– weber shandwick: “engaging, always.” (Note: weber chose the all lower case look, not me.)
– Hill + Knowlton Strategies: “We know how, when and where to strategically engage the public in conversations that achieve results for our clients.”
– Ogilvy Public Relations: “Starting conversations since 1948. Influencing them since 1980.” (Note: doesn't say much for the conversations between '48 and '79, does it?).
Note how all three of the big guys pat themselves on the back for engaging in conversations, knowing how, when and where to engage in them and, in Ogilvy's case, actually influencing the discussions.
Note also the complete absence of the word LISTEN in all three ads. One should NOT engage with an audience until one first listens to their wants, needs, hopes and dreams. By not listening first and engaging second, these firms are committing a fundamental mistake. They're assuming they know what's best for the audience.
These gorgeous ads tell me the big guys still don't get strategic communications. Oh, they get that they need to be engaging in conversations. But, they don't GET that the 'public' as H+K describes the audience, calls the shots in that arena. Big agencies and big brands don't decide, as H+K suggests, how, when and where conversations begin. Joe Six Pack does. As does Sally MotherOfThree. And, ditto for Amy Undergrad.
Today's strategic communications begins with listening (ongoing listening also dictates the myriad twists and turns a campaign makes along the way).
Too many old white guys in gray suits chained to their corner office desks still think the top down, inside out way of communications works. It doesn't. It's dead. And, about as relevant as an ad that proclaims a PR firm actually influences conversations. I wonder how H+K's public would react after reading Ogilvy's words? Methinks they wouldn't like it.
All of this is good news for the small and midsized firms who, unencumbered by 80 years of this and 64 years of that, can turn on a dime, listen to an audience and help a brand meet at a crossroads predetermined by the former, not the latter.
So, here's a note to the big guys: keep running those expensive ads that reinforce you don't get where the conversation is headed. We'll keep listening while you keep talking.