The Future of Content: Takeaways from the Council of PR Firms ‘Content Frenzy’ Event

  • Content is the future of public relations—but do we really want to enter such a “shitty business?”
  • Content is the best way to reach the audiences our clients value most—but we can’t follow the media industry “over the cliff”
  • Our core competencies are in storytelling and earned media, and we should “think like editors”—but we have to demonstrate real-world value to our clients or we’re toast.

Confused yet?

The Council of PR Firms‘ 2013 “Content Frenzy” Critical Issues Forum was nothing if not contentious. During the event’s opening panel moderated by Ogilvy CEO Chris Graves, BuzzMachine founder/media critic Jeff Jarvis and WebbMedia Group CEO Amy Webb encouraged attendees to forget everything they thought they knew about “content” and stop trying to view PR as the new journalism, because:

His point? PR is all about “relationships”, not “creating more crappy content”, so we should stay away. And he didn’t let up.

No matter what you think about PR’s role in content creation, Jarvis’ emphasis on quality is crucial because, as fellow panelist and News Corp. SVP Raju Narisetti put it:

But it’s still not “journalism”. According to Jarvis, that classical practice isn’t about promoting the business interests of a client by dressing up an old strategy in a new outfit. Webb made the same point in a different way, arguing that we define content “too narrowly” by focusing on text-based materials designed to push clients’ messages.

Lewis Dvorkin of Forbes‘ “Brand Voice” offered a counterpoint: his company’s practice of creating “native ad” articles for partner brands has done well. But the Forbes‘ equation won’t work for everyone, and as Webb put it, we in PR have to become “curators of conversations” rather than just producers of blog posts and advertorials. Again, we have to make the most of the relationships facilitated by our content.

During the second panel, titled “Making Content: Buy, Rent, Hire, or Build”, Text100 CEO Aedhmar Hynes backed up Webb’s point about multi-media, noting that:

This conversation was slightly more optimistic overall: Benjamin Wollin of Everyday Health said that “content is still needed”—and it’s up to us to provide. But we do tend to have an insular view of our own work. Contently founder Shane Snow got a big laugh when he said:

Snow also agreed in part with Jarvis’ key point, saying “Let’s kill the term ‘brand journalism’ right here. It’s not journalism. It is information and entertainment”. So our job is to inform and entertain our clients’ audiences, but at the same time we can’t get too desperate for clicks because, as Dvorkin said earlier, pageviews are the most “useless metric”. As far as reach and influence, we may try our damndest to capture lightning in a bottle with “viral” or “sticky” content, but take Ketchum CEO Rob Flaherty’s word for it:

 “The best answer to the question ‘How do I create a viral video?’ is ‘Shut up.'”

Finally, the event touched on humor, an invaluable quality that’s difficult to measure and even more difficult to master. As Ogilvy’s Chris Graves said during the event’s closing panel, firms “need to hire more comedy writers” to get deeper insights into the average consumer’s perspective. Veteran satirist/Spinal Tap star Tony Hendra supported that point by saying that “you’ll never forget” laughing at a brand that can laugh at itself. In fact, that may well be the best way to change minds and reputations.

Our key takeaways:

  • Despite what critics say, “content” isn’t going anywhere, and we’re only going to be making more of it.
  • We need to be as flexible as possible with our definition of the word.
  • Multimedia approaches are crucial, but good writing still lies at the heart of the content equation.
  • We need to prove ROI, but pageviews and Facebook likes won’t cut it.
  • Authenticity is the most important aspect of everything we produce. We can’t disguise our content as traditional journalism.
  • The most authentic sensation around is humor. A brand that can laugh at itself will instantly win attention and, hopefully, respect.

For more excellent reports on the event, check here for the Council’s Matt Shaw, here for Aarti Shah of The Holmes Report, here for Matthew Schwartz of PRNews and here for Lisa Vallee-Smith of Airfoil.