Everything is PR because, in an age of crises, everything is crisis communication, writes Faris Yakob, but the flip side is that everything communicates.
Happy New Year! To be completely honest, and I always try to be with you, I found it hard to sit down and write an article this week. It has been and remains hard to focus, I’m sure you are experiencing something similar, wherever you are, for myriad reasons. It’s hard to give work the focused attention it deserves and requires, because there is so much going on that seems to require it more urgently. But therein lies the rub, and thus the idea may come. Considering how hard it is to allocate any attention to the things I have to do because the current volume of crises is so high, how much harder is it, I ponder, to get some for the brands we serve?
Last week, the ‘lame duck’ President of the United States took umbrage with that designation and is attempting to subvert the election of the world’s oldest democracy primarily through propaganda. Lies, damn lies, dishonest framings, repeated at high frequency with great reach – not through paid media – fomented an attack on the Capitol building. In light of these incitements to violence, Facebook and Twitter have suspended the lame duck’s accounts.
It is the very seriousness of those last sentences, and that they involve our industry, that makes it hard to allocate any cognitive space for a new fast food value menu or the Toyotathon. But that is the operating environment for brand communication, as it has been these four long years at the very least. How do things work now, and how can they work better, when we can no longer even agree broadly as a society what is true and what is false?
All is narrative, but most stories vanish in a nano-newscycle. In Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, a book about Russian media, Peter Pomerantsev writes that: ‘Everything is PR’ has become the favourite phrase of the new Russia...
“Over the last twenty years we’ve lived through a communism we never believed in, democracy and defaults and mafia state and oligarchy, and we’ve realised they are illusions, that everything is PR.”
This woke cynicism is the ultimate product of what the RAND corporation calls Russia’s “firehose of falsehood” communication strategy, or what Steve Bannon called “flooding the zone with shit”. Constantly producing lies at high volume, in every possible channel, through whatever means, with no consistency. Indeed, that’s very much the point: to disabuse the populace of the notion that they can rely on anything they hear, from whatever source. How can brands communicate in this environment, in light of the fact that brand itself is a form of strategic consistency and corporations are not politicians or rogue nations, protected from the consequences of lying to the public [unless they call it puffery]?
The flip side of this, that everything is PR and thus cannot be trusted, is that everything communicates. Every action a company takes, every fine they pay, or political donation they make, every Tweet the CEO sends: everything is PR. The prophet of our times, George Orwell, said it first: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.” Except, of course, he never wrote or said that. It’s a fauxtation, without any referent, like so many quotes and facts we get fed online. As we have long known in advertising, repetition is powerful. The more we see something the more we tend to like it - the mere exposure effect. Listen to a lie enough times and you begin to believe it’s true - the illusory truth effect.
Under Armor’s stock price has never recovered since the founder Kevin Plank fired out a tweet in support of the then newly inaugurated President, which triggered an immediate backlash from his paid celebrity spokespeople of color, forcing him to issue an apology. Plank subsequently stepped down from his role as CEO. Advertisers have paused media spend across social media in light of the attacks on the Capitol. Meanwhile, in the UK, EE has pulled its ad featuring Rita Ora because she broke lockdown retractions to have a birthday party. Everything is PR because, in an age of crises, everything is crisis communication.
Everything a company does should be considered for its impact on the public, not just whether it will get picked up in mainstream media. The public now is the media, and relating to it is every company’s challenge. We’ve seen an endless stream of creative ideas from Burger King [as I have written about in previous column], KFC and others, working in this new paradigm. A break-through brand campaign now includes a much broader range of channels and different ways to use them, be it a sexy Colonel Sanders lifetime movie, or the Kentucky Fried Hot Tub from the KFC crowdsourced innovation lab. KFC pairs Wieden&Kennedy with PR giant Edelman to make sure the ideas that come out are built to earn attention, which allows for lower media weights, and thus a larger volume of more experimental creative ideas.
Right now, the mood doesn’t suit such frippery and brands poking themselves into these conversations as a way to gain some cheap saliency have rightly been decried. Ben & Jerry’s, which has established commitment and credibility to social causes, issued a well-received Tweet thread stating that the attack was a “white supremacist” riot and that the President should be impeached [who still writes press releases? Why?]. If you’ve ever been front line social media anything for a brand you will know how difficult it usually is to get a CMO to sign off on that sort of statement but anything less serious, specific and cogent is not a good idea right now. More mealy-mouthed statements from CEOs vaguely condemning violence, coming from executives and corporations that have publicly donated vast sums to the political inciters of said violence have rightly received criticism already.
But the mood never lasts. Each news cycle is shorter than the one before. I’m already exhausted from this morning, as I imagine many of us are. That said, brands will need to maintain the difficult balance they aimed for last year, acquiring enough attention to maintain momentum if the dynamics of their business currently support it, whilst acting appropriately. Many serious things continue to unfold in 2021 and behind brand icons are large, serious commercial entities with great power and responsibilities. This year will be a morass of confusing messaging from officials and protean conditions, which suggests brands should lean into their distinctive, simple, comforting assets. Burger King just announced it is bringing back the old 90s logo. Is that PR? Yes.