A few years ago I was having a chat with a close family friend, who also happens to run one of the world’s leading creative advertising agencies from his base in New York City. As we were chatting, this high-powered advertising CEO explained that he really believes that content marketing is the next big thing in the marketing world – he was sure of it and excited about this next step, explaining how it would work to give brands the kind of inherent, sustained relationships with customers that they’ve all been seeking.
At first I thought “that makes perfect sense” but something just wasn’t sitting right. Although I heartily agreed with his sentiments, I wondered to myself if maybe I was missing something – I was slightly confused by what he meant as ‘the next big thing’. As far as I was aware, the specialisation he had just described within the field of content marketing is exactly what public relations is and has always done. There is, in fact, nothing new about the concept of content marketing, and for those who are looking for experienced professionals in the field, look no further than the PR industry.
Comparing the two
Today, PR activities are defined by the Dictionary of Public Relations Measurement and Research as “Content creation such as blogs, videos, tweets, press releases, media interviews, media events, speeches, and so on”, and describes a public relations return on investment as “The impact of a public relations program on business results; the outcome (dependent) variable which demonstrates the impact of a public relations campaign or program investment on business program KPIs such as sales leads, customer retention, new customers, etc.”.
On the other hand, content marketing — the supposedly new player — is defined by Wikipedia as follows: “any marketing format that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire customers. This information can be presented in a variety of formats, including news, video, white papers, e-books, infographics, case studies, how-to guides, question and answer articles, photos, etc.”
So what’s the difference?
While many may argue that content marketing is all about owning your content channels, whereas PR has mostly been about earning those channels through third parties like the media, PR has already expanded its “toolkit” to include owned channels such as corporate blogs and social media.
Although many in the public relations industry have not yet claimed credibility for their expertise in content marketing, we have always been content creators – that’s the essence of our business. We apply our stories to different channels and activities based on clients’ needs, creating the platform for organic and dynamic storytelling to get the best, positive results. There are actually far more similarities between public relations and content marketing than there are differences.
There are some glaring obviously resemblances between the instruments and tools used within these two fields. Content marketers speak about things like blogger outreach – PR calls this tactic media-relations, and we’ve always done that. Influencer marketing is yet another buzz-term in content marketing, which has always been known as brand ambassadorship in public relations. Content calendars, also known as activity schedules, have always been created by PR agencies and presented to client as part of the communication strategy since the beginning of time; yet content marketers also describe these as the new, ‘must-have’ tool.
Sure, the mediums have changed – we now have access to tools like YouTube, Instagram and WeChat to assist with telling a story, where in the past we would provide a great image with a strong photo caption (which we still do). We also used to create events or launches in order to help a brand tell its story, whereas now a content marketer may form an online forum or Google Hangout.
The essential aim is the same, it’s all about creating a story and an opportunity for the media or the public to be a part of something that they can go away and talk about – the only reason a media event is held is to generate content. It’s a platform to talk about something, to spread a message.
PR agencies have by no means stayed behind these new trends and curves in mediums – in fact, we have seen our content calendars grow exponentially over the last decade or so to include these newer, more targeted channels to our already tried and tested methods. Our industry has shifted to keep up with these new mediums and instrument terms bandied around so often by content agencies, but the core goal has always remained the same.
It comes down to credibility
Credibility is a critical tool of persuasion and for eons has been a staple of the PR industry. The creation of relevant content that does not just ‘punt’ a brand, but actually holds value and use for the audience has always been the centre of PR, whether in creating internal or external communications – it’s about what the story you’re telling, how you’re telling it, who your audience is and what their concerns are. It’s about creating angles that this audience will find valuable and reliable.
When interns and juniors join PR agencies, one of the first and most important lessons they learn is about subtlety – PR has never subscribed to ‘brand-punting’, and it is a widely known industry rule that this de-values content and takes away from its credibility, so instead we focus on thought leadership, the sharing expertise etc. This age-old PR ethos is also repeated in newer definitions of content marketing.
At the end of the day, it is the subject matter that is important. If you take a closer look, you will see that there is a depth of experience in public relations’ foundations when it comes to creating content that many of these newer content marketing firms don’t have access to. Although many of us may not realise it yet, we are the real content marketers, and it is time for us to demonstrate our abilities and allow ourselves this hard-earned recognition.