I once witnessed some interesting PR event in Auckland in 2009. I was visiting the office of the top games and software magazines. In the lobby of the company stood two men dressed in white quarantine suits and masks. They carried between them some sinister-looking canister. The canister had a name emblazoned on it, the supposed name of the deadly substance within. The two quarantine expert were waiting to see the editor of the magazine.
The men would later carry their canister on foot through the Auckland CBD with phone cameras clicking away and not a few horrified Kiwis scampering for safety.
I later discovered it was all a PR exercise for the launch of a new video game.
It made the news. People all over Auckland were talking about it. The top newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations in Auckland had stories on it.
That’s earned media. It’s Word of Mouth, Buzz and Viral. You didn’t have to pay for the publicity. Because the event was newsworthy and intriguing, people reported and shared the story without being incentivised. Earned media is every publicist’s holy grail.
Then I come back home to Nigeria and remember the Three Orange Men of the 90s that mystified and got the whole nation talking. The country – or more pertinent, Lagos – woke up one morning to see three men painted all over in orange popping up at key locations across the city. They didn’t talk to anyone. They never moved. They just stood there like effigies. Are they aliens? Are they ritualists? Is this the end of the world? No, it was Mirinda relaunching. Dang.
That PR stunt probably got the biggest earned media in the country. Over twenty years later, we still remember it.
However, earned media is a myth these days in Nigeria. Primarily because, well, there are no more remarkable events and activations and, second, even when your brand efforts are news-worthy, you will most likely have to offer an incentive for it to be reported in the media.
We’ve got a name for this incentive. Brown envelopes. It is, of course, an euphemism for monies or something given to reporters to influence them to report your event or story. Other hardliners will call it bribes.
So, you organise a press conference on that product launch or rebranding, you hand out brown envelopes to the journalists. You read a full page interview of that CEO in a top daily, it’s paid for. The coverage of an event that is all over TV?
No free lunch.
The problem with brown envelopes is that, one, it makes it extremely difficult for PR folks to sell the concept of earned media to the C-suite. “What earned media if I have to financially or materially influence the press to report my story? If I’m paying for it, I might as well term it advertising. ”
PR is supposed to be more believable than advertising since it is supposedly coming from an objective third party.
The second challenge with PR by brown-enveloping is that several marketing folks believe that is what PR is all about; giving out brown envelopes and media relations. Which is of course nonsensical. PR is much more than media relations, even if it is by brown envelopes. Crisis management, creating and telling stories, speaking engagements, content development, events, guerrilla marketing and lobbying are some other key functions of Public Relations.
But several CMOs, EDs and CEOs do not see PR employing these other tactics and are inclined to consider PR and its practitioners ‘un-cerebral’ and the guys who don’t really need a budget. ‘We’ll take out something from the marketing budget for them on a case by case basis.’
There’s obviously an overlapping of functions between what PR traditionally used to be and advertising, eventing and sponsorship. The lines are getting blurred and that is where the opportunity rather than challenge lies for PR. Opportunity to develop creative brand stories and sell it. PR should be as much a creative function as advertising is. I have seen PR champion great brand stories. Think of Elon Musk and Tesla.
Oh, but when you develop that compelling brand story, you still need brown envelopes to push it out. It’s deeply frustrating.
Give the nearest PR guy to you a hug, will you. They need all the love they can get.