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What does working in PR have in common with working for the security service?

24th May 2013

A long time ago in a place not far distant from central London, I was being lectured about the nature of treason. What, I was asked, did the traitor see in the mirror each morning as he shaved? Traitor or patriot? It was an ambiguous lesson, without fixed context, given credence only by the fact that we both worked for the security service. The context I only discovered later, and by then he’d already made his decision.

Now, a lifetime later, the business of intelligence has, for me, become the business of communications – from gathering information and keeping it secret to distilling information and making it public.

On the surface, there are few obvious similarities between those two different worlds.

After all, the task of the security service involves shining discreet torches into dark places at the edge of reason and learning enough about the dragons that lurk there to keep them safely locked away. The business of public relations, by contrast, involves shining media spotlights to get companies and their products and systems noticed. It certainly doesn’t involve lights being hidden under bushels.

There is, however, one enormous similarity between the two. Let me explain.

In a cluttered market, whether the product is baked beans, carpeting or a window system, every product needs a buyer – and most products and companies have competitors. What makes a brand successful, or not, is the glue that binds product to customer. That glue is marketing – the diffuse process by which we attract enquiries and convert those enquiries into sales.

Within that conversion process, the central element in any successful PR and marketing strategy is information. We need to provide potential customers with the essential information to buy our product rather than someone else’s.

So far, so self-evident. Yet that’s precisely the central element that a great many firms fail to recognise in devising marketing or promotional campaigns. The information that customers need to make that buying decision is confused by poor messaging or corporate techno-babble.

Indeed, some firms’ corporate communications are so full of technical information to be impenetrable. Time after time, I see corporate literature or websites that convey huge amounts of information that the firm thinks it wants to communicate – but not the essential information that the potential customer wants to hear.

Good PR must recognise that information as a valuable commodity and use that information to manage the human imagination, whether in traditional media or on new channels such as LinkedIn or Twitter.

Sounds fanciful? Well, maybe. Essentially, however, we buy a product because we’re pretty sure it’ll work. We may know that the product has been around for a while, therefore it’s reliable. We may believe that the firm producing it also reliable and therefore to be trusted.

Price, quality and delivery are important, but without that innate sense of trust, we don’t buy. The old adage that nobody ever got fired for buying from IBM is apposite. In the business of trust, larger firms have the advantage – we instinctively trust and buy from firms we have heard of. That’s why large firms spend large sums of money on promotion and PR. What they’re essentially buying, by communicating information about themselves, is customer trust.

There is no reason why smaller firms can’t also play the promotional game – especially those firms in niche sectors who can legitimately claim particular expertise in specialist markets. It merely involves distilling key facts and figures and promoting corporate and product information online and offline in ways that potential customers will find digestible.

But what I see all too often are firms behaving more like MI5 than MFI. Keeping their marketing heads below the parapet because they believe, wrongly, that the alternative is too pricey. The simple fact is that if you have a good story to tell, there’s always someone willing to listen.

Back in the security service bar, I wondered why Mike Bettany was speculating aloud about the nature of treason. Soon afterwards, he was arrested for attempted espionage, trying to peddle the state’s secrets to the Soviet’s men in leather coats. He was sent down for a long time.

Bettany, it seemed, also knew the value of information and how to sell it, for whatever expedient reason or moral justification. For the Russians, that information may have been extremely valuable. For Bettany, poor sod, the price had a more personal cost.

As I said, it’s about information and its value. The marketing and intelligence worlds aren’t that far apart.

 Charlie Laidlaw is director at David Gray PR

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