Ghislain d'Andlau
Ghislain d'Andlau

Communicating around a topic that no one really understands begs some key questions – what exactly is public relations? When you build a communications strategy, what’s the endgame? And, is the PR industry about products? I argue it isn’t.

Four months after my arrival in Berlin, I was invited to attend Tech Open Air, one of the city’s main tech events. The conference involved back-to-back sessions, but was also an occasion for many start-ups to showcase their innovations.

O'Dwyer's Aug. '19 Financial PR/IR & Prof. Svcs. PR Magazine
This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Aug. '19 Financial PR/IR & Prof. Svcs. PR Magazine.

There was a talk on quantum physics – a topic that is understood by a small number of people, despite the fact that it effects virtually all of us. The interesting thing is that the speaker managed to talk for half an hour on the topic, without explaining the technical details, and still captivated an audience that didn’t know what it was. Pretty good PR, no?

How can someone sell a concept without explaining it to an audience that doesn’t understand what it is? And yet, that’s what happened.

Had he tried to explain the topic, he might have taken a few hours, lost 99% of his audience, and the remaining 1% might still not have understood. The same holds true for a product – promoting a product doesn’t always require explaining it. After all, everybody knows what a website is, but how many people really understand JavaScript?

Building a communications strategy on messaging and not products

Let’s begin with a spoiler – PR and communications aren’t about products. Not just because sometimes they’re too complicated to explain, so by the time you get to the end of your explanation, the briefing is over or you’ve lost your audience. It’s also because PR isn’t simply about selling products. So, what is it?

It’s about messaging – brand messaging to be exact. You’re working on an idea, not a product. If you contact journalists to update them on products – unless it’s something ground-breaking – at best, the journalist will CC his marketing manager and send you a media pack.

However, although PR isn’t about the product, you’re not going to exclude it from your communications strategy. For example, if you work with data centers, your messaging may focus on the rise in data quantities; but, at some point, you’re going to have to talk about the high reliability of the data centers themselves. What you won’t want to do, is take a B2C approach to things and assume people will mistake your latest microprocessor with the iPhone X. Because trust me, no one will. The product must support the messaging, not be the messaging.

So, products aren’t out – they’re just not at the center. Messages are. This brings us back to the question of how do you explain such a product?

Drive your media relations by explaining the impact

A successful communications strategy will highlight the product’s impact and wider implications, rather than just its features. Going back to my earlier example – very few people understand HTML and JavaScript, but we all understand the impact of the internet economy, and we all pretty much understand how it has affected us. In the same way, we’ve all seen how the app market has developed in recent years and how it’s impacted our lives, but don’t ask me how an app actually works.

Explaining a product by its impact shouldn’t be seen as a second gear messaging strategy, or an emergency solution when facing a difficult audience. In fact, it’s sometimes much more efficient to proceed like this, as it blends much easier into a storytelling approach.

Telling a story is much easier when you use a product’s use cases instead of an explanation of the product. And, it’s also much more efficient, as the story will be easier to understand for your target audience. This has been our approach when trying to make some noise around blockchain. When speaking to national press, no one wanted to know about the coding it implied and the different hashes. We managed to make it to the headlines by leveraging case studies and its business value.

Don’t fight it – messaging isn’t about products

So, when looking to explain something nobody understands, don’t start by explaining the product. Don’t even finish with the product.

Your communications strategy shouldn’t solely revolve around products, especially when talking about something that people just can’t grasp, like quantum physics. You should, instead, focus on the wider social and industry trends your business (and its products) have an impact on.

Concentrate on the value that your products add to a business sector or particular audience. This will help you stand out from the crowd, be understood and make a real impact. 

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Ghislain d'Andlau is a staffer in the Berlin and Paris offices of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry.