Believability – How PR Works

by Andrew Serednyj, 8 January 2010

Public relations is all about reputation. It's the result of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you. It is used to gain trust and understanding between an organisation and its various publics - whether that's employees, customers, investors, the local community - or all of those stakeholder groups.

This is taken from the PRCA website and explains what PR seeks to achieve for clients. PR’s objective.

From media relations and lobbying, to speaking at conferences, to online viral campaigns, to sponsorship - and more. PR isn't always about short-term campaigns, such as product launches. It can encompass longer-term strategic aims, such as brand building and working with local communities.

Again from the PRCA and listing all the various tools that PR uses to achieve trust, understanding and the management of a brand’s or client’s reputation. PR’s means.

What neither quote tells us – quite rightly as this is the bit that’s up to agencies and clients to work out – is how PR actually works. How does PR work, using the various means at its disposal, to ensure it achieves the objectives of trust / understanding and /or reputation?

Advertising has been the subject of numerous studies and effectiveness measurement programmes over the years. Millward Brown is the world’s leading research company when it comes to advertising tracking, measurement and effectiveness studies. In a recent paper it concluded that for TV advertising to work:

“your ads need to communicate something new, relevant, believable and differentiating. However, an ad which is not enjoyed may hinder its persuasiveness; an ad which is disliked is unlikely to be highly persuasive.”

Millward Brown: What Makes an Ad Persuasive, 2009

The ‘new, relevant, believable and differentiating’ elements are, to a large extent, dependent on the message and therefore sit under the control of the client and account teams. It is the creative work that takes on the responsibility of ensuring the advertising is likeable, therefore giving the message every chance of working. There are numerous additional studies that have over the years correlated the effectiveness of advertising with likeability ratings.

What is the key attribute that PR activity needs to exhibit to work? At The View, we believe, it’s believability.

Although it is an attribute contained within the Millward Brown study for advertising, it has even more relevance for PR. One of the historic claims for PR is that because it gains additional endorsement for a brand’s message through media, it is trusted more. For this to be the case then surely the key differentiating attribute must be the believability of the PR.

No amount of coverage, participation, engagement, attendance or hits will compensate for lack of message believability. It is quite possible that the measures used to assess whether an activity has achieved certain milestones are quite encouraging. But because people didn’t really believe the brand message whilst reading it, texting in or sampling it the PR hasn’t really worked.

As with advertising likeability, PR believability sounds obvious and not the most thrilling of insights but is in practice very difficult to achieve. Do you like every ad you see?

Gaining believability in your PR also sounds as if it requires approaches that are safe and solid; verging on the boring but actually greater innovation and creativity is what is really required.

Each year for instance, as the summer music festival season reaches its peak, a vast array of brands are busy sponsoring, providing online tie-ups, sampling, publishing guides, etc, etc. All express their love of music, empathy for festival goers, fun-loving attitude and general coolness. The truth is that not all of them will be or can be believed. The simple level of brand noise around these festivals means that some brands will be lost, seen as just ‘playing at being cool’ and not believed. The truth is that many brands are not really doing anything new, differentiating or relevant - and will not have their message believed despite achieving some participation or hits.

The survey is a further PR standard. But people can only read that ‘brand X is consumed or drunk by 10% of adults after sex’ so many times before they simply no longer believe. (The British people, if you aggregate these surveys, do appear to have a secret passion for pre-teatime sex).

Achieving believability therefore puts the onus on finding more innovative routes to your audience. It also places a greater emphasis on consumer understanding. Each market operates with different requirements for believability. Scientific proof combined with expert user endorsement is the standard route to being believed in many areas of health and beauty PR, while user imagery and experiences play a huge part in most drinks brand campaigns. In each market therefore PR needs to establish a route to believability.

Thinking about PR in terms of achieving believability places a responsibility on agencies to innovate more, think deeper and raise creative standards. But it also provides them with an answer to how PR is going to work. It needs to be PR you can believe in.