Public Relations, PR

Richard Fogg, Managing Director of CCgroup

“PR Geek Factory Outrage” screamed the TV headlines. Images of a Matrix-style cloning facility flashed on the screen, where dozens of half-formed men and women PR geeks were being synthetically created. Footage followed of Mark Borkowski, Adam Cranfield and Matt Neale being bundled in the back of a police van after the trial was over and the verdicts read. Finally, a picture of Alex Aiken, by now dubbed the ‘Geek Godfather’, who was still the subject of a global police man hunt.

It was a pretty weird dream. But after the thought-provoking, standing room only ‘Does PR need more geeks?’ PR Moment event last night, it wasn’t unexpected.

The speakers gave four very different takes on the topic. Now, before Duncan and I turned up, we were most definitely pro-geek. But reflecting on the session, I think there’s a case of at least five different types of geek and geek skills in PR.

The intellectual geek

Borkowski really hammered home how, while everything seems to have changed, nothing has really changed. The same rules of influencing the crowd apply today as they did when Vance Packard wrote the ‘Hidden Persuaders’ in 1957. A sound understanding of the psychology of the ‘herd’ is critically important when devising viral influence programmes today, as it was in yesteryear.

The analytical geek

During a presentation that wound up a good percentage of the audience, Aiken claimed (with tongue only slightly in cheek) that excessive creativity was dangerous and damaging to PR. He explained how, in Government, it was only when communications brought evidence and insight to the table – mostly as a result of detailed data analysis – that the function gained the respect it deserved.

The search geek

In a rare, useful sponsor’s presentation (sorry, but we’ve all sat through thinly veiled sales pitches before, right?) Cranfield focused on the more pragmatic geek skills PRists need to embrace. He neatly classified the recent Google algorithm updates: Panda (war on ‘thin content’), Penguin (war on dodgy links) and Hummingbird (the start of a more intelligent, contextual search future) and how an innate understanding of search functionality can inform PR best practice. The SEO people.

The collaborative geek

Like many PR people I’ve watched Golin Harris’s restructure with interest. Neale explained the imperative of creating a structure that supported geeks and how, when creative and project managers work alongside animators and coders, great things can happen. It’s also PR’s ‘ace’ in the battle for owning ‘real time marketing’.

The translation geek

Finally, both Borkowski and Neale outlined a kind of skill to translate creative content across a range of earned, owned and paid media platforms. And this strikes at the heart of the commercial issue too – this is the geek skill that will help PR firms compete on an even, or even superior, footing with our traditional ‘big brothers’ – advertising and marketing.

Maybe it’s the B2B tech PR in me. But if there’s one sort of geek I aspire to be more than any other, it’s Aiken’s analytical geek. Because the insight it enables you to deliver positions the PR function in a new and exciting way. Over the last year or so, we’ve done a lot of primary research into the purchasing dynamics of the B2B tech markets we serve. The insight it has created has been incredibly valuable. And the difference this insight has made to the way that clients and prospects receive us has been notable.

Cranfield concluded by claiming that ‘the geeks shall inherit the earth’. I’d disagree. But I do think that the application of different ‘flavours’ of geek in the strategic, creative, implementation and measurement process will help PR inherit the earth (OK, maybe just Boardroom respect and unlimited budgets, but we’ll settle for that).

How we create and embrace these individuals and skills is another story. But I suspect that, somewhere in his secret laboratory on a volcanic island in the Pacific, Dr. Aiken is working on it. For the rest of us, it’s a challenge that will define the coming months and years in PR.