BRUSSELS--Senior figures from the European public relations world have urged the industry to improve their storytelling abilities or risk obsolescence.

The call for greater creativity came at the Holmes Report’s ThinkTank Live conference in Brussels, which focused on the rapid advances in content creation and storytelling, drawing a packed house of attendees from across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and North America.

Click here to view the conference Storify.

Edelman global vice-chairman Jackie Cooper told delegates that the PR industry “is not leading enough”.

“We are not the kings,” said Cooper. “But are we the heir apparent that needs to step up more?”

Cooper pointed that ad agencies continue to hold creative keys while media agencies oversee outreach. PR firms, she noted, are locked in battle with digital agencies where social media is concerned. And TV producers like Fremantle media, added Cooper, “would be very happy to go directly to our clients.”

“We must articulate a clearer point of view as an industry.”

Cultural shift

In a session that addressed the challenge of transforming an established internal culture, Microsoft Europe communications director Heather Knox admitted the difficulty of filtering the “huge of volume of content” that the company is used to “broadcasting”, and turning it into a “more organic model of sustained engagement.”

“Get our executives to think in terms of a movie script or trailer for a movie,” suggested Knox. “It’s a very different muscle than they have been used to building.”

Knox added that Microsoft has developed a ‘global storytelling agenda’ that local teams can adapt to fit their specific needs. She said the approach has positioned the public relations function as leaders within the tech giant and urged other companies to “invest and equip people with the tools they need to be storytellers,” pointing in particular to the importance of visual, digital and video skills.

The daily trial

Picking up on a similar theme, Electrolux global PR director Mattias Radstrom explained that the company’s creative success with its dedicated PR Studio, was a result of a different attitude towards public relations.

In the past, noted Radstrom, “you needed to have two skill sets: creating story angles and having personal media contacts.”

“That has all changed,” continued Radstrom, pointing out that the rise of social media has offered companies like Electrolux the opportunity to “activate content every day.”

The changes, added Radstrom, called for a much more consumer-centric approach to communication. “We are constantly in a trial with consumers,” he said, noting that social media users are quick to signal their displeasure.

Electrolux has tackled this issue by launching initiatives such as the Electrolux Design Lab, which encourages its consumers to develop content on its behalf. “It is some challenge to make white goods sexy”.

This type of approach, though, requires a different mindset from agencies, said Radstrom. “When I went to an agency before you wanted news angles and contacts. Today it’s a different thing because you want constant contact with consumers. How can you make sure your agencies understand your consumers?”

Radstrom’s comment echoed Knox’s own remarks: “You need a strong agency partner, with a vision and a backbone.”


Striking a somewhat discordant note, Weber Shandwick digital executives James Warren and Mark Pinsent suggested that the industry should focus less on storytelling and more on “storyhearing”, to better understand the position of the audience.

“Storytelling is an art,” said Warren. “Art is useless because its aim is to create a mood, not inform or instruct.”

Instead, the duo asserted that the PR world “needs more scientists than artists” and said it must become much smarter in its use of data. “We are very naive about using insight to tell our stories,” said Warren.