This post originally appeared as part of Bite's Stop Content Pollution campaign. In my hometown of Hong Kong, the haze hangs thick over the harbour, a symptom of the ever worsening air pollution that afflicts the city. I am reminded of this when I behold the stifling cloud of content marketing that has steadily begun to choke the life out of my social media feeds, turning the internet experience into a tedious struggle to avoid brand messaging at all costs. But does it really have to be this way? The likes of Red Bull and Dove have demonstrated that brands need not always be polluters where content marketing is concerned. The best of their efforts demonstrate an attitude — a point of view that connects with hearts and minds, because of the intimate understanding these companies have of their fans and advocates. It may not be easy, but it is not impossible for brands to come up with the kind of clever, conversation that gets people to do things, builds trust and forgives — even welcomes — the intrusion into their lives. For the PR industry, giddily hoping that content will magically raise its chances of winning a bigger share of marketing budgets, the lessons are perhaps more simple than they might expect. Yes, Facebook is not necessarily your best friend and there is certainly no shame in paying for media. But ask yourself this: Is that story really worth blasting across millions of news feeds? A lot of those posts look an awful lot like the kind of content pollution which, at worst, actively turns people against you. The same could probably be said for native advertising, which the more cynical among you might view as the publishing industry’s latest attempt to turn eyeballs into real money. Even the virtues of real time marketing raise questions. After Oreo, scores of brands are setting up grandiosely-titled ‘war rooms’ in their quest for rehearsed spontaneity. Much of the resulting humour would look forced coming from real people, never mind corporate Twitter handles. And that is before we even consider the ‘brand journalism’ which, if we’re being honest, is unlikely to win a Pulitzer Prize anytime soon. In theory at least, the PR world should have a decent understanding of these issues, thanks to its intimate acquaintance with earned media. Good PR people will already appreciate that brands must be credible, must come up with ideas that turn consumers into advocates, and must be prepared for the possibility of a backlash. Hopefully, they will also know that good content marketing is meaningless without context, drawn from the real-time conversation that can reveal the hopes and concerns of their most important stakeholders. Against that backdrop, though, the PR world still requires a better understanding of some of the lubricants that grease the wheels of the best content marketing vehicles. That could mean paid media on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Or it could require them to genuinely comprehend how the likes of Netflix and Outbrain are redefining the use of consumer data to drive engagement. It will almost certainly call for a better understanding of visual storytelling and the many other ways that ideas can be brought to life, whether through live experiences, apps or even good old-fashioned media sell-ins. Ultimately, though, if the PR industry hopes to really turn content into a competitive edge, it will require that most of elusive of commodities: insight. Into a brand’s customers, its fans and its detractors. Into the things that make them smile, make them talk and make them angry. Get that wrong and all of the paid media in the world won’t stop your content resembling that unhealthy cloud of haze. In fact, it will probably make it worse. [Photo: Andrew Turner's Flickr]