While Chris Lewis’s background in journalism set the agenda for the early years at the PR agency that bears his name, it’s his passion for the business that has given the company an edge for seventeen years.
Though, and even with the rise of social media in more recent years, the art of storytelling that is at the heart of journalism remains key for PR too. In fact, Chris would say, as brands themselves increasingly speak directly to the public via new digital channels, crafting the right story is more important than ever.
“It has its imperfections, of course, and those have been under the spotlight in recent years; but I do believe that, here in the UK, we have an excellent news media”, Chris begins. “We always have done, and despite the huge challenges the British newspaper industry now faces, some 15 million people still read newspapers every day in this country. I think that’s remarkable”.
“The papers here have always had a vibrant creativity”, he continues. “Journalists realise that their work is as much about entertainment as it is news – especially with the tabloids. And that makes their output so much more engaging. I still marvel at how The Sun can present the news in such creative, entertaining ways”.
In the early 1990s, while working as a journalist, Chris believed that companies, both in the UK and beyond, could learn from the British media, by applying more creativity in the ways they communicated with their stakeholders. And it was with that belief that he founded his PR company in 1995.
“LEWIS PR has always been a creative company, and it still is”, Chris adds. “The company is owned and run by creative people, including a lot of journalists who can identify what great stories a brand has to tell, and present those stories in the most appropriate and most engaging way. That’s not spin. It’s journalism”.
Every business has great stories to tell, if you probe, Chris reckons. Honing in on a more recent case study, he notes a data recovery company he has worked with. “What these guys were doing was important but dry,” he admits. “But the journalist inside you looks for the story that will truly capture the reader’s attention. So we asked the engineers to tell us about the worst elements of their job. ‘Dogs’ they told us”.
“Dogs?” we replied, wondering where dogs came in when you’re in the business of data recovery. But it turns out that this company has clients whose staff have taken vital data home with them on USB sticks that somehow get swallowed by their pet dogs. Then all the data engineer can do is wait for the USB stick to go through its natural course and hope it still works at the other end, so to speak. So there you have it: this is a company that can get data out of dog sh*t! It’s the difference between a feature and a benefit”.
“Good PR isn’t about spinning,” he adds. “It’s about finding the right stories that have a relevance. Only then can you tell those stories to the right people, through the right channels, in the right way”.
Going back to the origins of his company, Chris says: “Companies had, for a long time, underutilised the various communications channels that existed around them and their brands – channels that went beyond traditional advertising. But those channels are there; and brands need to populate them with great stories”.
Of course the number of channels available to brands has grown significantly since 1995, as has the need to populate them with content. “All companies are now at the centre of a rosette of digital channels”, Chris observes, “and many of those channels will be populated with content, no matter what the company does. So brands need to make sure that a fair portion of that content comes from them. Because if half the top Google search results for your brand aren’t from official sources, then you have lost control of it”.
In its early years LEWIS PR became particularly strong in the tech PR space, which proved useful when communications directors and their CEOs in every sector started to become aware of the impact new digital technologies were having on their brands and reputation. “We’ve noticed a real change in the last five years,” Chris reveals. “Now brands from pretty much every sector are honing in our expertise in tech”.
Of course new digital channels, and especially social media platforms, create big, new challenges for brands, as well as opportunities. “More than anything, the digital world moves at a faster place”, Chris says. “That’s a particular challenge for reactive PR. No longer do companies have the slack allowed by the old-fashioned news cycle. 24/7 news websites and rolling news channels demand that companies respond to breaking stories in hours. The social networks shout out for reactions even sooner”.
And it’s not just those in reactive PR or crisis comms who need to be aware of this faster world, either.
“Public mood and opinion changes faster now too”, Chris adds, “because those who are most vocal on Facebook and Twitter let their opinions be known in real time, which affects wider online opinion. That, in turn, has an impact on the editorial line of newspapers and news channels, and the way the political community responds. PR people need to be aware of these shifts, and communicate in an appropriate way; and that often means content produced by a brand needs to be distributed quicker than before. Otherwise, the online mood will change, and that content will seem out of place”.
A brave new world then. Though in some ways, Chris is actually telling brands that they simply have to adopt more of the journalism skills that he’s been advocating in the communications space since 1995. “As much as 50% of social media content is ‘imperative’ – news or other people commenting on the news”. British newspapers have always told entertaining stories; but they also keep up with shifts in public opinion and amend their stance and tone accordingly. Increasingly that means monitoring the social networks.
“I talked about the journalists who work for us here at LEWIS, and that’s what they still are,” Chris continues. “They may no longer work for traditional news organisations, but they are still employed in journalism, though within a PR environment. Journalism isn’t dying – it’s bigger than it ever was – it’s just now you find journalists in all sorts of new places. Brands are becoming media, and their communicators need to think like media. The creatives and journalists at LEWIS PR help them do just that”.
Some of the journalists at LEWIS, like the company’s founder, came from a more traditional media background; though looking forward Chris says the emphasis is on recruiting more digital creative talent directly. With that in mind, the firm has recently launched an initiative called Kupambana to support the “best young creative minds”, which includes partnerships with the Institute Of Contemporary Arts at Lancaster University and Chelsea College Of Art & Design. Chris is clearly passionate about supporting the creative talent that will be essential for the communications industry of the future to succeed.
In that future, creative talent will need to narrate using all the digital channels. “There are two things we are noticing about social media, which are linked” Chris observes. “One is obvious; and the other, only if you look more carefully. Social media is making communications not only faster, but also more global and, importantly, more visual. The rise of Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest show that visual communication is becoming ever more important; and that’s partly because online communication is always global. Visuals can circumvent cultural and linguistic boundaries in a way words cannot”.
Though those core editorial skills we began with remain vital too. “There is one final thing all the new technology can’t do”, Chris concludes, “and that’s to supply the ‘J-word’. When and how to engage, and with what message, is still a matter of judgment”.
Words: Chris Cooke