• Adam Harper

The wrong question

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

Why content and advice cannot be separated in reputation building

A good friend recently asked me a simple question: does Ashbury just provide content or do you offer advice to clients? I laboured to answer this innocent question and had the uncomfortable sense as I tried that I was going to have to accept some kind of trade-off between breadth and specialisation.

So I soon reached the only logical conclusion: my friend asked the wrong question.

Waves or particles?

I am not entirely joking. We need to sort the world into clearly-defined categories to make it intelligible. This is vital when it comes to ordering many fields of knowledge: any ambiguity over whether one plus one always equals two or not would make mathematics even more difficult than it already is, for example. The sum is either right or wrong.

So I soon reached the only logical conclusion: my friend asked the wrong question.

Communications and categories

But such rigid distinctions often dissolve in the world of communications, where generalists rule, boundaries are always blurred and the fight against categorisation never ends. Trying to answer questions like whether public relations is a form of marketing (or vice versa) will soon make clear that the art (or is it sometimes a science?) of trying to build and uphold reputations resists clear-cut categories.

So answering my friend’s question was difficult, I realised, because I was trying to divide and then somehow reconcile two halves of a whole. I felt an uncomfortable sense of dissonance when I tried to discuss content and advice as separate categories for the simple reason that they can’t be separated.

It stands to reason, then, that an organisation should benefit from speeches, opinion pieces and other original content produced by a firm that is also advising them on their communications strategy. This is because their agency can then understand why the client wants to focus on certain topics for strategic and commercial reasons. This understanding matters when it comes to choosing arguments, angles and points of emphasis for content. Without it, there is a risk that content lacks direction and purpose.

At the same time, logic dictates that an agency should be able to give better advice to a client that they know inside out because of spending time on their content. Why? Because you can learn a lot about an organisation’s values, ambitions and sensitivities by being immersed in – and working to shape – the words and images that represent it.

Light and sound

Science offers us a parallel. For centuries, scholars debated whether the building blocks of light were particles or waves. Today we understand that it has a dual nature, with characteristics of both (see the famous Double Slit Experiment).

So although the communications sector has a tendency to fragment into narrow and exclusive specialisations, I would respectfully argue that the same principle applies: if particles and waves make light, then content and advice make reputations. And if that’s what organisations need, then that is what Ashbury will work to provide.

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