Everyone, even a computer, can produce a press release. So what’s the role now for a PR professional in cutting through the noise of fragmented media and marketing hype? Smart practitioners are integrating PR into larger marketing plans, employing clever experiential marketing or social media or specialising in niche areas—all to win the battle for the hearts and minds of consumers
If you asked Al and Laura Ries, authors of The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, you’d be told that advertising’s credibility is shot through and that PR is the only way to launch a brand. The book dedicates eight chapters to debunking advertising, and only one chapter to the search for alternatives.
The ‘father of marketing’, Professor Philip Kotler, says advertising is overdone—and public relations is a close second. That’s an extreme view, but there may just be something in the decreasing trustworthiness of advertising. And it’s not just because ad people have an image problem (have you seen Mad Men lately?).
Instead, it’s that, in an age where everyone wants to know—and can find out—how everything is made, people are discovering how advertising is made. They’re concluding, rightly or wrongly, that because it’s paid for, it’s not as credible as the editorial they read, or better still, the information they get from friends.
In this environment, PR and communications people have a natural advantage. They’re used to having limited control over the message. Traditional PR sends out press releases knowing that journalists will (or at least should) not just repeat it verbatim, but instead put their own interpretation on it.
PR people also know that’s just the beginning. They’re poised to respond to the press, the public—to any reaction that comes from their message. This ability to react, and to manage crises, has become ever more important with the development of the 24-hour news cycle.
Ad people, on the other hand, are starting from a point of creating a message to perfection, carefully choosing the right media to present their perfect message in, and then timing the delivery just right so, to achieve a perfectly orchestrated outcome.
Of course, it never happens that way, but until recently that was the ideal that advertising worked towards. That’s changed dramatically in the last ten or so years, as conversation has become the dominant trend in how information spreads.
But despite PR’s natural advantages and advertising’s disadvantages at engaging in conversation, the race is on, not just between advertising and PR, but between all kinds of communications agencies, to understand and master this confusing new world.
That race is a difficult one, because the old skills are still very much in demand. The Public Relations Institute of New Zealand’s 2008 research report shows that media relations and corporate communications remain the highest areas of work involvement for people who work in PR.
It’s the perpetual challenge of innovation—how much resource do you apply to what’s working, but eventually won’t work, and how much do you apply to what’s new and small, but likely to grow?
Some agencies are employing specialists in the emerging fields of new media, social media and experiential marketing. Others are forming strategic partnerships, while others are attempting to transform their whole operation into an integrated marketing shop.
Some agencies started getting integrated in the late 90s, following the practices of Integrated Marketing Communication put forward by Professors Robert Lauterborn and Don Schultz. Most often they’re small, nimble and able to quickly fashion the tools they need to reach the customer.
Other agencies have formed alliances (or been bought by large agency groups) to provide a full service while keeping the disciplines apart. Once again, this is tricky if the individuals from, say, advertising and PR backgrounds are well-steeped in the specifics of their particular discipline.
For those steeped in traditional advertising, every communications issue is an opportunity to create a big message, buy big media and broadcast. For those steeped in traditional PR, every communications issue is an opportunity to contact the journalists with the most relevant reach, tell them your side of the story and let them spread the word.
Fortunately, individuals and agencies are learning new skills, and new languages. As you’ll see in these case studies, creativity today means much more than just pretty colours.