God help those who confuse advertising and PR disasters

The brouhaha over the Christian churches’ advertising campaign for Lent is a parable for our times. I don’t mean the posters are a symptom of a sacrilegious society, or they are theologically unsound. They may be both these things, but I believe this campaign has a broader lesson for us relating to business – the difference between marketing and communications. Or, on a deeper level, the difference between advertising and public relations.

For those of you who missed the story last week, The Churches Advertising Network (CAN) which represents the mainstream Christian Churches in the UK, is to launch a pre-Easter poster campaign that features Christ in a pastiche of the iconic Che Guevara student poster of the Sixties. The crown of thorns replaces the beret and the catchline reads “Meek. Mild. As If. Discover the real Jesus. Church. April 4.”

Predictably enough, the treatment has led to howls of protest. Christians claim it is unfair to Christ who, as God incarnate, is somewhat above political revolution. As for politicians themselves, to whom I will return by way of conclusion, the CAN has succeeded in offending the entire spectrum. The Tories’ voice of conscience, Ann Widdecombe, remarked thoughtfully that we shouldn’t be modelling Christ on ourselves so much as ourselves on Christ, while Marxists, equally thoughtfully, suggested that it was all a bit unfair on Guevara.

Now, the reason this offers us a business parable is wrapped up in the motives of the CAN. The issue revolves round the answer to this question: Is this an advertising or a public relations campaign? If it is the former, it is almost certainly a failure; if the latter, then I suggest it may have met some early objectives.

A spokesman for the CAN, the Rev Peter Owen-Jones, who looks like a cross between Indiana Jones and Ian Hislop and can consequently be assumed to be a media man, remarks enigmatically that they are exploiting the image of revolution, rather than the image of Guevara.

I suspect the CAN does not know whether it is in the business of advertising or PR. But the distinction is important, because the management disciplines come at the sales issue from different directions. Advertising is selling attendance at Church on Easter Sunday. PR is addressing the issue of whether Christ has anything revolutionary to say.

Some commentators have grudgingly conceded this poster must have succeeded in PR terms because they are writing about it in newspapers. But that misses the point, or at least only partly addresses it. Advertising is about sales (bums on pews); PR is about managing the Christian issue (theology).

More broadly, if marketing is about identifying and satisfying a demand in the market, then communications are about creating the demand. I am not sure the CAN, in business terms, knows which it is trying to do. For those of us in rather more wordly commerce it is imperative that we understand that difference.

The temptation is to talk of advertising and PR efforts as the same thing, when in reality they come at market characteristics from different directions and meet (if all goes well) in the middle. Marketing and PR “disasters” are considered one and the same, but they actually have very different characteristics. It is the difference between sales and reputation.

Take last week’s debacle at McDonald’s over its 25th anniversary offer of two-for-the-price-of-one Big Macs. My firm advises McDonald’s, but I hold no brief for the expression of the following view, which is a personal one. There is a considerable difference between a marketing crisis, in which you fail to meet consumer demand and sales suffer, and a PR issue that relates to corporate reputation but does not affect sales.

In the case of McDonald’s, an example of the latter is the protracted libel case against London Greenpeace, where the company’s reputation is undermined among metropolitan chattering classes but product sales remain unaffected. The same principle can be applied, I would argue, to the Prudential Corporation, which underestimated demand for its high-interest Egg account; and Cable & Wireless, which has faced difficulties of demand on some discount-call services. Both will have suffered sales loss, but neither will suffer significantly at the reputation level.

I am not saying that damage to corporate reputation will never have an effect at the sales level. Rather, issues of corporate reputation do not necessarily affect sales. That is worth remembering when people talk of marketing and PR disasters in the same breath. It is a slackness of thinking that is currently being applied to the Churches’ latest campaign – and it may be because they do not know whether the Che pastiche is about sales or reputation management.

Finally, I said that I would conclude on the politicians. New Labour came to power on the back of huge market demand. They are now asking to be judged on their product delivery (marketing), rather than their corporate image (PR). The only trouble is that they have largely been sold to date on the latter. And the departure of some its main PR men may not solve their problem.

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