I believe that ‘PR’ should take the strategic lead in marketing or communication campaigns. I also believe that the most senior communications role (whether it be called head of communications, PR director, corporate affairs director, etc) should also oversee the marketing function.
I am aware this is contentious territory, particularly in Marketing Week, as it would mean turning the primacy of the broad marketing industry on its head.
But everything has changed. And organisations need to change the way they do things to be able to succeed in the new world.
In the past, those who commanded the big spend were automatically the top dogs (and you had to spend big to achieve mass reach and communicate effectively). This meant that the marketing department and its trusted partner, the big ad agency, which included the media department, took the lead in all matters of positioning and communication strategy.
Paid advertising campaigns are, of course, very important but a number of factors means that they are just one of many ways to achieve mass reach and impact, and it is actually the overall context created around a company that matters most. The factors negatively affecting traditional advertising include: the rise of social media with the collective voice of ‘real people’ and ‘influencers’ and their power to share – positively and negatively; the rising cost of traditional media advertising; ad blocking software; the ability of brands to build their own channels that can engage their audiences directly at very low cost; changes in consumer expectations towards brands and the way they behave and interact.
‘PR’ as a term is misleading and that is why I have been using it in inverted commas. It conjures up the practice of media relations, with media coverage as the only output. Whereas it’s actually the art (and science) of getting people to think and act differently and creating that overall positive context, within which the operations, sales and advertising of the brand can be more successful. Media plays an important role in this, but it is not the whole story.
PR, and the people who are best at it, generate concepts, content, conversations and coverage that take advantage of those factors that are diminishing the power of advertising.
However, PR is not just about what companies and brands communicate, it’s just as much about helping them define what they do and how they behave. It is about shaping actions, which fundamentally alter or sustain what people think about the organisation or product.
At Lexis, we set out to help clients change the conversations that people have about them. We examine the overall drivers of a company’s reputation or sentiment towards their products and then work with the client to set a strategy and plan to affect them positively.
In the case of corporate reputation, the typical drivers are: the quality of products and services; perception of innovation; workplace and culture; governance; corporate citizenship (including sustainability); quality of the leadership; and financial performance.
From this list of drivers it is possible to see the crucial role that PR needs to play in shaping a company’s success and the way it operates, much more broadly than just delivering media relations. Indeed, research from Reputation Dividend suggests that reputation contributed £790bn of shareholder value in the UK at the start of 2016. That equates to around 36% of the market capitalisation of the entire FTSE 350.
I went to an excellent presentation recently by the planning director of a brilliant ad agency to a group of people from PR agencies and in-house communications teams. Although he lambasted us for our relative lack of rigour in the use of data and planning (we have changed this at Lexis and it appears to be changing across the rest of the industry too), he did set out clearly that ad agencies are “running scared” of PR because of our ability to understand and shape the overall context within which companies operate and the way that their actions will be perceived.
The number of times is definitely going up that we, as PR advisers, need to step into client organisations to stop a heinous case of foot-shooting. The type of situation I’m talking about is preventing the posting of potentially incendiary social media updates, helping avoid negative public scrutiny around product sourcing strategy, or counselling against the use of a particular celebrity as a brand ambassador because of a soon-to-be-published scandal. Our ability to understand how company or brand actions will play out in the real world undoubtedly saves companies from severe damage to their reputations.
“PR generates concepts, content, conversations and coverage that take advantage of factors that are diminishing the power of advertising”
Our ability to shape context through many different channels is also why Lexis is developing new capabilities in the agency. Bolstering our strategy, digital, content and live events skills is important, so that we can advise clients even more broadly and strategically and communicate in the most relevant way to any audience.
Creatively too, there is a real skill that only we truly possess in PR, which is to form ideas that journalists, influencers and interested individuals want to write about and share. We are trained simultaneously in the skills of the journalist, the skills of the marketer and nowadays also in the skills of the (online) conversationalist. Somehow people from other marketing disciplines find it quite difficult to grasp the knack of doing this. In the age of sharing, this is yet another reason why PR needs to take the lead. At Lexis, we start with delivering the ‘earned’ story, which we then support and leverage through paid media. Thankfully, the days when we ‘PR the ad’ are nearly gone.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the roles of individual PR and marketing heads and departments should simply be changed over night, as that just wouldn’t work. The PR people would need to ensure they have all the right skills to be able to oversee and manage marketing campaigns, and vice versa. But over time, the roles and expectations of the roles should change. Within 10 years, it is very likely that what we call marketing will be a sub-set of what we call PR and not the other way round. And we will all need to decide how we label what it is we do.