Credibility that cannot be bought

Brenda PergantesExecutive Vice-President and General ManagerThe Edelman Houston Group, TorontoQ. What do you believe is the role of public relations within a company's marketing mix today?A. Its role is to consistently and simply tell a story about a corporation, to all...

Brenda Pergantes

Executive Vice-President and General Manager

The Edelman Houston Group, Toronto

Q. What do you believe is the role of public relations within a company’s marketing mix today?

A. Its role is to consistently and simply tell a story about a corporation, to all of its stakeholders, whether it is the employees, whether it’s the shareholders, customers, or government.

Anybody can go and buy time and space. A public relations practitioner’s job is to convince the media that, in fact, there is a story to tell here, and that it is, in fact, important to their readers or viewers.

So public relations plays a key role in the marketing mix because it’s no secret that through publication in any media, there is independent, third-party coverage of a product or a service, and that brings immense credibility, a credibility they cannot buy through advertising.

And I’m not slamming advertising. It’s just another dimension that smart marketing companies are using in equal partnership with other pieces of the marketing mix.

That third-party credibility is really important.

Q. How has its role changed over the past five years?

A. I don’t know if it has changed.

It’s much more prevalent to find public relations being considered a key component in the marketing mix than five years ago.

Five years ago, it was often a throwaway, or an add-on. Somebody would say, ‘By the way, we should do a press release on that.’

Now, from the beginning, from a strategic point of view, they are looking at all of the communications disciplines, and saying, ‘Okay, we also need public relations, whether that is linked to special events, or promotions, or media relations, we need it as a partner in launching a new product or service, relaunching a brand, supporting our corporate contributions.’

So, I think it’s much more top-of-mind.

We continue to perform the same functions, but its importance in the marketing mix is really elevated.

And what we are finding is that our clients are saying that it is becoming increasingly important because the marketplace, in terms of traditional ways of talking to customers, is becoming so crowded.

Q. How are clients using public relations firms differently than they might have five years ago?

A. We define public relations as all communications.

Public relations is just one of the lines under communications. There is media relations, there is internal relations, there is crisis and issues management.

I think corporations are seeing communications in its broadest terms as being very important to their success.

They need to communicate well, simply and succinctly and consistently to all of their important audiences. So I see public relations as a discipline within the overall communications umbrella.

Q. Clients say they are paying a lot more attention to integrating below-the-line activities such as database marketing and packaging, into their whole marketing mix, but they don’t often mention public relations. Why do you think that is the case?

A. I don’t know because it’s happening.

I don’t know why you are characterizing it as below-the-line. Every corporation has a corporate affairs department or public affairs department and, inevitably, they are working with the marketing department and their agencies are working with the marketing department.

A partner all along

I think public relations has been a partner all along and maybe that’s why you’re not hearing a lot about it being integrated, because it was integrated a long time ago.

Q. Public relations practitioners have been called everything from ‘flacks’ to ‘spindoctors.’ Why is it that an industry in the business of generating good press for its clients often gets such bad press itself?

A. First of all, I don’t agree with that assessment. That attitude is 10 years old.

Public relations agencies have grown tremendously in the last five years. And if you do a search on revenue growth of pr agencies, as compared to advertising agencies, you’ll see that pr agencies around the world have grown tremendously over the last two to three years.

Agency-owned

You’ll also notice that advertising agencies own a lot of pr agencies around the world, and they certainly wouldn’t make that purchase if they viewed them as less than professional.

So, I disagree with that whole assessment.

And, increasingly, mba programs are looking at including public relations programs because they understand that brand people need to be able to communicate to the marketplace in many ways, not just through number-crunching.

Good PR program

Mount St-Vincent [University in Halifax] has one of the best post-graduate pr programs in the country, and they’re not the only one.

So, I don’t think that’s a fair and accurate, or up-to-date, analysis of pr people.

Q. Do you not agree, though, that public relations people are sometimes viewed with suspicion by the general public? I think the general public tends to be quite skeptical, especially in the context of crisis management. Public relations companies or practitioners are often thought to be covering things up rather than making things plain.

A. I would, once again, disagree with you completely.

The Tylenol case, where they had to do full market product recall, was all managed through public relations crisis management professionals and is seen, not only in the academic world, but viewed by the general public, as being absolutely brilliantly handled, and there was no deception.

No accusations

There were no accusations at all that the corporation was trying to cover up anything. And that was all managed through public relations tools, such as advertising, but the whole strategy was created by pr professionals.

So, I don’t agree with that at all.

Q. In that case, you probably won’t agree with the tone of this question either. What is it going to take for the public relations industry to get good pr?

A. I think a public relations agency’s job is to do the best possible work for its clients, and it’s not to take the front-and-centre role away from its clients.

We work for our clients, and we’re just as happy to be completely behind the scenes. It’s not our job to promote our company. It’s our job to provide the best advice and counsel and program for all of the clients we have on board here.