We embellish other disciplines

James DeeksVice-PresidentGoodman Communications, TorontoQ. What is the role of public relations within a company's marketing mix?A. Our job is to ensure that corporations communicate their messages to the public in a clear, concise and effective way.And where we can help in...

James Deeks

Vice-President

Goodman Communications, Toronto

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

A. Our job is to ensure that corporations communicate their messages to the public in a clear, concise and effective way.

And where we can help in the marketing mix is we can embellish marketing programs, we can embellish other disciplines of marketing such as advertising, promotion and sponsorships by ensuring that both the target markets and the media are aware that these programs are happening.

Q. How has the role of public relations changed over the past few years?

A. Certainly, from my perspective, marketing has changed a lot in the last 15 years. There is no longer the overwhelming dependence on advertising that there once was to promote products or [corporate] messages.

Broader mix

The marketing mix has become much broader and encompasses a much greater dependence on other components of the mix, such as promotions, sponsorships and public relations.

One of the reasons that pr has become a more important part of the mix is the value of third-party endorsement.

In other words, if you can get a columnist to write favorably about your company or your product, it carries significantly more weight in the consumer’s mind than a message that you have obviously paid for.

Q. In what ways are clients using public relations firms differently today than they might have five years ago?

A. That’s a hard one because it’s difficult to measure changes in five-year periods.

Certainly corporations are realizing that it is important for them to be seen favorably by the public, not just for the quality of their products, but for the integrity of their companies, in terms of the way they deal with their employees, the way they deal with their other constituencies – such as the investment community – and the way they deal with their competitors.

More complicated now

There’s also the understanding that you cannot just put out a press release or just call a reporter and say ‘I’ve got a good story’ any more.

There has become a far greater need for strategic planning in public relations than there was five years ago.

You have to figure out when is the best time to do it, what is the best way to communicate this message in terms of which media you want to carry that message, who your target audiences are, much in the same way that advertising has become far more sophisticated.

Q. We keep hearing from clients that they are paying a lot more attention to integrating below-the-line activities, such as database marketing, into their marketing mix, but we’re not hearing a lot about public relations. Why is that?

A. I’m surprised that you’re not hearing more about the integration of public relations. It could be because some marketers still think of it as a corporate affairs function rather than a marketing function. But I disagree [with that opinion.]

I think, too, that clients may not be talking about pr because it is a given.

I suspect if you ask clients whether they are employing any pr techniques, such as publicity generation or launching products with news conferences, they would say ‘of course.’

Q. Why is it that an industry in the business of generating good press for its clients often gets such bad press itself?

A. I don’t know that it gets any worse publicity than some of the other disciplines used in marketing. There may be euphemisms like ‘flacks’ and ‘spindoctors’ [terms used to describe public relations practitioners.] But, sometimes, people in the promotions business are called – and I hasten to say, unfairly, – ‘hucksters.’

So, I don’t know that we are more maligned necessarily than others.

Cynicism

But if we have sometimes been given perjorative nicknames, that may be partly coming from politics, where there is a huge degree of cynicism about politicians and the people around them.

Those terms [flacks and spindoctors] apply to a tired and, frankly, totally out-of-date image of pr practitioners as former journalists who got a job with a company almost as a sinecure, and their job was to take reporters out, buy them a few drinks and try to influence the coverage of their story.

I don’t believe that happens today, certainly not as a public relations strategy.

You still have pr guys who are former journalists. But no self-respecting public relations company would employ as a strategy the ‘buy-him-a-few-drinks-and-buy-a-good-story’ line of thinking.

Responsible journalists can’t be bought and it would be stupid for a pr practitioner to believe that they can.

Q. What is it going to take for the public relations industry to get good press?

A. There will probably always be skepticism on the part of journalists and consumers who are being asked to accept one side of a story, which is what the pr practitioner’s job really is.

There’s nothing we can do about that skepticism, and, in fact, that skepticism is healthy.

Need for integrity

At the same time, the pr industry has been doing a good job by continuing to understand the need for integrity in communications and constantly questioning their clients, whether they are corporations or politicians or athletes or celebrities.

As long as pr companies understand the need to question their clients’ motivation, their strategies and how they want to approach the public with their message, they are doing both the pr industry a good service and their clients a good service.

And that, ultimately, can only help everyone.