PR helps in a competitive market

Brian HemmingExecutive Vice-President and General ManagerJeffrey Elliott Communications, TorontoQ. What is the role of public relations within a company's marketing mix today?A. Some of the traditional things still apply. It's a way to have third-party commentary made about a product or...

Brian Hemming

Executive Vice-President and General Manager

Jeffrey Elliott Communications, Toronto

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

A. Some of the traditional things still apply. It’s a way to have third-party commentary made about a product or its attributes, or to try to help it to be positioned within an industry or category, in terms of its attributes, whether that be quality, or style, or price, so when various media are talking about a product category, it is fairly and positively presented.

Q. How has that role changed over the past few years?

A. I don’t think the role of public relations has changed all that much. It’s just that it is a much more competitive marketplace.

It’s harder for many companies to attain the kind of brand loyalty they had years ago, and so the whole marketing mix is constantly trying to show people that the consumers believe that the product they are buying offers quality and value.

Q. In what ways are clients using pr firms differently today than they might have a few years ago?

A. The very nature of the competitive environment and the fish bowl world we live in means that companies have to deal not just with positioning and promoting their product, but being prepared to deal with attacks on the product, either warranted or unwarranted.

If you were to take the case of Pepsi-Cola, for example, going into schools, that was a superb marketing coup for Pepsi, but there was another side to the coin because there are interest groups out there, who have a bona fide role to play, who wanted to challenge that.

You might be able to do deals behind closed doors, but they are going to be inspected outdoors. That is a real fact of life these days, and companies have to be prepared for that.

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. You may not hear about it, but it’s happening. I don’t think it’s any less important than it once was.

The competitive marketplace and the profile of the consumer these days means you need more and more tools to make your mark with consumers, and public relations is still very much a part of that.

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

A. Sometimes, I think it’s a lack of understanding of the role of public relations.

There are a number of aspects to that. And one is that public relations has had to deal, on behalf of its clients, with some pretty tough issues – from crisis situations to situations where you have to be part of heavily promoting a product.

There are many instances where companies have handled crises well. And I think there is a great deal more sensitivity to dealing with the tough issues these days.

But being prepared to come forward and deal with tough issues, sometimes, the advisers are the ones who come in for criticism. Sometimes, you have lawyers and governments and others involved, and, sometimes, it’s not always immediately clear, for a lot of bona fide reasons, what the situation is.

Some will blame the pr people, saying ‘They are just trying to hide it.’ And I think that’s probably unfair. Often, it’s unfair. You have to look at the good things that are done as well.

At the other end of the scale, it’s a highly competitive marketplace, and part of the role of public relations is to sell through the media, through editorial coverage, what a company says are the attributes of a product or service. And sometimes that can be looked upon skeptically by the media.

Whereas in advertising, within the limits of the law, you can say what you like.

But, there are very many media people out there who do appreciate and realize that, in fact, pr people are a very valuable part of the process of disseminating information, by understanding how the media works, by counselling their clients on what is acceptable, and what isn’t, and what is newsworthy, and what isn’t.

In the end, the media will decide what they want to deal with. Public relations can play a useful role that can help the client and help the media.

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

A. If you do a good job and you work to high quality and a good set of standards, that is what it is. It’s reputation.

Doing it honestly, doing it thoroughly, that is all that you need to do. As long as it is seen to add value for your clients, that’s all you can do.

There is no point trying to talk people into it. Let the results speak for themselves.