PR gains profile, enhances selling process

Michael CampbellPresidentMarshall Fenn, TorontoQ. What is the role of public relations in a company's marketing mix today?A. There are a couple of issues that really define the role that public relations can play in marketing.First of all, there is the ability...

Michael Campbell

President

Marshall Fenn, Toronto

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

A. There are a couple of issues that really define the role that public relations can play in marketing.

First of all, there is the ability of public relations to gain profile and prominence for a product or service.

Secondly, and the area where public relations has had its greatest growth, is the use of public relations to enhance the whole selling process, to make the cash register ring.

Whether it’s public relations as part of a sales promotion technique, or strategies which bring customers into a retail outlet, or techniques that are driving sales by motivating the consumer in a variety of ways, we are really realizing public relations does have the power to sell.

Increasingly, we are creating very precise marketing objectives for public relations. That’s a dramatic step forward and gives some credibility and accountability to the role of public relations within marketing.

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

A. I think one of the most significant differences is the kind of problems that are brought to the public relations firm.

The traditional question or problem that was being posed was one of explaining a piece of information or gaining profile for a corporate reputation.

Those are all important roles and goals for any organization, but, more often, we find that people are coming to us with a marketing problem. ‘We need this particular group to understand the benefits of this product and thereby increase its sales by X%.’

So the kind of problems that are being brought to public relations firms are very different.

Q. We keep hearing from clients that they are paying more attention to integrating database marketing and other below-the-line activities into their marketing mix, but we’re not hearing much about the integration of pr. Why is that?

A. That’s interesting, because when I look at our client mix, virtually every client we have has come to us to provide them with a broad range of communication services.

And virtually every one of our clients is looking at how public relations links into direct marketing, links into advertising, links into sales promotion.

So, I guess the world I am seeing is one that has clients constantly looking at integration and making it a high priority.

Ten years ago, as we came out of the last recession, the buzzword in the industry was ‘one-stop shopping.’

There was a scramble by everyone, particularly the large advertising agencies, to make sure they had a public relations firm, a sales promotion firm, and so on, but it didn’t really work. And we have seen the demise of many of those groups over the last decade.

Interestingly, we are seeing a resurgence of that whole issue of integrated marketing, but it’s not coming from the agencies. It is coming from the clients.

Clients are coming to us and saying, ‘Will you be our advertising agency and our public relations agency and our sales promotion agency, and ensure that all functions are integrated, and that we are maximizing the value of every dollar spent?’

Q. But you were saying earlier that those kinds of ventures failed. So why are you doing it?

A. We are doing it in a different way.

One of the reasons why I believe they failed was a structural one. Traditionally, they were set up as separate companies, as independent profit centres, which really worked against themselves.

Take the model of an advertising agency that owns a public relations firm.

It sounds good in theory, but what actually happens is the advertising side tries to protect the spending that goes into paid media. It doesn’t want to share that budget with the pr side.

So, it was really a process of upselling. The ad agency was not looking at how the client’s budget could be most effectively used, but, rather, was trying to capture more of the total marketing dollars being spent by the client.

That’s where it tended to backfire. The objectivity wasn’t there.

We have intentionally taken the approach of having a seamless organization. We don’t have that internal competition, there’s none of that ‘kingdoms in conflict.’

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

A. It has invited that bad press upon itself, for two reasons.

The first reason has to do with public relations as a profession, and what professional skills are required. There are far too many practitioners who have a very narrow skill set.

They are, perhaps, writers, or are experienced in media relations, in gaining publicity, but what they don’t have is the broader perspective of understanding the business of an organization, how marketing actually operates.

What we are finding is, particularly as I look at the evolution of public relations over the last 15 years, the industry is requiring a very different practitioner today than it used to.

Marketing consultant

All of those traditional skills of writing and media relations are important, but by far the most important skill today is the ability to be a management consultant, a marketing consultant.

If you look at reports put out by some of the American consulting firms over the past few years, you can see that, increasingly, the public relations industry is hiring mbas, lawyers, social scientists, it’s hiring people with marketing backgrounds, and not bringing into its ranks the traditional employee who tended to have spent 10 years in journalism.

The whole focus [of public relations] is changing as it takes on a much more serious approach to the business of marketing.

And that is necessary if public relations is going to be what it wants to be, and that’s a management function as opposed to simply a line function of technicians undertaking a particular task.

Accountability

The second reason why public relations has been criticized, and perhaps rather deservedly so, is the refusal to be accountable for what it does.

You can have specific objectives, you can have marketing goals, you can have standards of measurement for everything that’s undertaken in public relations.

There has been a great desire in the industry, and it’s part of its historical roots, to avoid being accountable, to avoid being measurable.

As we begin to accept greater responsibility for the dollars we spend, and the outcome of our actions, I think the profession itself will be taken far more seriously.

Q. What about the industry’s image with the public, the consumer?

A. There will probably always be a somewhat negative perception, because public relations is in the business of influencing.

Advertising faces the same criticism; in fact, the criticism directed toward advertising has been far stronger than that towards public relations in terms of what effect advertising has in creating consumer habits, which are motivated not on the basis of appropriate wants or needs, but creating false wants and false demands by people.

We have seen scores of books on advertising to children, for example. So there will always be concern about the influence and advocating of issues.

That will only change when it is seen that any communication activity is undertaken with the highest possible level of integrity and ethics, and that there is no desire to inappropriately influence or subtly communicate values that are inappropriate.

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

A. I think the external image of public relations will [improve] not by doing anything that’s not being done now, in terms of going out and trying to sell the industry, or convincing people that we are better than we are perceived to be.

The only way the image will change is when we are truly seen to be acting in a very responsible manner.

Not fully deserving

If we look at events over the past five years, public relations has, in a number of cases, shown itself to not be fully deserving of the trust it would like to have.

It has been shown, in a number of cases, to have misrepresented information. It has allowed its clients to propagate lies to the public, or to provide only part of the total story.

So until public relations refuses to allow itself to be guilty of those ethical errors, it’s not going to find that its image dramatically changes.

The proof will be in what we do, not what we say about what we do.