New focus on bottom line public relations

Josette Massy-ForgetPresidentMassy-Forget Communications, MontrealQ. What is the role of public relations within a company's marketing mix today?A. We have witnessed a shift from what we call cpr to mpr - from corporate public relations to marketing public relations, from image public...

Josette Massy-Forget

President

Massy-Forget Communications, Montreal

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

A. We have witnessed a shift from what we call cpr to mpr – from corporate public relations to marketing public relations, from image public relations to bottom line public relations.

Different ratio

Four years ago, the proportion of corporate public relations we did, versus marketing public relations, would have been 75-25. Now it’s 50-50.

Even publicly funded organizations, such as school boards, want to sell their services. Everyone now is looking at the bottom line.

And of course, the recession is helping this shift.

Q. But within a company’s marketing mix, in which any number of elements, such as general advertising and database marketing, may play a role, what is the function of public relations?

A. I think the function right now is completely wrong. In my opinion, public relations must be the leader, the conductor of the marketing mix.

Make us leader

In other words, the strategic thinking that public relations brings to the table – looking at the company within its socio-economic, cultural and environmental context – should make us the leader, and allow us to determine where and when and how to use advertising, promotion, direct marketing, etc.

This is not at all the case yet. But pr is making a lot of progress. And I think that in a few years, when pr is positioned where it should be, we will become the chief orchestrator, taking into account all the different elements of the marketing mix.

Q. That’s an interesting perspective, because I think, traditionally, advertising agencies have seen themselves in that role.

A. And they should not be there. They are there only because they handle big budgets. But advertising budgets are getting tighter.

I am not saying the pr company should be responsible for executing the advertising, but it should be there to set objectives and give direction to the advertising agency and the promotion company.

This is not the reality yet. This is the goal. I am telling you where I think pr should be.

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

A. The recession has eliminated management levels in companies and this has changed our approach.

Instead of dealing with someone responsible on the client side for public relations, we deal now with vice-presidents. In small- and medium-sized businesses, we even deal directly with the president.

So, even if they don’t want us to be the conductor yet, they ask us questions, and they listen to us.

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

A. Probably because public relations is still, for some clients, considered a parallel function to marketing.

To these people, public relations [cannot be integrated], because marketing is concerned with the bottom line, while public relations is corporate.

It is not easy for a client, who has always worked that way, to change. Habits are habits.

Q.Why is it that an industry that makes its living helping clients with their reputations, often gets bad press itself?

A. Historically speaking, public relations was very often thought of as cocktails, smiles, gifts and tickets.

Lack of discipline

This was because of the kind of people who worked in pr and the lack of discipline and tradition.

This has resulted in a bad image, one that is going to be difficult to change. We know that very well because we work on image all the time.

When I was a child, for example, the dentist was someone who pulled teeth and it was terrible to go there. Now dentists rarely pull teeth anymore, but they still do not have the best image in the world.

Image not reality

It’s getting better, but the image is not reality. pr is the same. We have had a poor image for quite a while and now we have to work to change it.

Q. How do you propose to do that?

A. The first thing is to improve the quality of resources you have working in public relations firms.

In my own firm, we have a full-fledged lawyer, a person who can give an opinion based on his knowledge of the law.

We have scientists, we have biologists, we have journalists. Most public relations firms that are high profile or high quality, have multidisciplinary teams of very high levels.

This builds a practice that speaks for itself. And the level we can deal with in our client’s environment, because of the makeup of our team, is higher and higher. Over time, this is going to ameliorate our image.

At the same time, taking files that you cannot defend because they are not defendable, no matter how unhealthy your bottom line, is something that you should not do.

You are not always obliged to say everything. But you have to say the truth and only the truth. And if you cannot explain to your clients that you will not lie, that you will not put forward wrong information, then you are not a good practitioner.

But to tell you that as a profession we will undertake pr campaigns to improve our image, I don’t think that is likely because, as you know, the shoemaker’s son always goes barefoot.