Perception of PR has changed

Peter DonatoPartnerSpecial Assignment, TorontoQ. What is the role of public relations within a company's marketing mix today?A. Its role is typically information-oriented, as opposed to advertising [-oriented.]Public relations usually precipitates word-of-mouth on a product or an event.Public relations seeks to gain...

Peter Donato


Special Assignment, Toronto

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

A. Its role is typically information-oriented, as opposed to advertising [-oriented.]

Public relations usually precipitates word-of-mouth on a product or an event.

Public relations seeks to gain third-party endorsement by the media, thereby making whatever message they are putting out seem to be more credible.

Public relations seems to be able to get out more in-depth information on a subject, product, event, than advertising does.

And, most importantly, it seeks to influence, seeks to create an impression, positively, negatively, whatever the desired impression is.

By ‘negative,’ I don’t mean ‘bad.’ But, [I mean] negative in that ‘There’s no real story here, keep away. We are not looking for any profile, thank you.’

That usually happens in a crisis management situation.

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

A. The actual role of public relations hasn’t changed, but the perception of public relations, especially in the eye of the client, has changed.

With the recession and the swing of our society from being a mechanical society to an information society, information has become a lot more interesting to people.

They look at information as a necessary thing, rather than saying, ‘Don’t give me any more information, I’m overloaded.’

At the same time, a lot of people who traditionally bought advertising services are looking at pr in a different light. They are looking at it as a more accessible, cost-effective way of communicating their message.

I walk into companies now and everyone has a pr component in their strategic program. Whereas years ago, if you suggested pr, people would say, ‘We don’t have the money to do pr, and what’s it going to do for us?’

That attitude has turned 180¡ in the last few years.

Along with pr, I’ve seen the rise of sales promotions and event marketing, all of which have pr components to them.

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

A. It’s not just a publicity ballgame anymore.

Publicity is important, but there are a lot more adjuncts to it.

There is developing a strategy so you are not doing it in isolation of the advertising campaign.

There is the whole idea of creating an event that will garner you publicity. Which means the pr company must have a lot more depth.

Instead of just calling an editor to say, ‘I’ve got a great story for you,’ they have to be strategists, they have to be producers.

There are a whole slew of activities in there that we have had to execute, that really don’t have a lot to do with strict public relations.

Q. We’re hearing a lot from clients that they are integrating database marketing, package design and other below-the-line activities into their marketing mix, but we don’t hear a lot about pr. Why is that?

A. ‘Integrated marketing’ seems to be one more buzzword I’d like to keep away from. We like to do it in every aspect of our business, so there is a cross-flow of communications.

I like nothing better when I’m getting into a situation where I know that the advertising is going to do this, the sales promotion is going to do that, and the pr is going to do something else again.

I think clients don’t think of pr in the integration of the marketing mix. They think of sales promotion, advertising, sponsorship, but from a pr standpoint, it’s still a lone wolf.

Why is that? I think they don’t understand what pr is supposed to do or can do for them. They are traditionally schooled in what sales promotion can do and what advertising can do.

pr is a grey area to a lot of people. They are the same people who say they can do pr. They say, ‘What is there to trotting out a press release?’

We get that all the time.

Q. Public relations practitioners are called everything from ‘flacks’ to ‘spindoctors’ – and not just by reporters. Why is it that an industry in the business of generating positive images for its clients often gets bad press itself?

A. I don’t know. I can speculate.

There are lot of things done in the name of pr that aren’t something that pr people want to hold their heads up about.

We are known as manipulative, we are known as coating the facts so they have different twist on them.

Those kinds of things are all done, but they are also done in advertising.

You take a point of view in advertising. That point of view may be criticized, but it’s not going to be criticized on a daily basis the way an editor would.

At the same time, the only thing that a public relations person has going for them is their ability to attract the media to a specific story they are working on.

If you are not a credible pr person these days and the media finds out about it, and they will, you’re ‘toast.’

If I don’t have any credibility with a media person, they are not going to listen to me. If that happens broadscale, I may as well get another line of work.

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

A. That’s a good question. I think the public relations business, like a lot of businesses, doesn’t do its own pr well.

It’s not even a matter of not doing it well, they don’t do very much of it. Maybe that’s the issue.