Stop trying to be unique: PR needs to blend in more

Roberta Main Millar

Account Director, Europe

Blend in with the rest of the marketing mix that is. In fact, rather than just blending in, I would argue that PR needs to be at the centre of a marketing campaign. The dial is turning for PR as a result of two global factors; first, the recession of the last decade means marketing budgets have been slashed year-on-year. Second, thanks to Trump et al., we are also trying to use these smaller budgets to reach a suspicious public, who are highly alert to fake news (and what is and isn’t a big paid-for stunt). These factors mean that engaging with and winning over audiences by creating an inclusive connection with them is now more important than ever.

That’s why I was delighted to see that the UK’s public relations industry body, the PRCA, was putting on an event about the blending of PR and Marketing. It featured some strong voices from all areas of the trade, and when I managed to secure a spot I felt very lucky to be going. Also, I was expecting to be part of a stampede of attendees but, to my surprise, that was not the case. There were more than a few empty seats and a lot of audience members were speakers or organizers. This is by no means the fault of the PRCA — the event was wonderfully curated — but suggests an apathy within the UK’s PR industry to embrace the new marketing landscape.

Chameleons unwilling to change

This reluctance to change really doesn’t make sense. As PR practitioners, especially in agencies, we wear many hats and use an array of skills day-to-day. We can switch from talking to an analyst about the future potential of edge computing, to ghost writing another client’s blog about cybersecurity issues in government organisations — all before lunch. We are consultants, counsellors, creatives and confidantes. Far beyond the technicalities of the trade, a good PR practitioner is naturally curious and eager to learn more. So why are we PRs not acting as another c-word — collaborators — with those specialising in other marketing disciplines?

It could be because PR has traditionally been the country cousin of marketing — no one really gets us. Advertising execs will never know the thrill of getting a piece of coverage in a top-tier paper or TV show. But this does cause a shift in our perspective — we are rewarded by results that do not have a clear monetary value, rather than being measured on specifically defined ROI. Second, PR has never been the loudest voice in the marketing room. Traditionally we’re told by the creative marketing agencies who have created the overall brand campaign what we need to do, and then it’s our job to creatively try and shoehorn a PR campaign around it.

The saviour of marketing?

One of the interesting talks at the conference was from a creative agency that said it now puts PR at the heart of its campaigns to make sure they are telling a genuine story, in an authentic way. It’s no longer about flashy branding (although that helps) or prime-time TV commercials (only the companies everyone already knows can afford this now, and, anyway, Netflix is killing TV adverts). This sentiment was echoed by the other speakers — they now see the real value in involving PR right at the start of the campaign process. Some even went so far as to say they want to get PR involved in R&D. And it makes sense, right? If the true goal is to create a brand people want to like, then it’s logical to get those on the marketing front line talking to people — end users, analysts and media — to throw their take on what will and won’t work into the ring.

Another key message from all the speakers, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone in marketing communications, is that brands are looking at multi-disciplined teams to handle their marketing. This isn’t necessarily individuals (although in-house teams having more than one marketing skill were certainly seen as a benefit), but rather one team working together rather than in silos looking at the whole campaign together.

A quote from one of the speakers that stuck with me is, “I look to hire storytellers primarily. How they deliver that story — through an advert, social media or blog posts — comes second”. I think this is one of the most important takeaways for anyone working in marketing; brands are looking for a consistent identity and brand story to tell and, while the format may vary depending on the communication channel, the central narrative runs throughout all marketing activities. PR has always been about telling stories, putting us in a very advantageous position to lead marketing campaigns.

Traditional vs. New PR

However, our reluctance to admit we cannot necessarily do everything will be many PR agencies’ downfall. Instead of trying to engineer an idea to work purely for earned media activities, PR firms should be looking to see how they can shape a story for a brand, and all the ways in which this story can be delivered. If there are specialisms a PR team doesn’t cover, such as youth influencers, podcasts or video, PRs as the key storytellers should be curating an A-team made up of the best players in that niche. This may mean hiring in permanent staff to fulfil the roles we may not be able to do in-house, or working with multi-disciplinary partners to present as one united team to the client. Either way, it’s an interesting proposition and can only serve to benefit all — more opportunities and clients for everyone involved and an increase in team knowledge on how to create multi-discipline marketing campaigns.

It will be interesting to see how the role of PRs will evolve. Maybe legacy brands built on advertising won’t see the need to have a blended team. But I suspect challenger brands and those in highly competitive markets will be shifting even further towards this new, blended approach.

It may even become a self-selecting industry — big PR houses offering “traditional” press office and press office-only functions in a silo for big brand names, whereas more agile and collaborative brands will seek out agencies with partners in other marketing disciplines to deliver multi-faceted storytelling campaigns. This “new PR” may be slightly daunting to an industry that has been used to a certain status quo — but it will make PR a central part of a much bigger business function. I know which one I think is more exciting, and I’m thankful to be a collaborator, not a conformer.

Side note: For more on this topic, check out this SlideShare, “The Blurring Line Between Digital Marketing and PR.”

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