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Redrawing the boundaries: roundtable discussion

Marketing assembled a panel of the PR industry's top practitioners to discuss the state of their sector, what the discipline has to offer and its place in the communications milieu.


Richard Brett joint managing director, Shine Communications

Graham Goodkind founder and chief executive, Frank PR

Miki Haines-Sanger founding partner, Golden Goose PR

Jim Hawker co-founder, Threepipe

Mark Herbert managing director, corporate reputation, MHP Communications

Hilary Meacham founder and managing director, Focus PR

Richard Medley managing director, Spider PR

Fiona Noble vice-chairman, Weber Shandwick

Stuart Smith chief executive EMEA, Ogilvy PR

Rikki Weir board director, Cirkle PR.

The remits of marketing and PR are converging at a rapid speed. As a result, practitioners of the former have generally become more inclusive of the latter in recognition of the extent to which reputation can influence a brand's performance and sales.

However, many marketers still have much to learn about the function of PR.

Marketing asked a panel of 10 leading PR practitioners to discuss the wider challenges facing the industry. Their answers, as detailed below, make for some interesting reading.

Should PR come first in brand positioning and, if so, why?

MH I am surprised that this is still a talking point. Communication is what matters - it is the core and the starting point; advertising is the delivery mechanism.

RM Consumers are far more opinionated now - you need to build personality through PR if the advertising is going to be any good.

MHS It's good to employ PR to make loud whispers on the right channels and get some buzz going - that is what people trust.

GG A small amount of our work is PR, compared with what we did 10 years ago. Now, we are just agencies. Only 1%-2% of the work we do is based on press releases.

SS Everyone is trying to eat everyone else's lunch. No one owns the brand.

What structures can be put in place to improve PR performance and set targets?

FN We will struggle to sit at the table with chief marketing officers because of the language they use and the metrics they understand. They want people who share their language.

RM There is still a bit of a fear factor when everyone is worried about their jobs. It's still a big ask among old-fashioned clients to get them to understand and trust.

HM Get everyone together - get the best brains around the table and ensure everyone contributes.

FN Many of our clients are head of communications and PR directors, but, increasingly, chief marketing officers too. If we are going to occupy an equal place at the table, planners will be key.

SS There is a failure in the industry to educate those in the marketing sector. Chief executives are cutting advertising spend by 30%, but this is not the case with PR - you can't turn it off and on. Marketing people don't understand this. Our most interesting conversations in the past six months have been with planners.

How can the PR industry improve its metrics?

FN What clients are asking about is how to engage consumers more. They are asking advertising agencies the same thing. We get too hung up on what metrics we should be using. We need to make sure campaigns are integrated into the tracking that is taking place. We also need to be better as an industry about talking business with our clients. We are not as strong as some of the other disciplines in demonstrating commercial understanding of what is driving the business.

We simply need to be more commercial. The thing that keeps a marketing director awake is very different from the thing that keeps a communications director awake.

SS AMEC (The International Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication) is supposed to be doing something about this. AVEs (advertising value equivalents) are wrong.

As an industry, is there enough talk about numbers?

JH Ideas and creativity are still important, or we won't deliver on numbers. It's the dark art of what PR can do, to a certain extent.

FN When our clients give briefs, there aren't numbers attached - the idea has be measurable and tangible. We have to look at the idea and see how this can sit across different channels if we want to get our 7.9% of total marketing spend.

RB If you are in a pitch situation, the element that wins the pitch is the idea. You can talk the language of planners and numbers, but you have to get the language right.

Marketing directors and chief marketing officers now have a bigger remit for PR. How do they get value from an in-house communications team and an agency relationship?

FN The responsibility is to drive engagement through conversations. Previously, we had only a few channels to do this; now we have social and digital. These areas are at our heart - understanding how advocacy influences opinions and actions. From our perspective, there is a big shift in that engagement, and conversation should be part of the mix.

JH We now get briefed by so many other parts of the business.

What's the marketing structure of the future?

MH If you look at the way a typical board is structured, it may have a corporate communications person. The sense I get is that the chief executive and chairman know that something needs fixing, but don't know how to go about it. It's sort of ad hoc - who does the chief executive know and who does he feel comfortable with?

GG People aren't having debates at board level. The influence of ad agencies has declined in the past two years, and there is more involvement from experiential, social and digital agencies.

FN We've been involved in big experiential pitches with experiential experts. There is need for repackaging and investing in associated skills.

MHS Social media helps us. The idea has to be story-led, and social media gets it.

If you are stuck for ideas, where do you go to for inspiration?

RM As an industry, we are very good at talking, but sometimes it comes back to listening.

RW We want to improve our press coverage, but it's not about column inches - it can be experiential or advocacy campaigns, for example.

GG It has to be something that underpins the brand.

What other issues are challenging the PR industry at the moment?

SS How to take a corporate brand to consumers in a way that is relevant, and making sustainability relevant to consumers.

FN One of the big unanswered questions is: now that we have less control over the message and the channel, how do we manage brand conversations and create content to drive conversation beyond the push? What is the insight that will lead to the transformation of an idea?

GG We have to change the way we approach our job and how we train people.

From Marketing's PR essays supplement October 2011


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