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Is PR really worth it? Stuart Smith, Ogilvy PR

The importance of earned media such as social networks is rising, corporate PR can no longer ignore consumers, and communities and causes are priceless - so the answer is a qualified 'yes'.

If you are a PR person, you already subscribe to the idea that the discipline of 'earned media' is in the ascendant. If not, then this summary of the debate is for you. The question is, for all the noise made by the industry, is PR earning its keep?

Imagine an agency where there is a heady mix of disciplines practised: advertising, research, planning, direct mail, sponsorship, events marketing and digital. This agency devises plans and executes integrated campaigns where PR has led the research, identified the guiding insights and created the 'Big Idea'. This describes my first employer back in 1991. Integrated communications is not the newest game in town - it is like a long-running movie on infinite loop.

Why is PR making more noise about integrated campaigns? Well, there is a case for PR to take a much more prominent role, not just as a channel, but as a creator of campaigns. The arguments made by the PR industry are various and well-rehearsed. They include:

- The changing influence of different channels of communication means that companies are seeking new ways to get their message across in a world where consumers 'graze' for information and then seek 'trusted sources' (earned media) to reinforce their decisions on brands and reputation. All this was predicted by writer and consultant Linda Stone, who identified a 'world of continual partial attention'.

- Corporations have been grappling with the meaning of responsibility for more than 30 years, but greater transparency, brought about by social media, has given 'corporate PR', traditionally reserved for key opinion-formers, a new and highly influential audience - the consumer.

- The core competence of PR has always been about conversations and the art of detailed dialogue. Social media is also about conversation, so those who understand PR are better placed to advise on that channel. Traditional marketing spend is being reallocated to fund digital strategies, with more than 50% of marketers increasing their digital budgets (Advertiser Perceptions, April 2009). Moreover, PR is twice as likely as marketing to lead social media strategy (Euprera, 2009).

- Every campaign today seemingly needs to build a community (off- and online). PR understands communities and knows how to build a relationship with groups over the medium term. Many product and corporate brand campaigns need a platform that is linked to a cause, which again builds communities and can be activated in the social space - all areas in which, traditionally, PR has a claim to competence.

However, even if you agree with these points, the PR industry does not always make it easy for marketers to dial up the earned media spend confidently. There are two reasons for this.

First, the advertising and PR disciplines are too often divided by a common language and process. The processes of discussing a brief with a client and generating creative recommendations look similar at first glance, but they are not. Often, PR does not understand how to engage with other marketing disciplines - this can create a lot of heat and generate very little light. Worst of all, it discourages clients from using it in the future.

Second, PR is not seen to be curious about why it works - yet an integrated campaign demands some predictability for the ROI of each channel. In a study, 20% of senior European corporate PR practitioners identified research as a rising need by 2012 (Euprera, 2009). This need is not one that will be met any time soon by the PR industry, nor the niche measurement agencies that serve it - despite the best efforts of AMEC and its Barcelona Principles.

The evidence of the convergence of communications disciplines is there for all to see: PR agencies are employing planners, and ad agencies are buying 'earned media' companies, while the PR Lions are not being won in Cannes by PR agencies. This convergence is also affecting clients' internal structures, blurring the lines of responsibility between reputation management, brand promotion and staff engagement - adding yet another layer of complexity.

There is no easy answer, other than to focus on producing great campaigns that sell stuff. Marketers struggling to engage the public should turn to their PR person, while PR agencies that want greater involvement in the marketing mix should improve the way they engage with the practitioners of other disciplines.

If the industry wants to take a more significant slice of marketing spend, it might have to work harder (and smarter) to earn it.

From Marketing's PR essays supplement October 2011


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