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A social gathering: Richard Brett, Shine Communications

With social media the lead discipline, PR agencies are best equipped to translate a brand's online activity into real-world success, thanks to their unique insight and improved measurement methods.

Many of those who have spent their careers on the PR side of communication will recognise the frustrating, and frequently experienced, scenario that follows. You are sitting in an all-agency meeting; the advertising company presents its work, which, of course, is very good; then it says: 'And what's great is that you'll be able to get lots of PR on this.' Cue a rolling of eyes from the PR people. Advertising isn't always newsworthy, but PR always is.

The scenario reflects several assumptions about, and misconceptions of, PR. At the heart of this is the assumption that PR is somehow easy and can be tacked on to the end of an ad campaign - that PR cannot be a lead discipline. This is driven by a certain amount of historical reality. In the past, PR has not been perceived as insightful, strategic or as measurable as advertising; it might be more creative, but it lacks the serious stuff. So many think.

As a former head of marketing on the client side, controlling both advertising and PR, I know that PR can, and often should, lead integrated communications. However, clients and agencies alike have often lacked the confidence to put this into practice.

Attitudes, though, are changing. The catalyst for this has been the social-media revolution, which has suddenly meant that PR is naturally well-placed.

Last year, our planning division carried out a survey of marketing directors, and of 78 respondents, 90% thought PR agencies were best placed to lead social-media campaigns. In addition, the PR industry has got a lot better at the serious stuff, and it is this ability to marry our historical strength in creativity with strategic insight and outcome-based measurement that will propel us in the eyes of marketing directors.

Several agencies are investing in planning functions, ensuring that they are focused on understanding consumers and trends and can deliver the insight that underpins an effective campaign. Meanwhile, a growing number of agencies are ditching traditional, and ineffective, output-based measurement, such as AVE (advertising value equivalency), which has been a major hindrance to PR's reputation.

While advertising agencies were planning their media based on that media's value, PR agencies were 'measuring' their results based on the same value. This has been a major flaw in PR, and one of the main reasons the industry has not been taken seriously. However, there is no reason why PR cannot be measured in exactly the same way as advertising. In addition, in recent months many PR agencies, including Shine, have gained attention for their commitment to commercially minded, business-focused measures such as attitude change, awareness, propensity to buy, sentiment and sales.

When the industry does this, the results can be very exciting. There is a good example of this, which (bear with me and don't roll your eyes) happens to be from Shine - our ongoing campaign for US clothing chain Forever 21.

Our research told us that trading on the brand's Los Angeles heritage would resonate with UK consumers of retail fashion, who would be best reached via social media. The result was a blogger - possibly for the first time - being hired to front a brand campaign. This blogger, Bip Ling, not only created social-media buzz about Forever 21's store opening on Oxford Street, but also fronted the advertising, personally cut the ribbon and hosted an event for other bloggers and journalists.

Not only did we generate coverage in every national newspaper, but we reached more than 80,000 people directly through social media, as well as achieving other key outcome measures, including significantly raised awareness among the target demographic and increased traffic to Forever 21's website. The Independent dedicated a page to the Oxford Street opening, highlighting the way that the campaign was leading a major change in the way brands market themselves through social media.

When social media acts as a lead discipline, the activity has to be authentic and grounded in genuine audience insight. There is no room for spin, inflated claims or promises that don't match the brand truth or real experience.

From Marketing's PR essays supplement October 2011

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