As the public becomes more cynical about what businesses, public bodies, government and even individuals tell them, so PR's power grows as a medium able to create competitive advantage by delivering an implicit third-party endorsement.
When combined with other activity such as advertising, sponsorship or even market research, PR is ideally placed to squeeze every penny of value from your marketing budget. At its simplest level, it comes down to publicity, driving media coverage and word of mouth to reinforce both identity and reputation. Add in some strategic planning and creative thinking, however, and the discipline does not just alter mindsets - it also changes behaviour.
In short, PR can create a buzz, but it can also contribute directly to your business success, and it is in the ascendancy. Between 2000 and 2005, PR companies experienced average yearly growth in turnover of 5.9%, which is set to rise to 11.6% by 2010, according to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).
In part, this wider use of PR is down to a realisation that while it is not a cheap alternative to advertising, it can be a cost-effective conduit to reach audiences. Interest has also risen due to the fragmentation of media and the variety of channels that are now available for people to consume. 'There is so much more good-quality media out there with an almost inexhaustible appetite, which has created more scope for generating publicity,' says Chris Genasi, former CIPR president and chief executive of Eloqui.
This change has even been seen in traditional channels; in the past 10 years the number of magazine titles in the UK has increased by 24% to almost 8500. As a result of the digital revolution, meanwhile, more than 18.3m British households now have digital TV, and more than 10m a broadband connection.
For the most part, this media explosion is a boon if you are looking to get noticed. The online world delivers tightly focused communities and opinion-formers, cutting out PR waste and third-party filters. In addition, the emergence of podcasts, blogs and video-sharing communities such as YouTube prove the old adage that content is king.
'Where once we would be lucky if a publication took just one product shot to accompany a quarter-page slot, now we can maximise collateral online,' says Jez Jowett, head of digital at brand entertainment specialist Cake. His agency worked on an award-winning PR drive for the launch of Nintendogs, and is now handling the launch of Nintendo's Wii next-generation console, for which it has re-purposed product information, photography and video footage to cater to the lifestyles and behaviour patterns of the brand's audience.
The downside of this growing media appetite is the challenge of achieving mass-market cut-through. Journalists are now swamped by press releases promoting the latest product launch or service offering, and consumers are more blase about a news diet of survey findings, lists and scientific studies.
So, the rationale and creative thinking behind any would-be PR activity needs to stack up. For example, celebrity link-ups may be a highly effective PR tool, but only when the face and brand connect. In September, The Sun slated Tara Palmer-Tomkinson for taking on what it described as a 'naff' promotional deal, posing on a giant tin of Heinz Baked Beanz. Conversely, Bayer HealthCare recently played the celebrity card to good effect by signing up singer Bryan Ferry and model Jerry Hall to talk about impotence, as part of its initiative to relaunch erectile dysfunction treatment Levitra.
'Celebrity ambassadors have to be relevant, not just a badge, and you have to negotiate certain details in return for an interview, to ensure that a story doesn't just have a quick brand mention that consumers flick over,' says Molly Hooper, head of boutique lifestyle agency Slam PR.
Slam recently helped Orange launch its broadband service via a tie-in with Charlotte Church. Media and celebrities were invited to an unplugged performance by the singer, which generated more than 55 pieces of branded coverage in print, broadcast and online media, including OK! and the Daily Mirror.
'Orange is known for its music sponsorship and the media currency for Charlotte Church is so strong that it made sense to associate the brand with her to get across messages about the service being youth-oriented and a bit funky,' says Hooper.
This underlines that cutting across the media clutter involves finding the most appropriate platforms from which to engage with audiences. Drambuie, for example, recently took journalists from Arena magazine, Observer Sports Monthly and talkSPORT radio, plus some readers and listeners, for a three-day outward-bound challenge in Scotland. 'We got a lot of press coverage, but the point of the exercise was to reposition Drambuie with a younger active male audience to drive an uplift in sales and listings in bars,' says Greg Jones, managing partner at Shine Communications, which helped to organise the event.
Such tactics are fine if you have a sexy brand to sell. But what about promoting more prosaic products and services or reaching out to business audiences? For some, the answer is to position themselves as thought leaders - organisations and brands that effectively own media issues relating to the area in which they do business. This strategy is ideal for the likes of single-cause groups, but it is also an effective route for business-service providers to voice their authority.
Technology specialist HotWire PR runs an Issues Factory, where a quarterly open forum is held with each client to discuss what fits best with the current media agenda. 'It allows us to work through and script opinions to fit with business objectives,' says UK regional director Brendon Craigie. 'It also means we can be both proactive and reactive in our media strategies.'
This has worked well for clients including Blackberry and, most recently, telecoms solutions provider THUS, which scored coverage in the trade press earlier this year by advising SMEs on how to measure ROI around VoIP technology.
For the canny marketer, the true value of PR is in maximising other activity. Whether it is a high-profile sponsorship, market research exercise or controversial ads, with forethought PR can earn some well-placed publicity, often for only the price of a press release or a phone call. Good examples are Dove, with its 'Campaign for real beauty', and AOL, which is urging consumers to discuss good and bad aspects of the internet.
In addition, as the importance of reputation grows as an indicator of a company's worth, the best PR campaigns also deliver added value by flagging up corporate responsibility.
The problem for many, however, is demonstrating ROI. As it is difficult to inject the rigorous measures applied to marketing spend elsewhere, often this is tackled with cuttings and dubious Advertising Value Equivalents (AVEs).
Aside from the questionable practice of comparing advertising with editorial impact, this raises arguments about measuring raw outputs, rather than refined results. So, if you are considering using PR, you should decide early on what will constitute demonstrable business success. This is a challenge with which the discipline will have to grapple as it expands.
It is clear that as marketers become less tied to conventional communication strategies, PR is uniquely placed to help organisations embrace changes in media consumption, digital growth and the increasing impact of horizontal peer-to-peer style influences.
As Jean Wylie, managing director of full-service PR agency Porter Novelli, says: 'It is not a case of what PR techniques are available to marketers. At its heart PR is about communicating to a range of audiences, and marketers need to choose the most appropriate channel to reach those audiences.'
CASE STUDY - TV LICENSING
Persuading people that a failure to buy a TV licence may result in a prosecution and a £1000 fine is difficult enough, but even more so when convincing students, whose consumption of traditional media is in steady decline.
This was the challenge facing TV Licensing. Working with a cluster of communications agencies, including Fishburn Hedges, the authority sought to increase licence sales year on year and reduce evasion.
It was approached using a range of tactics, including online media relations, student welcome packs and posters, stands at Freshers Fairs, and display boards in Student Union car-park spaces that read 'Reserved for TV Licensing detector vans'.
To support BBC on-air trails, an 'anti-joke' theme was employed for the PR activity, using lines such as 'What do you call a first-year student watching TV without a licence? A first-time offender'.
All the PR initiatives were designed to amplify direct mail and advertising campaigns and warn students that TV Licensing would be visiting campuses for enforcement purposes.
In an innovative move, the campaign used a unique system for tracking responses to PR-generated online editorial. Using techniques borrowed from media agency partner PHD, Fishburn Hedges was able to demonstrate that PR alone generated licensing sales of £350,000 on a budget of less than £100,000.
PR - DOS AND DON'TS
DO take a holistic view of your communications, examining all audiences and stakeholders.
DO involve PR from the outset if you want well-researched, creative ideas rather than just a tactical add-on.
DO agree your messages, prioritise them and ensure that they pervade every communication.
DO ensure that PR is evaluated against clearly defined business objectives.
DON'T assume PR is just about media relations.
DON'T let the medium dictate the message.
DON'T forget that reputation is fragile; it has to be nurtured but also protected.