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PR has a bright future, as long as it’s integrated

Everything connects. Not sure who coined that phrase, but it seems to be truer than ever before. Technology, and in particular digital advancements, have created a sea change in how people interact with each other, and critically with companies, organisations and brands.

Listening to Radio 4 the other day, someone emailed a comment in to a debate from San Diego, having been listening to the show in his car via a web-enabled phone. And consumers are far more knowledgeable, informed and empowered. More often than not, by each other, than by the brand’s marketing team who would seek to manage the information and imagery. Try tapping Jaguar cars into Google. The first couple of pages will contain only two or three brand-sanctioned sites, the rest are enthusiast groups, car-review sites, licensed and unlicensed dealers, etc. So trying to manage your brand image against this backdrop is tougher than ever – it’s out of your hands.

Or is it? With this knowledge and empowerment has also come convergence. Gone are the days when a brand’s image was completely divorced from the parent corporate brand. What a corporation does to demonstrate its corporate social responsibility (CSR) can have a dramatic impact on the positive or negative perception of one of its brands. Smart companies, such as Unilever, are paying much more attention to this – hence the recent logo makeover and higher parent brand profiling in all communications.

Integration is once again the buzzword (I think it had a moment in the spotlight back in the late 1980s, when the global comms groups acquired suites of companies in all disciplines and attempted to bundle them to clients). This should be real integration – not the “matching-luggage” approach, whereby the advertising slogan is picked up on in direct marketing and sales promotion activity. To my mind it is all about building brand (or cause) advocacy – creating brand advocates by interacting and engaging at all levels and contact points.

It’s all about storytelling too. Not shallow brand ads or soundbites, but meaningful messages that resonate with people. The campaigns that have captured the public’s imagination recently are clear exponents of this. “The Great Schlep” The pre-US election campaign for the Jewish Council of Education, “The Best Job in the World” for Queensland Tourism, and ‘Meet Wally’s Heart” for Flora in South Africa. These could easily have been created by PR agencies. But they weren’t.

I don’t work in PR, but to my mind PR agencies are, or should be, best placed to deliver these kind of integrated, storytelling campaigns. PROs work with clients upstream, that is connecting with top management at corporate and strategic levels. They cover corporate/CSR and brand messaging – often the crossover point where the most compelling strategies and stories can be delivered – witness P&Gs Pampers tie up with Unicef.

The more forward-thinking PR agencies are now starting to embrace digital opportunities and delivery channels. Yet I still don’t see them taking the lead in this area. The poor showing, and in some cases boycotting, of the Cannes Awards is symptomatic of this.

I believe that there has been no better time for PR agencies to properly invest in the talent, resources and delivery channels to seize the high ground in truly integrated communications that marketers, such as P&G’s Marc Pritchard, are asking for. Let’s see which agencies rise to this challenge …

John Hackney, is a partner at health marketing specialists Refreshed Wellbeing

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