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How integration has benefited public relations

PR has more opportunities to diversify and get more work as boundary lines become blurred as to which sectors do what in marketing these days. But are PR people always making the most of these opportunities, and where exactly are they? These practitioners believe PR is well placed to grab a larger portion of marketing budgets, and here they explain how and why, as well as listing a few threats.

We need to improve our skills says Sarah Hall, owner of agency Sarah Hall consulting and president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations for 2018: “The emergence of the Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned (PESO) model was the moment when the boundary lines were wiped out and public relations was given the opportunity to become the lead communication and marketing discipline.  

“It’s now about education so that practitioners and the business community recognise this and we upskill accordingly. Think about it – PR practitioners are the eyes, ears and conscience of an organisation so it’s right that we lead on strategy and oversee delivery.  

“Just look at the results of holding agencies such as WPP which are experiencing weak to flat growth. Aside from a militant focus on margin, which is hard with the increase in zero-based budgeting and ongoing struggles with integration, this is about brands moving investment from traditional advertising into digital.  

“The PR industry sector has increased by 22% in four years, with much of that growth from clients buying digital and paid services because of PESO.  

“Instead of competitive disciplines eating our lunch, we’re eating theirs.”

PR is creative, agile and good value says Giles Fraser, co-founder of PR firm Brands2Life: “Agencies with PR heritage and the right skillsets are well placed to run integrated campaigns because, unlike agencies with their roots in other marketing disciplines, we’re creative, agile and, typically, good value. We’ve also, most of the time, got on fingers on the Zeitgeist. Our expertise in planning content that can drop into tomorrow’s media agenda is an important differentiator. Content prepared today must be able to compete with tomorrow’s latest news and entertainment. The role of data is critical here. As an industry we are growing more and more comfortable with the role of data, using science to understand the target before we bring the art into play.”

We need to work alongside other agencies, not just compete, says Gemma Spinks, director at agency Neo PR: “The PR industry isn’t losing out to other sectors: it’s about working together, which is why integration between PR, marketing and advertising is so important. Most PR agencies have realised that PR has morphed from more of a traditional print medium to online, and online brings many more opportunities. This is where we see each sector working together to achieve a common goal.  

“What happens if we don’t work together? Well, misalignment between PR, advertising and marketing can damage not only the client’s efforts in areas such as SEO, but it can even damage the client’s brand. PR, advertising and marketing agencies need to be singing the same tune to bring home the results and keep the clients happy.”

The best idea wins says Mark Perkins, executive creative director at agency W Communications: “The opportunities are there to be seized. After decades of PR agencies simply being asked to amplify whatever oddity the ad agency wanted to put out, the tables are turning. We are increasingly seeing clients opening the floor to all agencies to come up with the lead creative and, in a nutshell, the best idea wins. That’s a position we are very comfortable with because a good idea crosses over into any medium.

“As PROs we are helped by the fact that the campaigns we develop are underpinned by a strong rationale: audience insight, news and share value and, most importantly but often forgotten, feasibility. We’re currently putting the final touches to a digital ad for a famous FMCG brand where we came up with the idea, wrote the treatment, sourced the talent, oversaw the shoot and have the media and social strategy in place. That’s the work of three or four agencies rolled into one core team.”

PR offers the widest range of skills says Errol Jayawardine, head of digital at PR agency Red Lorry Yellow Lorry: “Undoubtedly, PR agencies and comms teams are getting work that has traditionally sat with advertising. Years ago you had large media buying teams in ad agencies; the internet and pay per click has been another nail in their coffin. But it goes both ways, the reality is we are often fighting for the same budgets as marketing functions consolidate.

“Good PR agencies are well-placed to win the battle as they understand messaging, relationship building and two-way conversation better than most ad agencies. Increasingly, organic and paid social media are seen as an extension of the comms function because of engagement with end-users.

“The need for good content puts PR in the driving seat. But just as the advertising industry has become more commoditised, there’s a danger that PR could too unless our content is thoughtful and motivates the right audience to take the desired action.”                                                                    

We can produce great creative quickly says Giles Peddy, SVP EMEA corporate development at PR agency LEWIS: “Traditionally, advertising has been the ‘creative’, whilst PR has been the ‘imperative’, driven by news. The proliferation of channels and the volume of content has seen end users demanding to be ‘entertained’. This has given rise to what we call the ‘creative imperative’, the fusion of stories, creative and cross channel amplification. This is why PR agencies are so well placed to succeed because we get news, we get the need for speed, we understand 24x7 news cycles, and work to 40 second Twitter updates. We can do creative but don’t require months of production to get there, unlike the ad agencies geared around the 30 second ad. In my opinion, it’s an easier cultural transition for a comms agency to up the creative, than a creative agency to up the speed. Certainly we are seeing the uplift in demand from clients to provide more services as we blend high quality outputs at speed.”

PR agencies offer better value says Tom Lawless, director at communications firm Headland: “The best agencies have been moving away from earned-media-only models for a while as the opportunity to offer a wider range of services and broader consultancy has grown. Integrated briefs are becoming much more common as businesses face a heightened expectation to demonstrate to all audiences that they have a value to society beyond what they make or sell, and are realising that they can no longer advertise their way to a good reputation.

“Advertising agencies are under threat on multiple fronts as clients realise that they can pose the same question to a PR agency and get as good an answer, but with delivery led through earned-media channels at a fraction of the price, likely with better measures of marketing effectiveness and efficiency at the other end. The opportunity for agencies is huge and the winners will be those who are genuinely combining specialist talent across disciplines rather than just buying up specialist agencies and combining profit and loss statements.”

We must recruit different talent says Jim Hawker, co-founder of PR agency Threepipe: “I think overall that PR is not picking up more work, mainly due to the lack of skilled people from those other channels working within the PR teams. The budget holders for the additional work tend not to reside in the PR teams, but with wider marketing departments that often work with more creative brand, media or SEO agencies who are grabbing a lot of the budget. Much of the additional budget also requires an agency to have the correct adtech in place, whether that’s to deliver online branding or digital out of home campaigns and I am not aware of any that do.

“The key battle grounds of influencer marketing and social advertising are being won by those agencies which have expertise in paid media, something which PR has been desperate to distance itself from for so long, to its own detriment. The good news though is that this isn’t a lost cause. The industry just needs to recruit different talent and invest for its future, rather than more agencies doing the same thing and competing even more for a reducing PR budget.”

Wake up to paid media says Stephen Waddington, partner and chief engagement officer at PR firm Ketchum: “Public relations has its roots in using earned and owned media as a means of persuasion. But this premise has broken down over the last decade. It’s put public relations on a collision course with marketing.

“Paid media is a reality if you want to execute a search marketing or SEO campaign on a platform such as Bing or Google, or promote content on social networks such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

“If you’re looking to engage an influencer to create content as part of an entertainment or consumer campaign, you’ll almost certainly need to pay for their time and reach. There’s limited benefit in investing in publishing video content via shared media unless you’re prepared to invest in promotion.

“Traditional demarcations between marketing and public relations remain evident within organisational structures. Marketing tends to lead with paid media whereas public relations leads with earned media. However in terms of execution, it’s often impossible to distinguish the two.

“Purists who insist that public relations should remain unpolluted by paid media fail to recognise a shift in media business models. In my view, they also fail to recognise the value and efficiency that these new forms of media provide to engage with consumers. And here’s the critical point: increasingly, consumers make no such distinction.”

There may be plenty of potential out there for more business, and PR already has many skills to make sure it wins this business, but it can’t be complacent. More training, and the recruitment of the right talent, is vital if PR is to beat off other competing sectors.

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