Dorothy Crenshaw December 19, 2013 | 03:12:59

How Strategic Public Relations Builds Brands

Public relations drives reputation, while marketing builds brands, right? Not so fast.

That assumption defines both disciplines too narrowly.  There are many ways in which the classic PR approach and tactics help defend, deepen, and even create an indelible brand identity. In fact, a Procter & Gamble study showed that out of all the services in the marketing mix for seven of its beauty, health care and family brands, public relations had the highest ROI for three of its brands, and it came in second for the remaining four.

Here are the most common ways that PR pulls its weight in the brand-building mix.

Earned media implies third-party endorsement.  The essence of good PR is having someone else talk about you in a positive way, rather than pushing out your own marketing content. The third-party endorsement – either implied or explicit – is often more effective, and nearly always more credible, than paid media, and it can go into far greater depth than the typical marketing or ad campaign.

PR can drive thought leadership. Staking out a position on an issue that transcends everyday business matters  can yield far-reaching brand benefits. When a CEO comes out in favor of marriage equality, like Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein, or launches a jobs program, like Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz,  it’s about more than corporate reputation. It’s an example of leadership about a critical matter relevant to most customers that may have little to do with its products, but everything to do with its brand values.

PR supports education. When we talk about “public education” campaigns, they often mean behavior change for the public good, like prevention of childhood obesity or seat belt safety. They are often unbranded, or may carry the brand of a respected government agency or NGO. Yet even for businesses in “high-involvement” categories like luxury, technology, or automotive, the depth and detail that product education provides can be a true brand differentiator and a way to inspire customer confidence.

Strategic communications creates brand advocates. This is where branding and reputation come together in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Social media is like word-of-mouth on steroids, and the credibility of peer networks can not only turn prospects into customers, but customers into advocates, either for a brand’s position, or against it. Through the power of social sharing, every customer interaction is potentially a public one, and a brand reputation can be formed – or dismantled – in a matter of days.

PR is about the story.  Storytelling sums up the natural advantages of PR as an engagement tool. Unlike advertising, PR can tell a story in depth. The most powerful narratives might recount the impact of an innovative product or service on an individual or a community, for example. Storytelling can usually be done in far more detail and with greater authenticity through social and traditional media relations than through paid media channels.

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