Recently I participated in a roundtable discussion of PR agency owners and senior officers at large multinational firms about the evolution of public relations and its perceived value within major corporations. The conversation was serious, even a little gloomy; the consensus was that although advertising has been greatly disrupted by social media, data-driven marketing, and automated buying practices, it was coping fairly well and adapting to seismic changes. PR, on the other hand, was still mired in old-school journalism tactics and techniques and dependent on commoditized services like media placement and press releases.
Many beg to differ. A recent Forbes piece that queries PR and advertising leaders about the near future of both industries was more optimistic, at least from the PR side. Richard Edelman, CEO of the largest independent in the business, claims that PR and advertising will continue to blur until they are fully merged by the year 2020. (The single scariest thing about the piece wasn’t the predictions, but the simple fact that 2020 is only five-and-a-half years away.)
But I digress. The most convincing argument I’ve heard that PR has the potential to eat advertising’s lunch came unexpectedly last week at the meeting of our PROI partners. PROI is the leading international partnership of independent PR firms. The partners vary in size, geography, service offering and positioning, but we have one thing in common, a fierce commitment to independence and a drive to stay ahead of the curve. The PROI 2014 international conference in Hong Kong was crackling with energy and brimming with evidence of where PR is going. It’s clear that many of our sister companies who began under the PR banner but have dropped it to signal their greatly broadened service offering are doing so as more than just a branding move. Most of our partners are heavily invested in social media, market research, content creation, and many other specialized services that push the traditional boundaries of our industry.
But what brought the house down was a creative campaign produced by our Norway partner, Henning Sverdup of Slaeger, the leading independent in Oslo. Many of the attendees had seen the video Slaeger produced for its client, SOS Children’s Villages, designed to move citizens to donate warm coats to displaced children in war-ravaged Syria. “Little Boy Freezing” turns a hidden camera on the good people of Oslo (and, by association, the world) to see if, when confronted with a child in need, they will help. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a look.
But many at the conference had seen and shared the SOS video. It’s generated more than 14 million views on YouTube alone, buckets of earned media coverage, and more than a few tears. The surprise was that this international viral sensation was produced not by an ad agency or digital marketing firm, but by a midsize PR agency.
The campaign was a stunning success because it produced outstanding results in the form of donations for SOS Children’s Villages. But it also lifted spirits in our business. The lines have blurred so much that calling PR the new advertising might be outdated. But for anyone worried about the future of PR, this campaign is downright heartwarming.