Ways PR Is Not Marketing Or Advertising

People often confuse public relations work with marketing or even advertising. While it’s understandable why they might be linked, and the lines between disciplines are blurring, confusion can be frustrating for PR folks when it comes to meeting client expectations for PR services. We wrote earlier about how marketing and advertising can inform the PR strategy, but it’s also helpful to clarify how PR is usually distinct from those two practices.

Here are some ways PR is not marketing or advertising.

PR can get you “earned media.” When we say “earned media” in the PR business, it generally means being included or featured in an article written by a journalist or writer working for a publication. Advertising can land you in that publication as well, but you pay for the space or time directly. And though the wall between advertising and the newsroom has grown more porous, there’s still a distinction between paid content and non-paid. The main difference is perceived credibility: when you appear in the editorial section, it’s like an implied third-party endorsement, because someone has dug in a bit and determined you were worthy.

PR is not promotion. Doing PR for a company or brand can mean being a cheerleader, but it uses a different set of tools and tactics than marketing or promotion. Marketing can tout the characteristics of a product or service that add value. PR doesn’t promote directly, but rather puts it in context or seeks to highlight what is new or noteworthy. Why does this matter now? A consumer brand might make coupons or special offers available as a marketing promotion, while PR would share the story behind the maker, or explain why the product is part of a new trend.

PR is about awareness. While PR certainly focuses on specific audiences, it’s different from marketing, whose goal is to target consumers (or other businesses), convert them into customers, and keep them coming back. PR generates awareness and interest among target audiences. The best combination is when PR, done well, creates a healthy environment for marketing, and marketing uses those PR results for its more direct or more commercial selling.

PR is more challenging to measure. The media world now has sophisticated algorithmic tools to measure reach, clicks, and conversion, making it much easier for advertising to gauge the effectiveness of dollars spent. In public relations, it’s not as consistent, and the more sophisticated tools come at a price.

PR cannot guarantee perfect control over outcomes. With advertising and marketing, paying for an ad or campaign secures message control and guaranteed placement, but there is no comparable control when it comes to PR. Smart, skilled public relations people with deep experience can offer their wisest estimate for what to expect, but it’s never a sure thing. It’s still about the art of persuasion over power, third-party endorsement over promotion, and credibility over control.

Is PR The New Advertising?

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.

PR And Social Media Move Movies

Memorial Day is the unofficial kick-off of the summer movie season, marked more and more by social media-infused promotions. The goal is to drive interest among the typically young, male movie fans with a fusion of traditional and digital PR and marketing, increasing the hype and the ticket sales.

Beginning in 1999 with the “found-footage” film ‘The Blair Witch Project’, the practice is now a must-have movie promotion strategy.

Hunting for (box office) treasure. Think of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) as online scavenger hunts to build hype and provide background for new projects. They act as modern-day grassroots PR campaigns. “Cloverfield” hopped on the bandwagon in mid-2007 with MySpace character pages and “in-world product” sites. The mysterious trailer and secrecy-saturated campaign spurred curiosity, and coverage.

“The Dark Knight” raised the bar with worldwide scavenger hunts led by the Joker, including cakes embedded with cell phones and a mock District Attorney campaign. The results were no joke; the campaign generated TV coverage as it connected more than ten million players in 75 countries.

More recently, “Tron: Legacy” rallied moviegoers with a “crashed” press conference and tokens to the film’s arcade. Even the upcoming “Man of Steel” joined the party, creating an in-world online project that mirrored the hunt for extraterrestrial life through satellite signals.  All the campaigns were covered by popular film blogs.

(Smile for the) cameras. Another form of social media promotion is interactive or 3D theater standees, the attention-grabbing larger-than-life posters like this one for “Transformers”.  Standees encourage theater-goers to take photos and share them on their favorite social networks while tagging the film’s accounts to build buzz. Despite the visual appeal of a photo with Gandalf or a “Despicable Me 2” Whack-a-Minion display, they rarely result in traditional media coverage, but the social sharing can be a blockbuster in itself.

The “Social Network” path to profits. More and more movies generate buzz with exclusive hashtags, Instagram reveals, and Facebook “likes”.  The horror fad film “Paranormal Activity” built a fan base through screening demands on Eventful, an event-sharing and requesting site, with resulting buzz in non-film outlets like Advertising Age.

The savviest film marketing uses in-world social media reveals, custom apps, and hashtags that unlock special poster content. Part of the success behind the megahit “The Hunger Games” was clever use of social sharing and exclusive content, generating recognition on such “mainstream” sites as CNET. For the “Hunger Games” sequel, “Catching Fire,” the studio has already created an updated “Capitol” fashion site, Instagram page, exclusive stylized images linked to the movie, and its first trailer, all some six months before its premiere.

Pay attention this weekend and in coming the months to spot some new trends.

PR Myths And Facts For Marketers

A favorite former client calls PR “the cheapest form of advertising.” Not really. But his comment shows that, even among sophisticated marketers, misconceptions about PR and what we do for clients are still prevalent.

These are the top seven myths that persist about public relations, and a perspective on each.

1. PR is advertising lite. Not so. The two are so distinct that they shouldn’t be compared, and neither is a surrogate for the other. As one pro once put it, the comparison is a little like arguing which is more important to football, offense or defense. Ideally they work in concert.

2. PR is cheap. It’s true that a modest PR program’s cost is probably peanuts compared to a heavy paid media schedule, but it’s still significant. Budgets vary widely. The key is to match the need with the right PR resource and approach.

3. PR is publicity. Sure, media coverage is often an end result of a PR program, but a well-crafted plan starts with a strong strategy. To generate earned media, there’s plenty of foundation to be laid. Overall brand positioning, relationship-building, messaging, etc. – all are critical to a successful outcome. And when the publicity breaks, it’s just the beginning. We still trade a measure of control for credibility.

4. PR is about getting the word out. True, but many marketers don’t realize it’s a two-way street. A successful public relations program is designed to tell a brand or business story, but the PR team should also serve as a source of feedback and intelligence on what customers and influencers are saying and thinking. If you’re not using your PR function that way, you’re not maximizing your investment.

5. PR drives sales. When a prospect says they’re counting on the PR spend to replace other marketing tools and activities, it’s a red flag. Despite exceptions, PR isn’t the most reliable way to achieve demand generation. What it does best is build brand visibility and enhance reputation over time. When it comes to sales, it will often fall short, particularly because frequency is nearly impossible to achieve with publicity alone.

6. PR = press releases. The news stream is important, and well-written releases are essential, but they’re a commodity. Press releases don’t add up to a strategic PR program, and the impact of any one release is likely to be minimal. If you’re paying for news releases, you’re wasting your money.

7. PR isn’t measurable. Actually, it is. But this one’s tricky, for two reasons. One is that the old metrics that gauge volume and outputs, like impressions and ad equivalency, are outdated and inadequate. Again, the comparison to advertising doesn’t truly measure what PR does well.

The second challenge is that the research needed to demonstrate the value of PR’s outcomes can be nearly as costly as the program itself. The good news here is that as social media adoption grows, things like sentiment, message delivery, impact, and action are now trackable.

Better Brand-Building Through Cultural Archetypes?

On this past week’s episode of “Mad Men”, Ted Chaough, while trying to dream up campaign ideas for a margarine, riffs on the notion that various category brands can be viewed through the lens of the very popular, very silly 60s-era sitcom, “Gilligan’s Island”.

The notion is that the seven ship passengers stranded on a desert island after what was to have been (sing along if you know the lyrics) “a three-hour tour,” embody archetypes that endure across time, cultures and disciplines like PR, marketing, and advertising.

Ad/marketing wisdom holds that twelve archetypes are useful in brand-building, helping creatives define the personality and character of a brand. Here is a look at a few of the types through some of today’s cultural icons and hot products. See if it helps you write your next PR proposal!

The Hero or Explorer is someone who will have a major impact on the world or help people be all they can be – Rick Grimes on “The Walking Dead” is your basic archetypal hero. A brand like Nike, with its glorification of the athlete and the nobility of competition, is often thought of as a “hero” brand.

The Innocent or Jester is exemplified by that which offers a simple solution to a problem and is associated with goodness, morality, simplicity, nostalgia or childhood. Brands like Dove Soap and Ben & Jerry fit the mold, and Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory” is a terrific example of an Innocent.

The Sage is distinguished by traits like truth, intelligence, and analysis. It has wealth of knowledge and an urge to share it. This archetype screams Carrie (Claire Danes) on “Homeland”, perhaps minus the bipolar aspects. It evokes brands like PBS or possibly even Google.

The Magician makes things happen. It makes dreams come true but can also be a bit of a manipulator, given its passionate and charismatic ways. Magician archetypes include Walter White on “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men”’s own Don Draper. Magical brands might be anything from Apple or perhaps Disney.

The Lover archetype, is no surprise, physically and emotionally attractive, passionate and helps people have a good time – put Victoria’s Secret and Godiva Chocolate there and think Sophia Vergera of “Modern Family” as the TV embodiment.

Recognize any of your clients in the archetypes?

Can "The Pitch" Be Fixed?

Can the pitch be fixed? I don’t mean the new reality TV show, although the debut episode was a losing proposition — contrived, tedious, and unrealistic. But there was one aspect of the show that hit home, and that was the pitch itself.

A team from McKinney, the first of two ad agencies competing to win a client, files into a stark conference room, engages in awkward chitchat, and begins an upbeat walk-through of its lead creative campaign idea. The energy feels forced as the camera zooms in on the client executives, blank-faced, bored, distracted.

The vacant client reactions were probably a function of editing, to heighten what little tension the episode contained, and (spoiler alert) McKinney comes out on top, so there’s no abuse here. But the uncomfortable presentation scene made me reflect again on the typical search process where the agencies turn themselves inside out and throw lots of time and talent at a creative assignment in hopes of winning the prize.

I wonder if the clients who sponsor these beauty contests fully realize how hard a competitive pitch is on the participating companies. Maybe they do, since for the client who looks at ten firms, the search is likely to be protracted, confusing, and absurdly time-consuming. (On the show, the client very humanely looks at only two agencies. But the typical bake-off can include far more.)

It’s ironic that most agencies will deliver their best work on spec. At least in advertising, the creative that takes first place will presumably be the basis for the actual campaign. But ask PR professionals how many times they’ve actually executed the winning idea. For us, the pitch is usually an expensive and time-consuming chemistry test.

The whole process could use a fix. Here are my thoughts on how we might simplify the typical agency search:

Limit the field. Three or, at most, four agencies should be enough. It helps if the key attributes of the most compatible agency partner – size, culture, geography, etc. – are determined ahead of time.

Limit the deciders. Of course, corporate politics may dictate otherwise, but a smaller decision committee will save time, money, and anguish on both sides. A cross-functional team is an invitation to disaster.

Skip the RFP. We recently participated in a project pitch where the prospect vetted us by phone, then followed with a brief questionnaire with five open-ended questions, asking for our response in three days. They made a decision two days later. Almost painless. (p.s., we won.)

State your budget. Many clients fear being open about the budget because they want to take advantage of a competitive situation to get the best price. Why not determine your actual budget and get the highest quality work for it?

Spend the time. Offering real access to the decision-maker(s) and delivering quality information to agency candidates, rather than delegating the discovery process to an intern, will elevate the caliber of agencies who participate and the recommendations you receive.

Consider paying for spec work. You’ll get more in-depth, higher quality responses. And every agency will love you for it.

A Summer’s Eve Debate: Why ‘Offensive’ Ads Can Be Good

Can men effectively market to women? Can whites sell to people of color?

Sure. Yet, some recent ad campaigns make you wonder. The latest is for Summer’s Eve cleansing wash, and it’s definitely a fresh take on the “feminine products” category. Each of the three ads features a woman’s hand that is meant to be a talking… uh, vajayjay. Each comes in her own, off-the-shelf ethnic flavor. Well, maybe just watch the videos here. The best part might be the tag line, “Hail to the V.”

No matter how you feel about the campaign, it’s sparked a response. The ads unleashed a shower of criticism, not only for being sexist in some eyes, but for perpetuating racial and ethnic stereotypes. The kindest coverage I’ve seen so far was Stephen Colbert’s send-up in which he concoted satirical ads for a similar product for men. (I can’t name the fictitious product here, but the tagline’s “Hail to the D.” Enough said.)

The commercials launched shortly after the recent California Milk Processor Board ads created to market milk to women for symptoms of PMS. “Everything I Do Is Wrong” landed Milk in hot water by playing on the stereotype of an irrational premenstrual female. The flood of negative comments on the social Web was so intense that the CMPB threw in the towel on the campaign last week.

Yet, campaigns like these strike a nerve for some very healthy reasons. They reflect back a great deal about our own values and hangups.  The advertising creative establishment is overwhelmingly male and Caucasian. People of color in power positions are concentrated in a handful of agencies that specialize in marketing to minorities. It’s a frustrating, chicken-and-egg challenge; the industry’s greatest minds have pondered, discussed, and blogged this issue. (And it’s not just advertising. Mainstream public relations is also a white, albeit predominantly female, industry.)

But the industry is once again buzzing about how stupid it is that more women and ethnic minorities aren’t in decision-making creative positions. This isn’t an easily solved problem, but the discussion can’t be allowed to recede. So, for this reason, and maybe this reason alone, I will applaud the Summer’s Eve ads. Empowering? I’m not sure. Offensive? That depends on who’s watching. Provocative? Yes, on so many levels.

Referring to his agency’s celebrated work on behalf of the California Milk Processor Board, GS&P’s Jeff Goodby told The New York Times that a similar PMS-themed campaign had been launched in 2005, to a far more muted reaction. “It’s a different world,” he says, summing up both the problem and the progress.

As a PR person, I don’t believe either campaign is a naked play for exposure, although I might be naive. I think they’re a needed reminder of how much has changed, and a sign that we still have a long way to go.

What Marketers Don’t Know About PR

Are we living through PR’s “golden age”? Sometimes I think so. Clients understand the benefits of PR and are sophisticated about the tricky aspects, like trading perfect control for a measure of credibility. And budgets are opening up after the economic downturn.

But other times I wonder. Last year a favorite client of mine refers to public relations as “the cheapest form of advertising.” He meant it as a compliment, but it made me think misconceptions about PR linger even among seasoned marketers.

Here, then, are seven myths that persist about public relations, and my perspective on each.

PR is advertising lite. The two are so distinct that they shouldn’t be compared, or, worse, pitted against one another. As Freddy J. Nager once put it, debating their merits is like arguing which is more important in a football game, offense or defense.  It’s a useless argument because each has a different function, and they ideally work in concert.

PR is cheap. Although a modest PR investment is peanuts compared to, say, a national TV spot, it’s not insignificant. Budgets vary widely. The key, of course, is to match the need with the right PR resource and approach.

PR is publicityPreferably Oprah. Sure, media coverage is often an end result of a PR program, but a well-crafted plan covers so much more. And to get to the earned media outcomes, there’s plenty of foundation to be laid. Overall brand positioning, media strategy, relationship-building, messaging, etc. – all are critical to a successful result. When the publicity breaks, it’s not usually a magic bullet. The old adage that we trade control for credibility still holds. (And what publicists don’t like to admit is that Oprah’s producers rarely take ideas from PR people.)

PR is about getting the word out. This is true, but many marketers don’t realize that it’s a two-way street. A successful public relations program is often designed to tell a brand or business story, yes. But a PR team should also function as a source of feedback and intelligence on what customers and influencers are thinking and saying. If you’re not using them that way, you’re not maximizing your investment.

PR drives sales. When I hear a client say they’ve put their ad budget into PR to replace marketing or promotion as a sales driver, it doesn’t make me happy. It’s a red flag, because PR isn’t designed for demand generation. Despite some spectacular exceptions, what PR does best is build brand visibility and enhance reputation over time. When it comes to driving sales without a built-in sampling program or other promotional piece, it will nearly always fall short, particularly because frequency is nearly impossible to achieve with publicity alone.

PR is about press releases. The news stream is important, but the release itself is a commodity. Press releases don’t add up to a strategic PR program, and the impact of any one release is likely to be minimal. If you’re paying for news releases, you’re wasting your money.

PR isn’t measurable. Actually, it is, but this one’s tricky, for two reasons. One is that the traditional metrics of volume and outputs, like ad equivalency or impressions, are outdated and inadequate. Again, the comparison to advertising doesn’t really measure what PR does well. The second challenge is that the research needed to demonstrate PR’s value is sometimes as expensive as the program itself. The good news here is that as social media adoption grows, things like sentiment, message delivery, impact, and action are now trackable.

This post was originally published in a slightly different form on MENG Blend.

Should PR Own Social Media?

This week’s news that ad and PR behemoth Interpublic Group has launched Rally, a social media unit, has the industry buzzing. The launch gave fresh fodder to the old turf debate, spiced with speculation about infighting under a single corporate roof. EVP Heidi Browning says Rally won’t mean new competition for IPG-owned PR firms. Insiders say that’s hard to believe.

And it is. With marketing budgets under scrutiny, everyone wants a piece of the social media pie. And not just crumbs…we’re after the juicy, buzz-generating campaigns that require fat budgets and make reputations rise. In fact, we’ve spent huge portions of time and energy arguing that the whole pie should belong to us, by dint of experience, natural inclination, or sheer talent.

Ad agencies are the traditional marketing stewards, so the case they make starts there. They have the key ingredients – brand strategy chops, consumer insights, and creative flair. Some fault PR pros for lacking the necessary skills to own the new landscape. They claim we’re not savvy about tech tools or sophisticated about metrics, which in some cases is quite true.

The PR response is often that social media belongs with us because we’re natural storytellers. We’ve always been the content generators, we know how to build buzz, and, besides, we’re the relationship guys. (It says so in our name, right?)

Then there are the digital marketing experts, social media consultants, refashioned web gurus, and so-called strategists rushing to claim a seat at the social media banquet. Everyone wants to be master chef in the marketing mix.

It takes a village…and a new mindset for PR

But, the truth is, none of us has the full spread to satisfy every need – or even the mindset. Traditional advertising types tend to default to the old, control-the-message approach. Like a cook who tweaks a favorite recipe, they think social media’s about getting your ad campaign to go viral. (While that can be a wonderful thing – just ask Old Spice – it’s beyond myopic as a point of view.) But just as many PR pros cling to their familiar formula. They’ve replaced media relations with blogger outreach, without embracing the new world of consumer engagement.

The answer to who owns social media, of course, is that it’s the wrong question. It’s like asking who should own traditional media. It’s a tool, of course. A customer service program on Twitter and a Foursquare frequent-visitor promotion are both social media-driven. Yet, the goals, strategies, and execution teams are likely to be drastically different.

I know what they say about too many cooks….and it’s true that every campaign needs a leader. Some will be PR-centric while others involve paid media. But, maybe – just maybe – we should stop arguing over the dessert that none of us owns and try to figure out how to work together to serve our clients.

Will Crowdsourcing Make Agencies Obsolete?

It sounds so easy. Instead of hiring a pricey ad agency or PR firm, just tap into the wisdom of the crowd to market your product. After all, they’re the ones buying it.

Crowdsourcing is being touted as the latest trend in creative services, from logo design to advertising.

Yet, most so-called crowdsourcing initiatives don’t truly harness the collective wisdom in the Web 2.0 sense. Not like the Netflix Prize or Starbucks’ virtual suggestion box. Most often, they’re contests. They dangle ten minutes of fame and a prize package for a public relations payoff and (one hopes) enhanced customer engagement. And, they’re usually the brainchild of the agency, and run by them, too. VitaminWater’s “flavor creatorFacebook app is yesterday’s M&M New Color Contest. Nice idea, but not exactly Wikipedia.

Recently, though, Unilever London shook up the agency world by adopting a crowdsourcing strategy not as a PR gimmick, but as a long-term move to spice up the marketing for its Peperami snack, which seems to be a Slim-Jim-style stick of salami. Peparami fired its agency and set up an open call for fresh ad concepts on the website Ideabounty. The winner will receive a $10,000 fee, and, the fame (or infamy) that results.

Even before the sausage incident, Crispin Porter Bogusky’s Colin Drummond wrote that crowdsourcing would commoditize creativity, warning his agency peers in a blog post, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

Others are sounding the death knell for creative services. You see, the decision wasn’t about quality of work. The ousted firm had done a bang-up job for over 16 years. The client admits that the extraordinary brand equity built for the product – embodied in a quirky animal mascot – makes this kind of user-generated initiative possible. That’s gratitude – and the agency business – for you.

Yet, I’m not sure the budget bite will be that big. No matter how you slice it, the Peperami campaign isn’t true, replicable crowdsourcing. It’s more like outsourcing to an engaged few –  in this case, probably out-of-work or aspiring copywriters. The unique circumstances and social media element give it some PR flavor, but to me, it seems like a creative way to downsize the budget, seasoned with a little dash of something new.

The other thing is this. The contest-as-crowdsource idea isn’t for every brand, or every situation. In fact, it can work for Peperami only because the brand foundation was already laid in the form of intrusive commercials and supported by millions in paid media over 16 years. It’s one thing to liven up a long-running campaign with a fresh execution, but another to come up with strategy, creative direction, and execution for a lesser-known brand, or in a vacuum.

Sustainable crowdsourcing to achieve innovation is self-limiting, precisely because it’s hard work. It also requires real collaboration and continuity – the wisdom of the true crowd in a spirit of continuous improvement — not a series of one-off competitions for a clever phrase. (And, at the end of the day, someone’s got to go through the thousands of suggestions and ideas, find the gems, and turn them into a dazzling, finished product…no small task.)

The idea that crowdsourcing will kill agencies based on a salami snack campaign is…well, baloney. In fact, it could be a win-win for all involved. If it does turn out to be a revolution in creative services, expect a new “Idea Economy” to follow. Despite changes in delivery channels, any kind of creative meritocracy is ultimately good for our business. The best rise to the top – and to a new pricing level and all that it implies. And then we start all over again.