PR Wants To Muscle In (I Can Respect That)

In my hunt for work, I have visited over 100 different agencies over the years. Last month I paid my first ever visit to a PR shop — Fleishman Hillard in San Francisco. I’ve also been trying to get a meeting with the content team at Waggener Edstrom in Portland and/or Seattle for months, to no avail. Why? Because I’m a specialist in content marketing and many ad agencies have little clue about the practice. I’m not convinced PR agencies are much better, but I want to see for myself before making that call.

With this in mind, Timothy Kane’s guest piece in Ad Age is interesting to me. Kane works for Makovsky & Company, a PR shop in New York City. He makes some bold claims about PR’s reach, but let’s go with it for the moment.

Instead of trying to encapsulate your brand in a strategic statement, try writing a narrative for your brand. That’s what public relations does.

…They’re not your customers; they’re your constituents. It’s been said often, but it bears repeating: People don’t buy brands. They join them. So modern brands must function like political parties, identifying issues, expressing a coherent world view, staging debates and structuring dialogues.

I like his passion, but the fact is we all deal in brand narrative. How we tell our clients’ stories is what distinguishes one agency from another, and one marketing communications practice from another.

Kane suggests that Apple’s success is a win for PR, not advertising. He also notes that Nike is spending a lot less money on advertising these days. I think it’s pretty evident that Apple’s success is the result of superior product, supported by unrivaled branding. Nike’s success, on the other hand, is all about how their brand story plays out on TV. Maybe they don’t need to spend as much on TV as they once did, but that’s partly due to the rock solid foundation they created for the brand on TV.

I know PR shops, like every other type of agency under the sun, are desperate to tell brand stories on the Web today. There’s a lot of money on the line, and we must convey our expertise to clients so they’ll trust us with their most important tasks. And I’m not here to diminish PR, as I said above I want to learn more about the field. But help me understand, if you will, how firms that traditionally influence journalists are better prepared to reach customers and prospects? Ad agencies speak directly to customers and prospects. Granted, the vehicles they use to do so are a bit rusty, but the fact remains ad pros know how to persuade people to buy things.

I’ll conclude by saying that I spent several years working in so-called marketing services agencies. At the time, I may not have appreciated what a solid grounding in MarCom I was treated to in these environments. Now I see. The bottom line is our ability to establish interest over the long term. The interest is created by brand stories and the stories must be told in a variety of ways — in store, at branded events, online, on TV and radio, in the press and so on. Call it what you will, but to my mind “Relationship Marketing” is the roof over all our heads.

1 Comment

  1. Adam says:

    I think you make some good points here and I agree with the general sentiment. However, there is one place where I see that the PR industry has something to offer in the new marketing and branding world.

    Traditional marketing firms have been about selling product. There’s branding involved, there’s advertising involved and a million other things that go into it but historically it’s mostly come down to making a sale. That’s a good thing, that’s what clients ultimately want.

    With the introduction of social media there’s been a huge shift in thinking about how we “sell”. It’s been said a million times but in social it’s not about pushing messaging out, it’s about joining in a conversation and guiding it where possible. It’s no longer the type of thing where you make an ad and then stand back and let people react. Now it’s actually interfacing with the public (customers and potential customers) and creating a dialogue.

    This is what PR people have always done. Sure their messages have been more directed at media than individuals but I think it’s often been about forming relationships with people so that they will help portray your brand as you’d like them to. And isn’t that what social media marketing is about?

    There are a lot of awesome agencies that totally get that concept and I’m not suggesting that they do a bad job at it. But the best social media marketers are the ones that know how to interface with people and in that respect those of us that do it for a living could probably learn a few things from PR pros.

    This is a long response but to sum it up, I agree with you. I wouldn’t hire a PR firm for a marketing or branding purpose. But I do think there are some things we could learn from them in the social media world.

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