Public Relations Is on the Rise; Perhaps It's the Crispin Effect

PR Shops Reporting Double-Digit Gains; Expand Consumer Marketing Focus

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It's one of the few disciplines that doesn't have its own award at Cannes, yet this could turn out to be PR's year in the sun.
Crispin Porter & Bogusky has pioneered new ways to harness the blogosphere and other digital channels with campaigns that creatively combine the power of PR and advertising. The agency's 'Subservient Chicken' for Burger King is a poster child of the new age of viral-event marketing. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
Crispin Porter & Bogusky has pioneered new ways to harness the blogosphere and other digital channels with campaigns that creatively combine the power of PR and advertising. The agency's 'Subservient Chicken' for Burger King is a poster child of the new age of viral-event marketing. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

Public relations has always struggled to assert its value as a marketing tool. Why? Because there are almost as many definitions of the discipline as there are PR practitioners; because there's widespread disagreement on how to measure it; and because it's an umbrella discipline spanning tactically contradictory job functions such as public affairs or corporate communications and consumer PR.

PR marketing
In companies where it's been seen as a corporate-communications or public-affairs function, PR staff and budgets have often been housed separately from marketing and the CMO, reporting instead to a corporate-communications chief whose function is typically reactive -- fending off those pesky journalists and various crises -- rather than proactive -- courting those pesky journalists and bloggers and consumers and so on. That's made it much harder to integrate PR into marketing programs and has slowed the flow of more marketing dollars into PR-agency coffers in recent years.

This year, that flow seems to be accelerating, however. While first-quarter gains for PR were mixed-overall, WPP's PR business grew 14% and Interpublic's around 6%, but Omnicom's only a percentage point or two -- those I've spoken to in the PR-agency business claim most agencies are now recording double-digit gains, fueled particularly by their consumer-marketing, tech and health-care practices. Julia Hood, editor of PR Week magazine (which was, incidentally, my last post), said she's hearing those sorts of numbers, too.

Impact of 'Economist' article
To what does she attribute them? "Health-care's been strong for some time, and tech coming back has clearly been a major boost. PR agencies are also getting more referrals from the other agencies within their holding companies, and they're getting those referrals earlier in the process." Julia also credits a recent piece in The Economist headlined "As Advertising Struggles, PR Steps into the Breach" with giving more marketers confidence to up PR budgets. "It was seen as quite an endorsement."

Yet the central premise of that Economist article, that PR is filling a gap somehow vacated by advertising, seems to me to miss the point.

Rather, I believe the marketing world is learning to integrate the two, using PR more often in conjunction with ad efforts. At the ANA's recent Masters of Integrated Marketing Conference, several panelists referenced recent restructurings aimed at breaking down the walls between the PR and marketing departments. And a recent ANA survey showed that marketers consider such silos the biggest impediment to successful integrated campaigns.

'Earned' media value
If such restructuring isn't evidence enough for you, take a look at many of today's most effective campaigns, and you'll notice they are turned into an event or appear as "news" in the media and the ever-expanding blogosphere. That's not happening by chance; that's happening because marketers and their ad agencies are realizing there's more than just paid-for media value to be had from a good campaign; a great campaign has "earned" media value, too.

Creatives will tell you they've always understood that and they know their work has to be able to live in pop culture as well as in the spaces allotted to it by media planners. But how many are able to conceive an idea in that spirit rather than simply try to conceive a great spot? For me, as much as it will pain you Crispin-haters to hear it, that's Alex Bogusky's greatest talent: his ability to imagine what consumers and journalists will do with a campaign and not just how it will look on screen. Others are now joining him in the vanguard of a movement that will see PR living up to its marketing potential -- not as an alternative, but as an adjunct to advertising.
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