How Public Relations Is Earning Its Place in 2016

PR Has Gone Relatively Unheralded, Too Often An Afterthought In Marketing. But Not In This Environment.

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Edelman's campaign for Adobe's Photoshop 'Murder Mystery' took a Gold PR Lion at Cannes.
Edelman's campaign for Adobe's Photoshop 'Murder Mystery' took a Gold PR Lion at Cannes. Credit: Courtesy of Adobe

Public relations has always played its part in the marketing mix, even if it was added to plans late and rarely recognized like other disciplines. But the emergence of skippable, blockable, opt-out-able advertising, not to mention ever-more integrated campaigns, means PR can suddenly demand more than a supporting role—and maybe even take center stage.

At the Consumer Electronics Show last week in Las Vegas, Coldwell Banker deployed its internal PR team and CooperKatz & Co. to talk about how smart home tech will affect the selling and buying of residential real estate.

"Our smart home strategy is a result of my challenge to our PR internal department and CooperKatz to craft a three-year plan that moves us beyond traditional public relations, and into the digital age and strategic partnerships," said Coldwell Banker Chief Marketing Officer Sean Blankenship. "There is no better discipline than this in today's transformative and interactive marketing landscape."

Putting the company's PR team in the lead role for its smart home initiative has helped Coldwell Banker partner with the likes of Nest, LG, CNET and Lutron, Mr. Blankenship added.

H&R Block Chief Marketing Officer Kathy Collins said advertising may still be dominant, but PR is rising. "We are now spending more on PR, especially around our cause-marketing program on improving teen financial literacy, Dollars & Sense," she said. "We're also doing more PR around our partnership with the NBA and social media, for example."

Clients increasingly understand that marketing is multichannel, and that the digital and experiential spaces lend themselves to magnification by PR, said Harris Diamond, McCann Worldgroup chairman-CEO. "If you have the idea at the center, all platforms are necessary to amplify that idea above and beyond paid media," he said. "More and more CMOs are recognizing the power and importance of PR, and I'm seeing more practitioners in the field being involved in integrated campaigns and that's dramatically accelerated PR's pace."

More important, Mr. Diamond said, the "idea can come from anywhere."

At Chobani, where PR has always been a weapon to battle bigger-spending rivals, the discipline is becoming increasingly vital, according to Peter McGuinness, CMO for the Greek yogurt brand. The growing importance of PR is not only a Chobani development, he said, but a "macro-category trend" because of highly curious consumers and the increasing need to reach them with brand information.

Edelman, the largest independent PR agency, is "getting not just a seat at the table, we're getting half the table," said Jackie Cooper, global chair-creative strategy at the firm.

Where PR used to be tacked onto a campaign after the creative was finished, Edelman is now working with brands and advertising agencies from the very beginning. The agency has been working hand-in-hand with Adobe's creative teams, for example, from the start of the creative process to build digital activations for the software company's creative products. Edelman won the Gold PR Lion in 2015 at Cannes for its work on the Adobe Photoshop "Murder Mystery" campaign.

Rising fortunes for PR, however, don't always mean agencies in other disciplines understand how to work with their PR partners.

It's "not really traditionally understood by many," said Claudia Strauss, CEO of Grey Activation & PR. That's why her team trains all agency staffers, helping them figure out what will grasp attention outside of paid assets. "We're not buying eyeballs," she said. "When you buy an ad, you're guaranteeing eyeballs, but when you're earning, you need to engineer the content for news—you don't have a choice."

Sarah Hofstetter, CEO of 360i, who worked in communications earlier in her career, said PR agencies are waking up to the power they can yield beyond media relations. "Marketers really look at how they get the biggest bang for their buck and making their work talkable certainly extends the reach," she said.

While 360i is a digital marketing agency at its core, Ms. Hofstetter added that she frequently puts on her PR hat to come up with ideas for clients that consumers will care about and want to share.

Likewise, Kelli Parsons, senior VP-chief communications and marketing officer at New York Life, says the insurance company has recently observed a need for PR to integrate more strongly as part of the overall solution, specifically when delivering messages about brand purpose.

That means lead agency Anomaly is tasked with ensuring its other partners—Weber Shandwick and Mediavest—are working cohesively to execute strategy and collaborate on ideas.

Ideally, all agencies would get along, but Edelman's Ms. Cooper admitted it's "a little bit of a turf war, and it would be romantic to say otherwise."

Edelman neither wants to replicate an ad agency nor go back to being the PR agency it was in the past. It is building a new marketing communications agency that is "earned-centric and social by design," according to Ms. Cooper. The agency is also focused on figuring out new ways to measure the return on investment from its campaigns.

Even though many agencies are adding new capabilities to try to create one-stop shops, Mr. Diamond said the smart firms will primarily focus on what they know best.

"I don't see a world where marketing gets so blurred that everyone will be experts in in-store, out-of-home, TV, radio, print and PR," he said. "I see a world of specialists who can build on each other and exploit an idea by bringing those skills together and having inherent knowledge of each space."

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