Commentary by Jonah Bloom

How Public Relations Agencies Fumble Their Own PR

PR Has A Bad Rap Despite Word-of-Mouth Savvy

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Open the file labeled "most advertising agencies don't advertise" and make an addendum: Most PR agencies don't clearly communicate their strengths.
Jonah Bloom, executive editor of Advertising Age.

This is a time of huge opportunity for PR shops. In January, Bob Lutz, vice chairman of General biggest-advertiser-in-the-U.S. Motors, told his brand managers -- who are responsible for introducing 13 vehicles this year -- that he expected them to focus more on buzz-building, media relations and event marketing and less on TV advertising. His speech followed a similar decree at biggest-advertiser-in-the-world Procter & Gamble, which convened "Buzzpoint" last November to tell its marketing executives they should be more focused on seeding messages via influential consumers.

PR has the answers
What's more, almost all major marketers are focused on questions to which PR has some good answers: In this increasingly consumer-controlled environment, how do we ensure we're embedded in content, rather than appearing in "zappable" commercial space? How can we meet our consumers face-to-face and enable them to experience our products or services? How do we find those consumers who influence the thinking of

thousands of other consumers, and how do we turn them into brand advocates? How do we generate word-of-mouth buzz about our brand?

These are exactly the issues PR people tackle. Embedding brands in editorial content has been the mainstay of the PR business for more than a century. Break down almost any mainstream news or entertainment broadcast (yes, it's increasingly hard to tell the difference) and most magazine or newspaper coverage and you'll find products, people, companies and causes are embedded there due to a smart PR operator.

Influencing the influencers
Good PR people know how to get consumers to events. They have long done clever and effective work identifying and influencing the influencers; and they are masters of creating what appears to be word-of-mouth buzz. (Blair Witch Project, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Listerine PocketPaks and Ugg Boots, to name just a handful, are classic PR success stories, not spontaneously occurring word-of-mouth phenomena.) With these tools at their disposal PR people should command more attention and budget from smart marketers.

But as a business PR has sent mixed messages about its purpose and strengths. Last week in a letter to Ad Age the president of the Public Relations Society of America described PR as being "about building relationships between people and organizations, opening and maintaining multilayered communications channels and helping organizations and individuals avoid or manage controversies." What is that? It may be a definition of the role of a corporate-communications department, but it isn't a good sell to a busy marketer looking to position, brand or sell product.

Too highfalutin
Many PR agencies have sent similarly highfalutin-but-confusing messages as they have tried to grow business in corporate-reputation management. (This is interesting and important work but has distracted from the message about PR's core strengths.)

It's not just about missing opportunities to grab a bigger chunk of the budget, either. It's about PR agencies coming up against other types of marketing agencies that are winning influencers, buzz and word-of-mouth projects. When it comes to these areas, PR agencies need to own them -- or face losing them.

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