The Real Purpose of PR: A Case for Meaningful Communications


When was the last time you heard, “X-business is in flux?”

For veterans of Web 1.0 and 2.0, and the oft over-hyped Internet of things (IoT), “flux” has become a way of life.

Rising technologies, like business analytics, are changing our roles, and the average business executive is still helpless trying to come to terms with today’s PR and marketing setting.

My friend Brian Solis, one of today’s most sought after strategy visionaries, is the perfect example of the balance between PR and marketing philosphies. Transparency, experiential relationships, and reactive marketing techniques, this is today’s business communications.

“Through the eyes of industry visionaries, the convergence takes place transparently.”

Today’s analytics are so powerful that they predict people’s vacation itineraries, so balancing new marketing paradigms with granite solid PR skills is indispensable.

The big question for decision makers remains, “Where is the optimal balance in between marketing and public relations?” 

To shed some new light on what is an age old question, my partner, Pamil Visions PR founder, Mihaela Lica, and I, quizzed some of the most notable experts and visionaries in communications.

New Age Communications: It’s Academic

For those who prefer the “litmus test” to establish a baseline communications strategy, looking at academia in any given time frame can offer blazing insight. No matter how complex we tend to make things, regardless of the stigma placed on today’s business communications backdrop, what’s being disseminated at colleges and universities forges tomorrow’s adaptive strategies.

Technological and sociological shifts do not really alter communication. Innovations, the terms we apply to technology and invention do not change either start, or end points. This can easily be seen with regard to our “human mission.”

Take the concept of “sustainability.” The necessity of conservation and caring for the long term existed in pre-historic times, and early humankind simply had a different name for “logic,” and for living life in balance. The Head of the University of Surrey School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, Dr. Graham Miller stressed that there are enormous challenges for businesses in a “flux:”

“The hospitality industry has relied on passion and enthusiasm to take its first steps towards a more sustainable future and there are some incredible examples of how much this can be achieved. Yet, the challenges of sustainability are enormous and to respond to these we need to work smarter as well as with passion and determination.

Analyzing the data produced by running our business can allow us to understand where we can make the most significant changes first and where we need to focus our attention. Using data to improve our sustainability performance is no different from using data to improve our financial performance.”

Interjecting tools and strategies does not alter the logical goal. It is the philosophy that dictates the method, as much as any new paradigm for change. This is true for selling refrigerators on a black and white TV, or via mobile YouTube ads, and in all cases “sustainable” translates to “viable for long term business.”

Today’s Unbalanced Philosophies

Photograph of Richard Edelman
Richard Edelman

Several years ago I found myself in the middle of essentially the same discussion going on today, only at the pinnacle of dynamic big agency level. The case back in 2013 was all about whether traditional public relations strategies (and even viability) would still lead in the communications world or not.

At the time, two of the world’s most influential PR giants, Edelman and Fleishman Hillard, collided over the chrysalis of digital communications, advertising, PR, and marketing. It was all about Richard Edelman’s “dissenting view” on Fleishman-Hillard (FH) being branded “the most complete communications company in the world.”

The friction then, like the friction now, was all about the roles of communicators, roles that were never really mutually exclusive. Richard Edelman’s take was brilliant, amounting to a philosophy of public relations versus what I think he perceived as a paid-for-media marketing sellout of the industry.

On the Fleishman-Hilllard side of the equation, CEO Dave Senay was disappointed with Richard’s assessment. Senay wrote me, adamant to characterize his agency’s move into a “convergent media” landscape as a “genesis” moment, which it was. But Senay also seemed to misunderstand Edelman’s philosophical redoubt.

Senay said Edelman had tried to characterize “advertising as the bogey man,” which was at the crux of the two power CEO’s competitive argument. Three years down the road and we find both these powerful communicators were right. Their differences in philosophy so apparent, Edelman and Senay both understood what was happening, and neither really knew how to express it.

Richard’s philosophy of the PR voice “leading” the conversant strategy was brilliant, true, fundamentally necessary, while Senay’s understanding how huge agencies must transfigure was purely pragmatism.

Today marketers rely heavily on advertising. We see this every day in our own hospitality-focused business. If SPAM were outlawed, punishable by death, Facebook ads and sponsored posts in digital magazines would disappear altogether.

With the demand for sales and conversions and the ease and simplicity of social and mobile technologies so instantaneous, business is easily sold on the quick fix, and the short-term tends to win. Edelman was correct in insisting the “PR mindset” must lead:

“PR is more than a set of tactics or tools. It’s a mindset; the ideas that come from PR people are different than those that come from advertising people. Both are engaged in storytelling, but the PR idea stimulates discussion and has the potential to play out over years. A PR idea has to start with relevancy and newsworthiness.”

The “sustainable” communications and business mindset has to be based on Edelman’s philosophy. However, Senay’s dogma on convergent media is no less brilliant and viable.

“Paid media is just a part of our story… the part that comes in the “activation” stage of using insights to find transformative ideas that work brilliantly across media channels. (However) It’s just another channel, or touch-point, to engage audiences.”

The problem for Senay, and for businesses that have been “ad agency-centric” is that the proliferation of advertising has hurt the long tail of sustainable business. The pragmatism of advertising practitioners like Dave Senay (see his Omnicom Group background) was crucially valid at the onset of the current “flux” of communicative business.

It seems obvious to many now, the trust and credibility Richard Edelman spoke of three years ago has been eroded a bit by overzealous marketing. Senay’s ideas are valid, but only if the “balance” is struck properly. In our business it’s crystal clear that too much of paid media of all kinds upsets the balance.

Business in the Happy Middle

Photograph of Todd Defren
Todd Defren

In our view, advertising and marketing must now be bridled by the ideals public relations imbued modern communications with decades ago. Marketing’s role is to scientifically disseminate, then to measure the ebb and flow of market dynamics. Marketing is the science of selling, where advertising is the art of the same.

As for PR’s role, in order to frame this, my partner Mihaela Lica contacted a longtime friend on social media and true digital visionary, Todd Defren, the CEO at SHIFT Communications, and the man Mashable called the “Social Media Marketing Master.” Defren’s high vantage point at the axis of where marketing and PR converge, gives rise to the special significance of his views here:

“Social media blew up traditional marketing silos such that corporate marketers were freed to choose new types of providers. Simultaneously the tech and cultural trends also impacted by social compounded that sense of flux: opening more doors to introduce new services but also causing an ongoing headache with regard to choosing what investments to make to compete into the future.”

The future. We need to envision, like Defren and others, the sustainable extension of essential business communication today, and, more importantly, tomorrow. At the agency level, communications executives need not be proverbial “know-it-alls,” for being PR, or ad-centric, matters far less than being long-term goal-oriented.

As for the communications business being in a state of flux, or simply progressiveness, Barry Schwartz, one of the world’s foremost experts at SEO and SEM, hits it:

“I don’t think the word “Flux” is a good one. Our business in transition, moving to more growth driven areas is one thing. But, for a business to be in “flux”, it sounds scary.”

And there it is, “scary” is hyper-marketing strategy for “movement” in the customer case. Marketing is inherently focused on measurable results, and only peripherally focused on the customer relationship. While some would argue this point, my 30 years in the business are not without shining examples. To show how this industry is moving to a point balance, a statement by Morgan Mclintic, EVP of Lewis Global Communications resonates.

“The formats have become more visual, moving from the written word through much-overplayed infographics to video content. Attention is spread more widely with the need to communicate visually and succinctly. The lines between public relations, advertising, search, social media, creative/design, and general mar-coms are all blurring. It’s common for a PR program to include a paid social media element, for instance.”

Disruptive forces are certainly upsetting PR and marketing, clearly the public’s chosen attention channels have migrated to mobile and online. The degree of overlap is as Edelman and Senay said it would be, and now the whole customer journey is far more measurable.

But while some sales-oriented diehards quip of PR being dead, the reverse is absolutely true. Mclintic elaborated further on the opportunities for the PR industry saying; “These changes represent a huge opportunity for those working in the PR industry. To take a more integrated approach to communications aimed at driving tangible business outcomes.”

The fearsome semantics in naming progress “flux” betrays what digital has done to and for business. This process is a natural and positive one, of learning and adaptation, with the core skills being constant; In the end, the future will only show, like Mclintic well noted, “You still need to tell the right story to the right audience in the right way at the right time.”

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