If “Mad Men” depicts the golden age of advertising, we just might be living through a similar era for public relations.
Not since the World War II propaganda machine launched today’s mega-firms has PR been more respected as a key ingredient in the marketing mix. And it’s not just press agentry, or publicity stunts.
Marketers in particular understand and appreciate what PR brings to the table. Except when they don’t.
Last week a client, the CEO of a web-based company who came up through the marketing ranks, told me he’s always thought of PR as “the cheapest form of advertising.” It was a compliment about our results, but I hope he didn’t mean it too literally.
Misconceptions about PR linger even among seasoned and sophisticated marketers.
Here, then, are six myths that persist about public relations, and my perspective on each.
1. PR is like advertising, only cheaper.
The two are so distinct that they shouldn’t be compared, or, worse, pitted against one another. As Freddy J. Nager once put it, debating their merits is like arguing which is more important in a football game, offense or defense. It’s a useless argument because each has a different function, and they ideally work in concert.
And, cheap? Although a modest PR investment is peanuts compared to, say, TV advertising, it’s not actually cheap. Budgets vary widely, and many programs require significant out-of-pocket expenditures to be effective. The key, of course, is to match the need with the right PR resource and approach.
2. PR is publicity. Preferably Oprah.
Sure, media coverage is often an end result of a PR program, but a well-crafted plan covers so much more. And to get to the earned media outcomes, there’s plenty of foundation to be laid. Overall brand positioning, media strategy, relationship-building, messaging, etc. – all are critical to a successful result. When the publicity breaks, it’s not usually a magic bullet. The old adage that we trade control for credibility still holds. (And what publicists don’t like to admit is that Oprah’s producers rarely take ideas from PR people.)
3. PR is about getting the word out.
This is true, but many marketers don’t realize that it’s a two-way street. A successful public relations program is often designed to tell a brand or business story, yes. But a PR team should also function as a source of feedback and intelligence on what customers and influencers are thinking and saying. If you’re not using them that way, you’re not maximizing your investment.
4. PR drives sales.
When I hear a client say they’ve put their ad budget into PR because it’s a cheaper way to generate sales, it doesn’t make me happy. It’s a red flag, because PR isn’t designed for demand generation.
Despite some spectacular exceptions, what PR does best is build brand visibility and enhance reputation over time. When it comes to driving sales without a built-in sampling program or other promotional piece, it will nearly always fall short, particularly because frequency is nearly impossible to achieve with publicity alone.
5. PR is about press releases.
The news stream is important, but the release itself is a commodity. Press releases don’t add up to a strategic PR program, and the impact of any one release is likely to be minimal. If you’re paying for news releases, you’re wasting your money.
6. PR isn’t measurable.
Actually, it is, but this one’s tricky, for two reasons. One is that the traditional metrics of volume and outputs, like ad equivalency or impressions, are outdated and inadequate. Again, the comparison to advertising doesn’t really measure what PR does well.
The second challenge is that the research needed to demonstrate PR’s value is sometimes as expensive as the program itself. The good news here is that as social media adoption grows, things like sentiment, message delivery, impact, and action are now trackable.
Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO and Creative Director of Crenshaw Communications, a boutique PR firm focused on marketing and reputation-building strategies for consumer and technology brands under the banner “Creative Public Relations for a Digital World.”
She founded her firm after a 15-year career in marketing PR that included senior posts at Edelman and Grey Advertising’s GCI Group. You can find her on Twitter or follow her blog about marketing, PR, and reputation, imPRessions.