Arun Sudhaman 18 Oct 2013 // 8:01PM GMT
The PR industry is often suspicious of all things advertising-related, a trait that is sometimes well-founded but does not always do it any favours. This was brought home to me last week, when I moderated a panel at the ICCO Summit that looked at whether PR agencies need to become more creative. It was, or so I thought, a relatively unprovocative area of discussion and, as these things do, the conversation progressed smoothly enough — mostly via the wise words of three panellists who are well-versed in developing highly creative public relations campaigns: Prime’s Tom Beckman, Weber Shandwick’s Gabriela Lungu and Good Relations planner Amelia Torode. Unsurprisingly, the trio focused on the importance of learning from other disciplines. Beckman, for example, noted both advertising and management consulting as functions that have inspired how his agency works. All three agreed that better insight and planning, as exemplified by ad agencies, can only help PR firms develop stronger creative solutions. A question at the end of the session, however, gave me occasion to pause for thought. Essentially, said the gentleman from the audience, PR firms should not be looking to import ideas from advertising, but should focus on their role as “connectors”. I suspect this point of view actually has broader support than I might have expected. There is sometimes a tendency among PR people to view advertising as a slightly arriviste phenomenon that carries more than a hint of vulgarity. Yet, like all good questions, this one made me rethink the entire premise, in this case creativity in PR. And I reach the same conclusion I always have, unless the PR industry becomes more creative, it will struggle to grow. Let me break down my reasoning. Firstly, communications budgets — the traditional trough from which PR firms swill — are not increasing significantly, particularly in more mature markets. For the PR industry to really grow, in double-digit terms, it needs to successfully access other sources of revenue. The most obvious of these is a company’s marketing budget, which typically dwarfs communications spend, sometimes by as much as a factor of 10. Neither is it purely an economic argument. As Paul Holmes noted earlier this year, communications functions exhibit significant risk-aversion; it is often a company’s marketing department where the real action happens — the digital experimentation and the sense of proactive engagement, rather than reactive gatekeeping. Yet persuading marketers to spend on PR firms is not a simple task, particularly if PR firms are viewed solely as ‘connectors’. Unfortunately for the PR industry, it is that characterisation, as media relations facilitators, which stymies its progress and prevents it from realising a much broader function. If you accept that PR is a process, rather than a channel or tactic, then it follows that PR people should be comfortable developing genuinely media-neutral solutions that can help clients solve business problems. The nature of the channel — paid, owned, earned or shared — becomes, effectively, irrelevant. To do that within a marketing context, though, requires an ability to build brands. Which means that PR firms are required to come up with the kinds of ideas — often couched in the ad-centric language that CMOs are most comfortable with — that can deliver emotional resonance with consumers and other relevant stakeholders. And that, to put it simply, requires a level of meaningful creativity that the industry has not always appeared capable of achieving. As illustrated by some of the campaigns that topped our Global Creative Index, many PR firms are making great strides in this regard. And they are doing this by demonstrating that they are at least as creative, if not more so, than the other disciplines vying for CMO attention and budget: advertising, media and digital. To overlook the potential benefits of becoming more creative then, is to accept that the PR industry cannot realise a more central brand-building role. And to do that limits the ability of PR firms to successfully tap into bigger marketing budgets, suggesting a rather depressing future. Clearly, the idea that creativity should be pursued for its own sake is a non-starter. In any case, that approach — which can be spied in the worst of the ad industry’s obsession with awards — is unlikely to win much favour among senior marketers and brand builders. The value of creativity should be recognised in business terms — whether that applies to solving business problems or helping to grow a PR firm’s business. That goes for awards too. They, and the creative standards they are supposed to raise, are only worthwhile for their real world benefits — better staff morale, more impressive agency credentials, satisfied clients. So, while the PR industry is right to question whether it should slavishly mimic every facet of adland, it should probably also be aware that there is much it can learn from other disciplines. Much, significantly, that can help PR firms evolve into businesses capable of meeting 21st century demands.