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PR Moves Front and Center

Whether creating movements or memes, the once tactical practice is now driving creative engagement
  • August 06 2012

When it comes to marketing in 2012, it seems like every brand wants to be a storyteller. And that has been great news for public relations.

It wasn’t long ago that PR was essentially an afterthought to other marketing practices, basically a way to get a little publicity to amplify brand positioning, launch a product or beat back a crisis. But today, with the rise of social engagement and a greater reliance on storytelling, PR has evolved from a tactical postscript to a strategic pacesetter.

Much of this change coincides with the rise of social media and the growing role PR has in shaping conversations both with the media and directly with consumers. Previously, PR was a one-way conversation—based around how the press would perceive or talk about your brand. Today, PR has become a dialogue with a much wider range of influencers. Certainly the press plays a role, but it is joined by bloggers, customers, company employees and anyone else who talks about a brand, especially online.

“The Web is a medium for dialogue, and what is PR other than creating a forum for dialogue?” says Corey duBrowa, SVP of global communications at Starbucks, which has long relied on PR and public affairs to guide marketing and activate its communities. “We aspire to be world-class storytellers. PR plays an instrumental role in crafting the narrative of the [Starbucks] brand. Storytelling is front and center for us.”

As a result, the skills PR brings to the table are more important than ever for brand marketing. From spotting trends to crafting messages that will resonate in the community to being able to react quickly to shifting market attitudes, PR agencies have long been able to develop the ideas that get press coverage. And as social media has amplified what consumers and influencers say about companies and brands, PR’s expertise in reputation management has become more crucial. Which is why more dollars are now being allocated to PR.

According to Veronis Suhler Stevenson’s April 2012 Communications Industry Forecast, PR and word of mouth spending will grow 14.6 percent in 2012 (to a total of $11 billion), more than twice the rate of overall communications industry spending, which will increase 5.6 percent. Among industry segments, the growth rate of PR and word of mouth is second only to Internet and mobile services (forecast to rise 18.1 percent).

Adobe, for its launch of its Creative Suite 6 and Creative Cloud products this past May, looked to build the conversation around the overall state of creativity—an issue of great interest to users of its Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign products—and shift away from software features and performance. Adobe also recognizes that using PR storytelling tactics impacts its bottom line.

“Among the many ways Adobe uses data and analytics to better inform our marketing is with mix modeling, or mix optimization. It helps us decide how best to allocate marketing dollars to specific activities—PR, display, search, email, etc.—to achieve the highest impact and get the best ROI,” says Ann Lewnes, Adobe’s SVP of global marketing. “Quite often we find that public relations is the highest impact channel for us for a given campaign, in terms of its ability to create awareness and its contributions to driving search and traffic to our website.”


Turning a song into a movement

Today PR is being recognized by the major award shows such as the CLIOs and the Cannes Lions, both of which began honoring PR campaigns in 2009. As much as anything, this points to the blurring between traditional creative and PR and the greater integration of different marketing practices. In many cases, the winning campaigns begin with a big idea that can turn owned media (e.g., the stories on the brand’s website or other properties) into earned media. So when South African fast food chain Wimpy—in a 2012 CLIO- and Cannes-winning campaign—used sesame seeds on 15 burger buns to spell out messages in Braille and bring attention to its menus for the visually impaired, the video of blind people reading the messages went viral via social media and press coverage. The joyful reactions of 15 people reached 800,000 others in South Africa, and globally built greater awareness for the challenges of living in a world built for sighted people.

By planting a seed for a larger dialogue—something beyond products and services—these campaigns often look to activate and engage consumers to take action and change the way they approach an issue or a brand. The winner of the 2012 Cannes Grand Prix—Puerto Rico’s Banco Popular—did just that. With the island in recession for close to a decade, it wanted to transform public opinion about Puerto Rico’s economic progress.

El Gran Combo is perhaps the most famous band in Puerto Rico’s history, but its biggest hit, “No Hago Más Ná,” (or “I Do Nothing”) celebrates a life of living on government handouts. Which is why Banco Popular and its ad agency JWT approached the band to rewrite and rerecord the song with new lyrics and a new message, 40 years after it originally came out. A satire about not working became “Echar Pa’lante” (or “Moving Forward”) about the virtues of going to work.

“When we presented this to our CEO, he said it has to be more than a campaign. It has to be a movement,” says Antonio Duarte-Pino, assistant VP of marketing strategy at Banco Popular. In spite of JWT being a so-called traditional creative agency, it knew a straight ad campaign would not serve Banco Popular’s goals. “The moment the bank told us we needed to move from an ad to a movement, we needed to incorporate PR tactics,” says Jaime Rosado, VP regional creative director of JWT Puerto Rico.

Because it believed the song’s message was more important than the bank’s sponsorship, Banco Popular took a stealthy approach at the start of the campaign—it was not identified as the sponsor of the song until two days after it premiered across the island. By then, the song had already become the talk of many of the country’s major media outlets.

El Gran Combo’s hit became associated with the bank without even mentioning its name.  The new song climbed all the way up to the top of the charts at 13 radio stations. Each of the thousands of times the song played consisted of 3 minutes of free publicity for the bank. In times when banks are particularly disliked, Banco Popular’s overall Image and Reputation Index reached a record-high 80 percent, according to Duarte-Pino.

The success of the song and its resulting impact has benefits beyond the bank’s reputation. “We wanted the message to be front and center,” explains Duarte-Pino. “The message had to define the core of the campaign. It had to spark the discussion.”

The popularity of the tune has grown into a movement as about 100 corporations and community organizations have joined Banco Popular in the campaign to move Puerto Rico forward. It has produced documentaries and established grassroots efforts in order to bring together Puerto Rican workers and entrepreneurs.


Creating a day for small business

Banco Popular sought to get Puerto Rico back to work, and American Express wanted to come up with a movement to get U.S. small businesses something they wanted: more customers. It launched the idea of Small Business Saturday—a time for consumers to holiday-shop at local retailers—in 2010, but the challenge was to make it more than a one-off. The 2011 iteration—which won Lions in multiple categories including PR—had to give ownership of the day to small businesses themselves to cement its place in shopping culture.

To empower merchants, American Express OPEN, its small business group, offered merchants a toolkit to help them create social marketing tools and Facebook ads, provide deals through Foursquare and download in-store signage. More than half a million took advantage. It also amplified support via an outreach campaign to government officials and small business advocacy groups. Finally, it urged consumers to pledge to make a purchase at a small business.

“PR had an important seat at the table from the very start of this initiative, helping to inform each decision before implementation,” explains Laura Fink, American Express OPEN’s VP of social media.

By the end of the campaign—executed by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Digitas and M Booth & Associates—public awareness of Small Business Saturday rose to 65 percent (compared to 37 percent in 2010). Media outreach resulted in 9,914 placements, reaching a total audience of 1.7 billion. The Facebook page had more than 2.7 million “likes.” The U.S Senate unanimously passed a resolution designating November 26, 2011 as Small Business Saturday, and President Obama took his daughters shopping at an independent bookstore. American Express says it saw a 23 percent increase in cardmember transactions at small business merchants on that day.

“PR is an important partner in everything that we do,” says Fink. “All of our programs are looked at through the PR lens to help ensure the message remains authentic, it will resonate with the right audiences and making sure it is true to our mission of helping small businesses do more business.”


Thanks for the memes

The viral nature of social media has further driven brands to engage more deeply with consumers via PR. It’s more than simply getting people to pay attention to cat videos. Rather, it has been a way to align brands with viral phenomena in order to get consumers to spread the word online.

Known mostly to business travelers, Embassy Suites Hotels, wanted to make its brand more relevant to families during last year’s vacation season. Instead of simply putting out a series of ads, it brokered a relationship with Awkward Family Photos, the popular site that, as the name suggests, publishes people’s embarrassing family snapshots. A photo contest—that asked people to submit their most awkward family vacation photo—drove coverage for Embassy Suites as a leisure hotel brand.

“Mom was our way in: She’s the summer vacation booker, photographer and memory keeper, and she typically saves those memories online,” says John Lee, VP of brand marketing at Embassy Suites. The campaign, from Emanate, its PR agency, created “engagement with moms on both the Embassy Suites Hotels and Awkward Family Photos sites and created an 11 percent year-over-year increase in web traffic to EmbassySuitesHotels.com.”

Similarly, Schick sought to capitalize on memes such as planking (where people photograph themselves lying flat like a plank) and horsemaning (headless trick photography) to create “razorbombing.”
The challenge was to create some excitement around Schick’s decade-old Xtreme3 disposable razor. The big idea was to start a photographic trend that used the Xtreme3 razor to make a visual pun—where it might be shaving a building or trimming a lawn—that could help create viral excitement via social media.

“We wanted to breath new life into it,” says Suma Nagaraj, brand manager for Xtreme3. “The brand was fading and we wanted it to be relevant to [younger consumers].”

Rather than build this out as a full-fledged ad campaign, Schick sought a quick hit—the program ran for just four weeks and centered on paid content running on BuzzFeed, essentially the curator of all things viral online. The entire campaign was overseen by Schick’s PR/digital agency, Edelman.

“We changed the conversation around the [Xtreme3] brand. People were talking about it not just when there was a coupon. Now, it was a about how clever it is,” Nagaraj notes.

The “Shave the World” campaign resulted in 38.5 million impressions, about half from BuzzFeed stories and the balance from other media; the top viral referrers were Facebook and CollegeHumor.com. More than 40 articles were generated about the campaign, including pickups in The Daily Mail and The Sun in the U.K., despite it being a U.S.-only promotion. The term “razorbombing”—which didn’t even show up in searches prior to the campaign—now gets 15,000-plus results.

Although it couldn’t attribute it directly to “razorbombing,” there was a 12 percent dollar sales lift for Schick Xtreme3 Refresh during the month of the campaign.

The key to the success was using PR’s understanding of what it takes to get consumer attention quickly. But instead of going to the press, Edelman took its story directly to consumers. “It’s no longer about trying to tell our story through an intermediary,” says Andrew Foote, SVP, director of client services at Edelman Digital.

For Schick, this type of social media content marketing requires PR’s skill set. “The hallmark for PR is nimbleness, resourcefulness and scrappiness,” says Nagaraj. “PR is the natural choice.”