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PR Reads the Social Cues

Thanks to social media and the blogosphere, public relations is becoming a more vital ingredient in the media mix
  • August 19 2011

In today’s era of social media, public relations is more relevant than ever. As marketers seek deeper engagement between brands and consumers, they are increasingly turning to communications experts to help them guide the conversation, influence the influencers and create communities. This has created new opportunities for PR agencies to become the driving force in brand marketing.

PR’s basic tenets of building awareness, increasing engagement and managing reputation remain the same. Yet the shifting media landscape—where sites such as Facebook and Twitter allow direct communication between brands and consumers—has changed the rules of the brand conversation. Word of mouth has become word of mouse, as consumers can bypass traditional information sources and engage directly with the brand. PR agencies now go far beyond a press release to develop fully integrated programs targeted directly at consumers.

“Gone are the days of distributing a blanket press release, blasting out a mass pitch e-mail or spending millions of dollars on a billboard with no measurable ROI in the hopes of reaching the core constituent,” says Jackson Jeyanayagam, vice president, digital strategy for Taylor PR. “The new model is personalized, direct and immediate.”

This has meant a broadening of the PR agency’s agenda. PR may still be about creative storytelling, but how and to whom that story is told has changed. By being able to reach consumers directly, PR agencies are taking on responsibilities that were once closely associated with traditional advertising and marketing services agencies. “Our founder used to walk press releases for McDonald’s over to the Chicago Tribune,” says Jeff Beringer, EVP , global practice leader, digital at GolinHarris. “Now, we look at really networked customers and stakeholder groups directly. Our role is also as content creators on Facebook or through a Twitter profile. The ad agencies all did that in the past.”

It is no surprise, then, that PR spending has been increasing, even as some brand marketers have been tightening their purse strings. Veronis Suhler Stevenson, in last year’s annual Communications Industry Forecast, indicatedthat a turnaround in PR spending and accelerating growth in word-of-mouth marketing would increase spending 6 percent to $5.36 billion in 2010. This will also fuel a 9.7 percent CAGR for the PR/word-of-mouth market overall through 2014.

“The marketing landscape is continually shifting from one-way advertising and messaging to programs that are more experiential…to engage audiences, facilitate conversations and build communities,” says John Kaiser, managing director of media investment bankers DeSilva+Phillips, which also forecasts a CAGR of around 10 percent for PR and word-of-mouth marketing through 2013. Kaiser indicates that is more than any other advertising or marketing service. 

PR’s increasing prominence
Today, PR agencies are more frequently taking the lead in new brand campaigns, creating the messaging that will drive future advertising and marketing. This more aggressive approach is changing how these firms operate and how they’re being perceived by their client partners. “The PR industry traditionally has been quite cautious,” says Marian Salzman, CEO of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR. “Now some agencies are becoming more aggressive, making a play for the advertising and marketing business as well as PR.”

“The PR firm is no longer a junior partner at the marketing meetings. It’s often the equal of the ad agency—or more,” concurs Samantha DiGennaro, founder and CEO at DiGennaro Communications. “Reputation management has morphed with brand management in an unprecedented way. Today, most of our B2B client engagements begin with brand positioning, competitive analysis and a communications/messaging audit…We help architect the message.”

As a result, major brands are turning to PR to guide social media strategies to boost consumer engagement and provide a more positive corporate image. Ford, for example, didn’t use an auto show or a series of TV ads to launch its 2011 Explorer. Instead, it went directly to consumers via Facebook and live events in eight cities. “[This is] one of the most significant instances of PR and how we think about earned, owed and paid media truly working together in a integrated fashion,” says Scott Monty, global digital and multimedia communications manager at Ford Motor Company.

Because Ford was reinventing the Explorer, it wanted to reinvent its information delivery system, too. Rather than just introducing the latest model to business and automotive journalists, they spoke directly to more consumer facing outlets. Ford’s plan took fans along for a ride for several months to July 26, when fans could go behind the scenes to “meet” the people behind the 2011 Ford Explorer and get a glimpse at it via Ford’s specialized tab on Facebook, as well as online ads, broadcast coverage and online publications. The reveal became the #1 trending topic on Twitter and a #2 trend on Google, despite the fact that Lindsay Lohan was grabbing headlines that day as well. “It was more effective than if we’d done a Super Bowl ad,” says Monty.

Ford drew 100 million hits in the social space and 400 million across the web, and 500,000 people visited ford.com to do a “build & price.” Consumers who came to the launch via Facebook, in fact, were 1.5 times more likely to complete the “build & price,” indicating a much richer engagement with the content. “PR has moved from the tail of the dog to the brain of the dog,” says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR firm.  “We’re in a position now where customers pay more attention to PR than to ads.”

Social media as the new community
Other brands are turning to PR and social media to enhance their social and community efforts and involve consumers directly in these causes. They see social media as a way to hypercharge these efforts to create deeper consumer engagement.

KFC, working with Weber Shandwick, is continually looking for stories that connect its brand to the community. When a town in Indiana ran out of funds and couldn’t repair some of its old fire hydrants, KFC offered to donate money for new hydrants if they would put the Fiery Grilled Wings logo on them. These efforts were then promoted via Facebook, generating 3.4 million “likes,” according to KFC public relations manager Rick Maynard. To ensure two-way communication, KFC then asked its fans to nominate other towns that could use extra funding for fire prevention.

KFC ran a similar program in Louisville, Kentucky, paying to fill potholes in the city streets in exchange for painting a temporary “Re-Freshed by KFC” graphic on each filled hole. A recent Twitter contest offered a $20,000 college scholarship to high school students, awarding the prize to the person whose tweet best showed  why he or she exemplified the Colonel’s commitment to education and community.

To further illustrate how today’s marketing campaigns typically combine multiple disciplines and services, Jim Tsokanos, president, MSLGROUP Americas, recalls a 2010 project his firm produced for Underwriters Laboratories, better known as UL. The 115-year old brand—whose label signifies safety for electrical appliances—wanted to reinvent itself. When MSLGROUP Americas won the assignment, the first thing it did was create SafetyAtHome.com, a UL-sponsored site packed with safety tips for consumers. Then MSLGROUP created numerous programs to drive traffic to the site.

MSLGROUP promoted the website at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting and at the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. A spot on The Ellen Degeneres Show let them associate the brand with Christmas Tree lighting safety.  A “Just Look for UL” sweepstakes allowed consumers to send in cellphone camera shots of a UL label. A SafetyAtHome Facebook page was created as was a tip and news-oriented Twitter feed. The results: a 10 percent increase in brand awareness within three months.

Even traditional PR efforts such as press junkets now incorporate a significant social angle to speak more directly with consumers. In 2010, GolinHarris created a “Twitter-powered cruise” for client Princess Cruises. It recruited a dozen top travel bloggers to spend time exploring one of Princess’ cruise ships. It gave each blogger a mobile device and encouraged them to tweet under the hashtag #followmeatsea. The blogger’s tweets were then available for view by their followers as well as aggregated on Twitter and Princess Cruises’ Facebook page. All told, the program produced 3,800 tweets, coverage in 51 blogs and more than 40 million media impressions

Influencing the influencers
The traditional PR approach of reaching key influencers hasn’t changed. What has changed is the influencers themselves. It is no longer simply a matter of targeting a few key media contacts. Certainly, consumers are still getting information from TV, newspapers and magazines, but they’re also getting inspired by grassroots bloggers, friends on Facebook and videos on YouTube. PR agencies are being challenged to reach these outlets in a clear and cogent way.

Richard Edelman compares today’s media structure to a four-leaf clover: One leaf is traditional print and broadcast media; the second includes old/new media hybrids like CNN.com, Politico and Engadget; social media like Twitter make up the third clover; and the fourth is a company’s own website. “You can start a marketing campaign on any of the four leaves of the clover,” Edelman says.

Edelman cites a recent campaign the agency did for eBay. It created an online shopping magazine—The Inside Source—highlighting some of the best buys in certain product categories as curated by a former editor of Lucky magazine. It then pointed bloggers and other media to those stories. Thus, the project started with eBay’s own site, filtered that content to create a quasi-media site and then further filtered the content to pitch to traditional and new media.

The challenge for many agencies is to identify those who have influence vs. those who just appear to have large followings. “People who have massive numbers of followers may not be the most influential,” Edelman says. “They may not be the initial thought-starter. We focus on the people who are starting the conversation.”

Maintaining reputation
The social media landscape further challenges PR professionals to control the tenor of the online brand conversation. Consumers are now driving the conversation, and brands not only need to contribute to that dialogue, but also observe and listen.

This new environment also brings with it additional risks. Marketers are less in control of their brand reputation now that consumers have seized that power. It is then up to the brands to make sure that the information that is driving this conversation is fair and accurate. In other words, reputation management is going through a shift, and as a result, agencies are finding it is often more important to focus on fire prevention than on fire fighting.

“A marketing initiative can very quickly turn into a reputation management initiative and frankly, the other way around,” says Ellen Ryan Mardiks, vice chairman, president, consumer marketing practice at GolinHarris. As an example, she points to incorrect online rumors that McDonald’s, a GolinHarris client, would be going national with its McLobster, a regional sandwich. McDonald’s was concerned that consumers would be upset that this wasn’t part of their plan. “Our approach was to clarify via Tweet, but we at McDonald’s are still McWinning,” notes Mardiks. “Charlie Sheen retweeted it. It was picked up by traditional  media and it turned into a good moment for McDonald’s.”

There’s now a fundamental appreciation of the need to be in a conversation. The term “stakeholder”—any person or entity affected by a company’s actions, whether they be consumers, dealers, stockholders, bloggers, analysts, traditional media, partner companies or even environmental and consumer organizations—seems to come up now in every conversation about PR. Of course, stakeholders have always existed. But it’s only in the last few years that they’ve really had the power to talk back to companies—through social media and blogs, in particular.

Now more than ever, consumers want to feel they will be heard. Citing an example of a company building its brand by engaging directly with consumers, Edelman mentions an HP program in Europe in which the agency brought a group of amateur photographers to its plant to illustrate how much technology goes into the printers. “We used to have a press conference to launch a product,” Edelman says. “Now eight months before the launch we’re showing stake-holders what we’ve got.”

The ear of the C-suite
The importance of PR in the brand communications mix is further evidenced by its stronger representation in the C-suite. Within corporate America, more than 42 percent of PR and communications departments report directly and exclusively to the C-suite, according to the latest Communications and Public Relations Generally Accepted Practices Study from USC’s Annenberg School. Perhaps the most telling finding from that study was the fact that those reporting to the C-suite—as compared with those reporting elsewhere—were significantly more likely to describe their organizations as being successful, innovative, proactive, strategic, flexible, ethical and having good external reputations.

Agencies as well are finding that they are more likely than ever to be working directly with top-level executives in developing brand and corporate reputation strategies. As the chief communications officer becomes a more trusted counsel to the CEO, so does the agency become a more trusted advisor to the CCO in helping to deliver a holistic brand view to all stakeholders.

“It’s becoming more about communications and less about traditional marketing,” Edelman says. “More companies are appointing chief communications officers—and typically that person reports straight to the CEO.”

Looking forward
What does the future hold for PR? With the public becoming more of the driving force in public relations, what will the agency of the future look like? If the changes of the past few years are any indication, the next few will see greater transformation.

Agencies need to be prepared to manage the brand conversation in real time. “The pitch strategy has gone from months to hours and days to literally minutes,” says Gary Rudnick, EVP and Midwest regional director at GolinHarris. The agency is currently going through a restructuring under the banner of “Agency of the Future,” by eschewing the generalist approach and creating specialist groups around business insights, top-notch creative, deep knowledge of resources and integration.

Other groups have been following expansion strategies to increase their capabilities. “In the last few years we’ve acquired experiential agencies, digital agencies and creative agencies,” says MSLGROUP’s Tsokanos. “Now we can play the role of a lead agency. Most PR firms can’t do that.”

While there will certainly be some brands that will attempt to maintain control of their message, the PR agency of the future will likely be a trusted advisor with an even stronger understanding of relationships and engagement. Tsokanos says this will include “a master of both the minute-by-minute character of digital and the theater of advertising.” Consumers will demand greater authenticity and transparency from their brands, and agencies will need to continually address these issues. It’s not that they need to forget about building buzz. They just will have to realize who is actually doing the building.