An old friend of mine who now runs a major PR agency used to opine that the difference between advertising and PR was like the difference between cats and dogs. The idea goes something like this: advertising agencies have a certain independence. They tend, in a decidedly feline way, to eschew approval in favor of self-satisfaction. A certain ambivalence is construed as intelligence and nonchalance; go ahead pet me or don't pet me, it makes little difference to me. But if you want my affection, it will be on my terms...prrrrrr.
The analogy extends: PR people are in constant and dire need of approval and will work inexhaustibly for it. Like the family canine who rushes his owner as he walks through the door, PR people are always looking for what more they can do, perhaps to their detriment as clients assess their value. If you throw that ball, I'll go get it and bring it back here and pant and urge you to do it all over again. The cat, all the while, perched on the window sill in the afternoon sun, watches the whole episode with disdain. This past week's chapter of the Emmy-winning advertising drama, Mad Men, suggests the condition is nearly 50 years strong. While on a work sojourn to sunny LA (which must have a been a real oasis in 1961) an advertising executive is stranded at his hotel and phones his prospective client to inquire "Is there any chance we could meet here? I don't have a car and can't get a taxi to take me to Pasadena. Great. We can meet by the pool." A PR guy would have hitchhiked.
I don't mean to indict our sister profession. But as times look to be toughening and clients begin to make budgetary choices, an examination of value propositions seems warranted. Last week, someone, perhaps irresponsibly depending on your perspective, leaked an internal presentation between the general partnership at Sequoia Capital and its portfolio companies which appraised the economic environment. The admonitions were aplenty and dire. The basic message: there is a terrible and unavoidable storm on the horizon and you had better conserve cash and hunker down.
In these downturns - and I have been through three in my professional life: 1988, 1992 and 2001-2 - a convenient target is marketing overall, including both advertising and PR. That conclusion always seemed facile to me: after all, if you are trying to preserve sales revenue, why would you slow down its engine? But, that is the reality. So, as we venture into an economic climate whose severity ranges from bad to really bad, and companies examine which costs are unessential, the cats and dogs get nervous. And unfortunately, the cuts tend to be with hatchets, and not scalpels, so the nervousness is justified.
I think you can see where this is going: predictably, I'd make the case for the dog. But, my reasons are both tradition and nontraditional. Traditionally, PR is good value for money, to borrow a phrase from my British friends. The cost of a traditional PR media effort that has even mediocre results can return a 'CPM' (now before we get in a lather, I know it's not a perfect analogy, but it's what I got) of somewhere around 40 cents. And that's pretty conservative. That is only the pure media ROI and doesn't include non-media efforts like speaking engagements or strategic counsel. But we should also look at the non-traditional advantages. PR is essentially the ability to sway opinions. (Some might suggest it's more pedestrian than that; I'm not sure the pedestrian assessment isn't an undervaluation, as much as mine may be an overvaluation, but it's my blog.) And there is an opinion that this economic crisis is very much the result of emotion and opinion. Now I am not downplaying the reality of the credit crisis or the housing slide, but markets are very often driven by emotion. How else would you account for 1000 point swings in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in a matter of minutes?
Will credit be harder to acquire in the next two quarters? Yes. Will companies suffer? Yes. Will consumers slow spending? Yes. But is it rational that a company's market capitalization is less than the cash on its balance sheet? Could be, but that seems upside down intuitively. How do you explain that in an ad? Both presidential campaigns believe that there is economic growth is the shiny metal object called Clean Technology. I know of a company that is creating clean engines that will power whole fleets of delivery trucks and another that is making a new generation of batteries that will extend electric power for boats and small engine vehicles well beyond today's standards. Does anyone think that we can transform a nation's love affair with gasoline-powered toys in a series of 30-second spots?
When the era of the keyword presented itself not long ago, a host of search engine optimization agencies heralded the demise of PR; and I wrote in this space not long ago about another effort by other 'new media' pundits to impart PR has become irrelevant. Those media are effective but are best used in a simpler context. And the solutions offered by others instead of PR simply don't scale. The complexity of the communications effort needed to justify expenses on goods and services in the coming months will not lend itself to marketing's blunter instruments and even if they did, the cost of making them successful is incongruent with the belt-tightening we are all facing.
So, you need the dog. Cats are sublime, even luxurious. Dogs are utilitarian. A cat rubs against your shin, ostensibly in a sign of affection, but truly for his own benefit. A dog gets your slippers or your newspaper. A cat is mysterious. A dog is obvious. A cat is finicky. A dog is compliant. And when was the last time you heard of someone getting a cat to protect their home...or their business?
There are hard choices in the offing and prudence is going to be a budgetary watchword. Clients will need to discern their best course of action. But I offer one simple question as they assess their most sensible and productive expenditures: who is man's best friend?