From the Desk of Patrick Ward
I like traveling for the holidays, which I did for Thanksgiving, because I get to see people I otherwise might not at home. This past week I spent my Thanksgiving with a wing of my relatives that included some senior advertising executives. Considering some of the recent executive moves between PR firms and ad firms, the conversation turned to the abstract differences between the two disciplines.
One of my dinner companions, the CEO of a major ad agency, offered that a big difference is that PR is "opportunistic." That gave me pause for a couple of reasons.
First, this is a highly accomplished marketing executive who seems to believe that PR is a reactive enterprise; one can also read that as non-strategic. The undercurrent is we call the PR folks when we have a problem, not when we want to plan. That's a bad reputation if we as an industry want to increase our presence in the senior suite. Now it's a focus group of one, but the other ad exec in the conversation, another well-heeled marketer, didn't object.
The second thought that occurred to me was around a meme I've been trying to instill in clients and prospects recently. I have been saying that there are three types of PR results: alchemic, opportunistic and programmed. The first derives from results that seemingly just happen, sometimes inexplicably. I do believe they are born of hard work and solid results from the other two categories: you make your own alchemy, in other words. But they are hard to trace. A former colleague used to call it "the momentum of the program," which I also liked.
Opportunistic PR is the one, which these ad execs seemed to identify with. Their point of view was more business-oriented. In other words, an issue arises, a crisis rears up, and you have new work and new revenue. I don't disagree with that, but I think more about it as media opportunities that result from experience and familiarity with the market. You serendipitously hear about a story or an event because you're tapped into the community and you take advantage. Unlike the alchemic stuff, which just falls into your lap, opportunities are the chance to create something positive because you see an opening. That takes insight, professionalism and innovativeness, typically. It's not happenstance.
But I still believe both of these former concepts fall out of solid programming – the third leg of the stool. And that's what makes my friends' (I'm not technically related to either of these folks) comment troubling. Their inference is that PR isn't a long-term plan or therefore a commitment. There's no question that advertising commands the larger piece of the pie (to insert a Thanksgiving metaphor) and some of that may result from an opinion that PR is supposed to be reactive. You have to stop thinking about PR and start thinking about communicating. And that requires strategy and planning and a deep understanding of the business and its goals and often creativity, just like an advertising program.
PR is too routinely relegated to the kids table at the marketing meal because some, like my friends, see it as a tool and not a strategy. Use it when you need it. If we as an industry want to graduate to the main dining room, we need to work harder at helping our colleagues in advertising understand how we fit in the strategic mix, as well as some clients. I'll start with my friends.