PR has come far, but journey isn't over yet. Societal change finds PR at the fore of top ...

PR's value - PR has come far, but journey isn't over yet. Societal change finds PR at the fore of top bosses' minds. Adam Leyland explains why.

PR's value - PR has come far, but journey isn't over yet. Societal change finds PR at the fore of top bosses' minds. Adam Leyland explains why.

The PRWeek/Impulse Research survey (PRWeek, November 16) was an encouraging affirmation of PR. Where it matters most - with the bosses and the clients - PR is more highly valued than ever before, with 76% of chief executives and chief operating officers acknowledging that PR is more important to their business than it was five years ago. (See Table 1) And 82% of respondents consider it a boardroom function.

'This is a VERY up and coming field,' says one. 'All companies, no matter how large or small, need to have favorable public relations with their community, or they will most certainly FAIL.'

Amen to that. But the challenge is to keep preaching the gospel. Or, to put it another way, to make sure that management puts its money where its mouth is.

How many chief executives and chief operating officers, for example, actually have PR executives seated on the board? And then there's advertising.

In the battle to persuade senior management that PR deserves a greater piece of the marketing/branding pie, it is clear that the message is getting through in some quarters. Responding to the survey questionnaire, one chief executive writes:

'PR is undervalued. I think firms are just beginning to realize that PR can be more effective in building and keeping a great reputation than all the advertising in the world.'

But there's the rub. They are 'just beginning.' And in the meantime, the discrepancy between advertising and PR spending continues to grow.

Public relations, then, is more important than it was five years ago; yet in the same period, 51% of the companies we interviewed admitted that the discrepancy actually increased over that same period; and only 9% say the discrepancy was less than it was five years ago. (See table 2)

More worrying still, when we asked CEOs and COOs about their spending in the future, it emerged that the trend of greater reliance on advertising is expected to continue, with 54% increasing ad spending ahead of PR, and only an enlightened 9% apportioning a greater share of the pie to PR. (See table 3)

Yet many of the interviewees in our survey observed some fundamentals that could force the pace of change at a quicker rate. As one said: 'The way society is moving, it is a field that is definitely going to be on the front burner.' So what are the factors driving this societal change?

One put it down to the 'sound bite era.' A second believes it reflects a recognition of the need for a more holistic approach to communications.

'PR is a lot more than media relations. It is also shareholder communications, employee relations, investor relations, and so on.'

Finally, there's the World Wide Web. 'PR will grow increasingly important as the Internet grows in importance.'

This is something that Larry Weber, chairman and CEO of The Weber Group, believes will have a pivotal effect on the future of the industry. 'TV is at an all-time low in terms of viewership,' he says. 'Even the new fall shows have failed to generate new interest. Ad people say this is just a trend, but teenage viewership is down as well. That's not a trend, it's behavior. People are moving to other media.'

And there are further trends that Weber believes will work in PR's favor.

'There's a new crop of CEOs in their 40s and 50s who are very cynical about the value of advertising per dollar expenditure. They're questioning the ultimate value. We're moving into a true relationship marketing era, where people want the cheapest and fastest options. Direct marketing and PR are the ways to influence your constituencies.'

But Peter Georgescu, chairman and CEO of Young & Rubicam, interprets the survey as a reflection of the value of marketing as a whole, and believes this explains why management is seeking reputation experts. (See Table 4)

'PR is having its day,' he says. 'And will have a better day. But all aspects of marketing are on the up. Marketing is gaining in importance in terms of corporate priorities, because it's the major leveragable asset on a company's balance sheet.'

Bob Novick, president of LA-based Impulse Research, disagrees. 'The irony is that while top bosses realize the importance of reputation, they are still referring to marketing people for advice, and yet marketing people don't have the same sense of what a reputation really means as PR people do.' The crusade has a long way to go.

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