OP-ED: PR is assuming top status in the brand-building arena

The role and power of PR and advertising is flip-flopping. According to a number of experts, including Al and Laura Ries, authors of The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR, there are increasingly powerful reasons why PR is becoming the tool of choice in building today's brands.

The role and power of PR and advertising is flip-flopping. According to a number of experts, including Al and Laura Ries, authors of The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR, there are increasingly powerful reasons why PR is becoming the tool of choice in building today's brands.

Why? In short, we're not your father's audience anymore. The way in which people are moved to action has evolved, and PR is gaining the upper hand for a multitude of reasons.

The most crucial ingredient in building a brand and getting people to "buy into" a concept, product, or service is credibility. Without credibility, a brand can't get off the ground. And once off the ground, a brand disintegrates when its credibility erodes.

Years ago, advertising held greater credibility. People were more apt to believe what a company said about itself. That has changed. In the face of recent corporate scandals, people have become more skeptical.

PR almost always employs a trusted third party, most frequently a journalist, to convey the message to its target audience. Consequently, the credibility of the message is perceived as far superior to that of advertising. When an independent reporter tells you why the product is great, you trust both the messenger and the message. When a paid advertiser tells you why the product is great, there is inherent skepticism about both.

In today's economic climate, executives are more concerned than ever with the question, "What is the return on the marketing dollar I'm spending?"

Placing ads to build a major brand nationally might mean tens or hundreds of millions of dollars spent simply to buy media space. This figure does not even account for the money spent on creating and producing the ads. PR usually requires a small fraction of that budget to mount a national brand-building campaign.

When you also consider the statistical fact that people will more likely "buy into" a brand they learned about through PR, the victor in the ROI competition is clear. Major brands like Palm, Viagra, Starbucks, the Body Shop, Amazon, and eBay chose to build their brands primarily through PR because they understood this dynamic.

The Rieses estimate that the average person is exposed to 237 ads a day, or 86,500 ads a year. Advertising has become so prolific that people often treat it like wallpaper. It's there, but rarely is the specific pattern recalled.

When people watch the news, why do they flip channels during the commercials? The answer is simple - they care about what reporters are telling them, but they aren't particularly interested in what advertisers tell them. As a result, messages delivered via PR's preferred medium, journalistic media coverage, have a much greater chance of reaching the consumer.

Considering that people who read the newspaper remember the editorial content, but very rarely remember the advertisements, it becomes clear that PR more effectively penetrates the clutter and captures the consumer's attention.

In a recent survey by the American Advertising Federation, 1,800 business executives were asked which departments were most important to their company's success. PR scored significantly higher than advertising. This is because leading executives are learning more and more about what motivates their consumer.

Increasingly, the public views ads as a company's attempt to force itself into the consumer's mind. This often results in people avoiding the message. PR's approach of sharing information with the consumer through a trusted source is viewed as the preferred route for gaining consumer mindshare.

In psychological terms, it is the difference between a parent-child relationship (spoon feeding, or worse yet, force feeding) and an adult-adult relationship (sharing). The latter is significantly more successful.

A Patrick Marketing Group study of senior marketing executives found that only 3% of those interviewed claimed to have delegated the responsibility for establishing their brand identities to their ad agencies. Conversely, PR is gaining a larger, almost daily role in counseling senior management on how to build and protect their brand.

Why? This goes to the heart of what many experts like the Rieses are suggesting. There has been a paradigm shift in the roles of PR and advertising. PR now sets the strategic direction and builds the communications strategy to establish the brand. Advertising's new role is to reinforce the strategy and the brand promise built through PR.

Advertising is far from dead, and PR hasn't usurped the throne, but their relationship will continue to change dramatically over the next decade.

  • David Warschawski is founder and president of Warschawski Public Relations.

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