Old sayings can be useful. Try this one, which I was told by a PR agency CEO outlining the industry for me on my first day at PRWeek years ago: "Advertising you pay for; PR you pray for."
But the trouble with old sayings is that time often overtakes them. Relationships between PR professionals and media guard dogs are in many cases more synergistic, and downright cordial, than in years past, and to suggest that success lies in the lap of the gods is to do both professions a disservice.
And more important, PR isn't always free. The paid-for model has earned a place in the industry, and guaranteed-placement VNRs are the most obvious example of it. Product placement in entertainment properties is often partly brokered by PR professionals, and it can be tremendously effective to have PR people - who are uniquely both product/brand experts and media content experts - involved in these negotiations.
A lot of effort is being made to find ways of maximizing media impact, searching for the holy grail of visibility for your product, brand, or message in the cluttered media environment. But there is a growing concern that the hard-to-define issue of paid placement is one that could possibly harm the PR profession at its core.
Mark Hass, CEO of Manning Selvage & Lee, has voiced these concerns widely, and the question was raised in the recent PRWeek/MS&L Marketing Management Survey (PRWeek, May 22). The results showed that about half the marketers who took the survey had paid for editorial or broadcast placement. To some, there is a distinction between "serious" media and entertainment. The latter is more or less expected to contain paid placements, but for the former to do so, Hass says, is a violation of the trust that the public should be able to have in their media organizations.
How have the lines been allowed to blur in this way? It's possible that the PR industry, which as a single entity will defend the domain of the news and information media as an independent filter, has partly contributed to the perception of earned media as a tactic that can be boosted by throwing money at it.
Why? For a number of years, PR pros have worked hard to convince marketing budget-holders that they are more than just pitch experts. But this focus away from the media function may be a contributory factor to some marketers feeling that the line can be blurred more than it is. "We don't talk enough about the things we do really well," admits Hass. Media relations "is not low-value; maybe we're partly responsible because we've devalued media relations."
This week's cover story, "Gurus of the media world," highlights a number of top-level pros who are doing their part to ensure that the role of the media/PR relationship is seen as a vital part of a company's reputation and engagement with its publics. If the industry takes care to protect this relationship and advocate its importance to its marketing colleagues, perhaps the line drawn in the sand will be a little clearer to see.