It's data or die time: Study shows CMOs want more than plain PR

MSL Group surveyed 50 chief marketing officers across various industries in India to better understand what clients in the country want and expect from PR agencies. Mere media management is no longer enough. Brands in India want strategic, integrated communication. But what does that mean?

"PR as we know it is dead." That’s the upfront conclusion in MSL group’s new report on the PR industry in India. A bit shocking of a statement, and doubtlessly said for that effect. But it goes on to point a finger at the killer, saying today is the "age of strategic integrated communication and agencies that don’t evolve will die."

Strategic, integrated communications (SIC), MSL claims, is the ‘new PR’. From the group’s survey, that is what CMOs in India want. And in survey questions they repeatedly pointed to SIC as the cure to what ails PR firms. The report even goes so far as to highlight that "two thirds of the respondents said they have already adopted the integrated communication approach in order to achieve higher engagement with audiences and greater visibility."

OK. But what is SIC and what exactly do CMOs want to integrate their communications with?

Presumably, as PR professionals we’re expected to know clearly what SIC means and how to go about offering it.

For its part, MSL explained in an email that "Integrated communications stand for the effective approaches based on a core idea that engages stakeholders across all relevant touchpoints to achieve the communication goals. The core idea is communicated through unbound channels with engaging content, which is very different from the traditional way that is usually limited in one single approach such as media coverage or print ads. It uses various tools and skills relevant to modern stakeholders—from content and insights to crisis communications, public affairs and design, to name a few."

So let’s unwind that a bit more. First if you want something to sound important, put the word "strategic" in front of it. It’s a nice subjective word that means lots of things to lots of people, but everyone agrees that whatever it might be, at least it is important. And if we’re talking about business, it’s safe to assume there is some strategy involved, so let’s just set the word ‘strategic’ aside.

What then is the core meaning of ‘integrated communications’ in practice and why are CMOs in India so confident that this is what they need? PRWeek did some careful reading and there are good clues in the report. Plus, there’s some general insight that is just as pertinent outside India as well.

A major call out of the study is CMOs in India believe "PR needs to demonstrate more value". That idea seems to get deeper into what the "integrated" part of SIC refers to.

Sameer Kumar, head of press communication, Volkswagen Passenger Cars India, is quoted in the report as saying, "Most marketing people don’t see the PR effort as an alternative, but as something that supplements the marketing effort."

The key word in his statement is "supplement". The majority of respondents said they agreed with the idea that PR efforts help with brand recall, but they also said traditional advertising delivers better ROI for a marketing budget. But that could simply mean ad performance is just easier to measure. Still, if clear measurement is what CMOs are becoming accustomed to, PR agencies will have to find a way to deliver it.

With digital and mobile advertising, data is quickly becoming both the driver and the justification for spend allocation. So it’s not surprising that CMOs would want to see similar information from their PR partners and efforts. Companies still want the outgoing PR messages they’ve always paid for but they also want incoming feedback (aka data) to let them understand how the tactics they’ve decided on are working (or not working so they can be changed). 

Just today, another report on India’s marketing landscape came out, saying "tablet usage in India is on the rise". According to eMarketer's estimates, the number of tablet users in the country will jump 24.8 per cent this year to 40.4 million. That same kind of digital adoption drives massive change in other markets, most notably in China, where mobile media is quickly becoming, if it’s not already, the predominant type of media. Worldwide, eMarketer predicts 2015 will see more than 1 billion people consuming content on tablets. That means lots of digital delivery with deep data feedback. And that’s what most marketers are eager to integrate their PR messages with.

Content marketing  (another term that many people also say is hard to define) is also quickly becoming a sub category that appears on PR firm websites, under the services section.

General Electric’s ‘Look Ahead’ website, developed in league with The Economist publication, is a prime example of a company leveraging content or an owned media channel to bolster its public image. Jason Hill, GE’s director of global media strategy talked to Campaign Asia-Pacific [May 2014 issue] about the effort and explained how the site builds brand and drives lead generation. Using content in this way is not a dramatic departure from what PR agencies have traditionally done, so it’s not surprising that the more savvy ones would have already started offering content marketing. Or that CMOs would start turning to PR partners to generate it.

But getting back into what defines integrated communications primarily comes from the "more" that CMOs say they are after. In MSL’s India study, about 43 percent of respondents said they want their PR agencies to invest in research and insights, the next biggest category was digital/social (at 39 per cent) and 35 per cent said content was a deliverable they  also wanted from PR agencies. But above that, in a separate question, "88 per cent said data and insights would be a must-have" and 98 per cent of respondents said data and insights have become a more significant part of their communications campaigns.

The integration then is with all those things, digital, data and content.

Sushma Rana, talent director at MSL India states in the report’s conclusion "From a plain vanilla service provider till a few years ago, PR is now expected to deliver specialised offerings such as content, research, digital, social media, crisis communication and events. There exists a gap in delivery as communication institutions are not bringing in commensurate changes to their syllabi fast enough." 

SIC is a matter of fusing everything you’ve always done at your PR agency with new tools in digital technology, data analytics and content creation. Ignore those trends and you are likely to end up like the MSL report suggests. Dead.

In February Campaign Asia-Pacific and PRWeek Asia release the Marketers Outlook Survey, a joint sudy conducted in conjunction with Ipsos, which again gauges how brands leaders plan to allocate budgets and what they expect from all thier agency partners.

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