When ad giants like Unilever question their social spend, does it presage a shift to 'earned'?

It's no surprise the PR industry took notice recently when Unilever threatened to pull advertising budget from Facebook and Google unless they deliver transparency about news, protect children from extremist and toxic content, and build public cohesion rather than division.

Could Unilever pulling ad spend from social channels end up being a pot of gold for PR?
Could Unilever pulling ad spend from social channels end up being a pot of gold for PR?

Advertising budgets for major brands dwarf most PR retainers, so even a nominal redirection of spend towards other types of media would be a coup for the industry.

It looks like big brands are serious about pulling their money and walking away if things don’t change, so are we about to see an "ad cleanse" shake things up for the marketing mix?

The world’s second-biggest advertiser holding platforms to higher standards is an interesting premise.
Companies voting with their purse strings are nothing new – Proctor & Gamble cut $140m in digital ad spending last year – but this does raise questions.

Who should be responsible for content standards, defining hate speech versus free speech, or damaging content versus truthful reporting?

The next question is one the PR industry should be very interested in.

If advertisers like Unilever and P&G start pulling budgets, how can they make better use of their money to get their messages across to their prospects and customers?

I’m certainly not suggesting that paid and owned media are dead, but it’s obvious brands are weighing consumer trust in paid social and finding it difficult to balance the investment with the risk.

As budgets increase, the focus will be shifted to earned media, but this isn’t a case of "either/or" – more of an "and", with a healthier mix of paid, earned and owned.

The difficult thing about earned media for CMOs who have traditionally favoured advertising is that PR has seemed more art than science – up until recently.

Human interaction is more difficult to track and measure than clicks, yet it’s how PR professionals connect brands with consumers through journalists, vloggers and influencers.

But that human element is exactly what the paid platforms lack and it could be PR’s greatest advantage.

Paid platforms rely on machine learning and sophisticated algorithms to serve content in what the data says is the right place at the right time.

But at the crucial moment when that content is served, there’s no "gatekeeper" to protect the brand from an action that does not align with its values.

The current mood indicates a desire for more sensible humans making decisions about what brands say and where they say it, so it looks to me like there’s never been a better opportunity for the PR industry.

The only thing holding us back is the numbers, or rather our lack of them.

Coverage reports don’t compete with paid social reports and their reassuring wealth of metrics when put in front of a CEO, or anyone in-house under pressure to justify every pound they spend on a campaign.

For the industry to thrive and grow it needs to prove itself and demonstrate business value and its impact on revenue.

And with the continuing rumblings from the world’s giant advertisers, there’s never been a better time for earned media to step it up.

Kevin Akeroyd is chief executive of Cision

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