It has become fashionable for PR agencies, especially the larger ones, to tout their creative credentials and boast about the amount of people they have hired into their ranks from the advertising industry.
And why not? For decades PR has lived in the shadow of its more glamorous creative cousins as paid media dominated the marketing and communications landscape.
Edelman has famously hired hundreds of creatives over the past few years, as has Weber Shandwick. The thought of an ambitious creative leaving an agency to work for a PR firm is no longer anathema.
So it’s no wonder that PR folks submit to the temptation to crow a bit now the world has turned toward earned, shared, and owned media in telling brand stories – an area right in the sweet spot of the PR pro.
However, there are occasions when this wheel can turn too far in the opposite direction.
I heard through the grapevine that, in the recent pitch for Kellogg’s influencer relations business, one of the big firms involved proudly proclaimed to the client that it had just hired some more creatives from a big advertising agency.
The client replied with something along the lines of: "That’s great, but we already have a bunch of ad agencies on our roster. We’re looking for a PR firm."
The incumbent on that account is Edelman, through its food and nutrition unit Krispr.
The conflict shop was formed in 2012 to handle the Kellogg business when Weber Shandwick and its Interpublic sibling Current Marketing had to withdraw from the business following a – pretty spurious - complaint by one of IPG’s advertising clients about what it perceived as a conflict.
Edelman positions itself as a "communications marketing" firm, suggesting it has gone beyond the confines of what we once thought of as PR. It still considers earned media the starting point for what it does, but extends its services to include elements such as community management, digital customer service, influencer engagement, and performance marketing.
In The PR Week podcast this week, Edelman’s global COO Matt Harrington explained that "earned is at the core of public relations, and the power of earned and what that enables us to do in amplification on social and all the other channels is public relations and at the heart of everything we do."
He talks about communications marketing as helping Edelman clients to be as "expansive as they can be in thinking about the ways in which we can partner with them" and "PR is very much a part of that, but the real core is earned."
Weber Shandwick goes to market with its "engaging, always" proposition, defining itself as "conversation-starters, headline-grabbers, attention-getters, sales-drivers, reputation-guarders, brand-builders."
Meanwhile, another IPG firm has chosen to double down on PR. Golin proclaims that "now is the time to embrace public relations, not run away from it. Golin is building a new, progressive form of public relations to reach a profoundly diverse global market.
"Our approach aligns earned-first, data-driven creative with the customer journey, to deliver maximum impact for our clients. We are proudly taking our industry back and moving it forward."
(Full disclosure: Golin paid to take over the cover of PRWeek’s November/December print edition to expound this new positioning, asking "Why are agencies abandoning public relations?" and positing the question, "When people ask what you do for a living, do you say Public Relations? We do. Let’s proudly take back our industry.")
Golin’s initiative has been met with skepticism and not a little eye-rolling in certain quarters – "PR firm comes out as a… PR firm" – but it has also garnered some very positive responses from people who feel the pendulum may have swung a little too far away from the fundamental principles of public relations.
As always, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
The more marketing-oriented approach is certainly attractive in some situations and with certain clients – but should not be considered a catchall response to every brief, because many clients really are just looking for what they perceive as traditional PR support.
Both positions are compelling in their own way, but every approach has to be tailored to the client, brand, and individuals involved. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.
But having the debate is always good, as long as it doesn’t transition too far into navel-gazing and self-obsession.
The definition of PR is important in numerous contexts. There has to be clarity around it to encourage the best talent to come into the profession, and we have to fight against the lazy stereotypes about PR professionals that persist in the mainstream media and wider community.
As we head off for Thanksgiving we can also have a bit of fun with this notion. PRWeek is encouraging you all to ask your parents, children, or family members over the holidays what they think your job as a PR professional encompasses. "What the #?!* is PR?" if you like.
Get them on video explaining their definition of PR in 60 seconds or less and we’ll collect the best examples and publish them on our social channels. Look out for the call to action next week.
I’m looking forward to seeing the responses. And I hope that one day everyone will fully understand what a PR pro does and be able to be openly proud of the profession in which they have chosen to practice.