Why agencies should be betting on PR in 2019

And embracing media relations expertise as the core of what they do.

Public relations is an oft-misunderstood profession by normal people.

If you were to ask a family member to describe what you, a public relations professional, does on a day-to-day basis, you’re very much likely hear the words "advertising," "Mad Men," or maybe "commercials."

One should not be too surprised that the rest of the world isn’t particularly savvy when it comes to describing media or influencer relations and earned media strategies as they relate to public relations—the bread and butter of the industry.

But, as it turns out, the industry at large maintains a similar confusion that perhaps your grandmother or cousin twice removed may hold as well.

As PRWeek’s Steve Barrett highlighted this past November, the trend for PR agencies is to style themselves as anything but a PR agency, with many deviating from the industry’s roots and expanding their services into the paid realms of advertising and marketing.

That expansion, however, risks diluting the essence of what clients truly want from their PR agency partner: our intellectual capital. It’s our profession’s unique ability to brilliantly and creatively develop campaigns that  compels audiences—media, influencers, and consumers at large—to write about it, talk about it, and share it. It’s PR’s ability to connect stories, and how they are organically told and shared, with a client’s business objectives that sets us apart from other marketing disciplines.

In other words, they want the specific and unique impact that only earned media expertise can have on their business.

Brands aren’t looking for PR agencies to generate publicity for publicity’s sake, but rather guide them towards the smartest way to use the resources at hand to truly connect with their target audiences, drive genuine curiosity, and deliver a more profound impact on their business.

Tech as tissue

Brilliant earned media-centric campaigns require many things: talented staff; stellar media and influencer relations; being able to track, interpret, and even predict burgeoning trends; a keen use of social media; understanding the pulse of the 24/7 news cycle; among other nuts and bolts.

Central to any earned media strategy, however, is understanding how storytelling can be amplified and executed against the impact technology is having on the way we consume news, media, and opinion.

Technology has always redefined society and how we, as people, engage one another and our lives. It’s the social connective tissue of our era, and brands must understand how to best use  it to maintain their relevance with stakeholders as new platforms evolve.

We are all consuming more of our media diet on the move. Ninety-five percent of Americans own a cellphone with 77% of them owning a smartphone. Eighty-five percent of U.S. adults consume the news on their mobile devices and, as it happens, new emerging consumer technologies rely on the platform as a conduit for content and engagement.

Of course, I am talking about augmented and virtual reality, and its promise as a cornerstone of earned media campaigns and brand-consumer engagement.

Our own research, conducted with independent polling agency YouGov, found that nearly a fifth of Americans consider brands using augmented reality (21%) and virtual reality (18%) as leaders in their respective industries. This puts into context the potential impact emerging technologies yield for brands as they fight for relevance with target audiences.

The research also found that brands’ use of technology is having a significant impact on recall. One in four Americans are more likely to recall brands interacting with them through AR (24%) or VR (26%). Further, our data shows that nearly another fifth (18%) of Americans are more likely to recommend a brand that  interacts with them via AR.

All questions were asked to a representative sample of Americans about brand interaction with new technology platforms under the context of them not actively looking to make a purchase from that brand, meaning two things.

The first is that these mediums are quickly gaining traction with Americans, and brands finding new, more creative, and current ways to engage consumers with emerging technologies are viewed positively. Brands will reap the benefits that come from being perceived as an innovator, leader, and in touch with the latest media consumption preferences of their audiences.

Second, PR strategies that creatively and appropriately co-opt these technologies have potential to not only secure earned media for any activation, as these technologies come with a degree of "newness" that sparks interest, but affect  their business with the tangible results by experimenting with new approaches to target the top of the sales funnel.

While the industry at large may not be styling itself as public relations agencies and instead use looser language to encapsulate other arenas of communications, earned media—and what it takes to be brilliant at it—is key to everything else an agency wants to achieve.

I have long held the belief that all PR is tech PR, and any smart campaign will co-opt and infuse a facet of technology to amplify its reach and impact. In 2019, that belief has never held as much promise as it does now.

Ivan Ristic is president and cofounder of Diffusion.

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