ANALYSIS: Forum marketers reap benefits of PR in the mix

As the UK's leading marketers gathered for their annual seafaring jolly last week, PRWeek sent Alastair Ray to canvass their views of the role of PR in the marketing mix.

If Naomi Klein or her anti-brand acolytes wanted to rid the world of the UK's marketing bosses then P&O's Oriana would have been the perfect target last week.

Over 300 marketing bosses from some of the UK's biggest companies spent two days networking and addressing pressing issues in the marketing communications sector.

A smattering of PR professionals were on board, but this year's Marketing Forum was also a perfect opportunity to take a snap shot of the current standing of PR from many of those who buy PR services.

The news is good. While there may be a few companies that still don't use PR as an integral part of their marketing strategy, more and more are using it extensively.

They are now more 'overt' about the use of PR and as a result it has become less of a 'black art,' according to one marketing director.

AA marketing director Clare Salmon says the company increasingly considers PR 'a crucial part of our armoury'.

She cites the presence of an AA patrol car in the Queen's Jubilee parade as an example of PR benefits: 'You can do sponsorship and slap your brand about but you can't buy things like that.'

One trend cited by many is the integration of PR activity within marcoms.

'We have to sit down and look at where we are going to get the best return, we are media agnostic if you consider PR to be media,' says Amanda Mackenzie, BT Retail director of marketing services.

'People are looking quite rationally at the benefit it delivers but also expecting it to be more integrated,' she adds.

Toyota marketing director Paul Philpott says the car firm aims to ensure that its PR strategy conveys more than mere product benefits. 'PR has been hard messages about products but now we use less-specific messages to help us position the brand,' he says.

Salmon says while some may cite company structure as an obstacle to integrating the PR and marketing functions where these roles are split, it's not the key factor.

'The organisation's structure is not important. Having a shared objective is what matters,' she says.

Siemens mobile division advertising and PR manager Simon Robinson, however, disagrees:'We've got it integrated as part of the marketing function. I just do not think in today's market you can do it separately.'

Siemens now briefs all its agencies together and looks to use PR to boost the return it gets from other activity such as TV sponsorship.

Others are also looking to integrate PR but with other parts of the business and assessing its performance in that light.

'We want to bring PR into line with the sales process,' says Ian Hook, Gresham Enterprise Software marketing manager. 'We want a PR process that gets us onto the long list (for product consideration) rather than raising awareness and the more ephemeral measures.'

Part of the attraction of PR for many marketers is the comparatively low cost. Even if a PR agency staff's fees are broadly the same as those for employees in advertising and media buying, there's little more to pay in terms of extras such as production or space buying that the alternative options require.

'With our brand, for example, there are products that we could not justify above-the-line advertising for because they do not contribute enough profit,' says Philpott. 'In some products we rely on PR as the core launch medium.'

One of the challenges of convincing marketing bosses to use PR remains the lack of control over the way some stories are covered by the media.

Royal Mail managing director of mail markets Gillian Welch says that like the formerly troubled Marks & Spencer before it, almost everything Royal Mail does is now viewed through a sceptical or negative window, irrespective of the work of its PROs. 'The problem for the brand is when you become public enemy number one,' she says.

Recent attempts to promote new initiatives via PR have run into trouble when the media decided the negative story was more attractive. 'Our positive PR all gets nuked by anything that comes out of the leftfield,' Welch adds.

Despite such challenges, one reason why PR's status is rising is that the new generation of marketers get their first taste of responsibility through PR.

Tony Franco, a former marketer at FMCG giant Nestle and now board director at research and strategy agency Added Value, says PR is where young marketers increasingly cut their teeth. 'You can't pull off a £2m to £5m ad campaign (at a young age) but you've got to get visibility,' he says. 'PR gives you a chance to be clever.'

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