Pleasing signs that client-side marketers are giving consideration to increasing their investment in PR are undermined by a worrying degree of ignorance about PR, what it can achieve when used as a marketing tool and where it sits in the marketing mix. These are the key findings of the inaugural PRWeek/Manning Selvage & Lee (MS&L) Marketing Managers Survey.
Almost 240 marketing managers, marketing directors and brand managers were contacted to determine their knowledge of, and involvement with, PR. The aim was to build up a clear picture of the type of agencies these clients retain, where PR fits within their organisations, how it fits within their marketing strategies, their perceptions of PR and whether it is likely to gain or lose ground on other disciplines within the marketing mix.
'There is a substantial opportunity for PR firms to talk to these businesses about how they can use PR if they are not already doing so,' says MS&L London managing director Nicholas Walters. 'There is clearly some measure of confidence back in the marketplace, and we are seeing that reflected in budgets. But it's still measured and cautious.'
Against this backdrop of tentative recovery, PR agencies and in-house teams are understandably eager to see their skills and efforts valued and appreciated by marketing departments. It should, therefore, be a matter of deep concern that 23 per cent of survey respondents described themselves as being 'not very familiar with PR'.
Although this is less than a quarter, it is still a sizeable amount.
'Many marketers are advertising-literate, perhaps coming from an advertising or media-buying background, but not PR-literate,' says Consolidated Communications managing director Sarah Robinson. 'This is partly because corporate and even brand communications is often a separate discipline with no line reporting into marketing departments.' But Robinson adds: 'There is now the opportunity for PR agencies to play a role in the better integration of PR into the rest of marketing communications.
'There is growing recognition that PR achieves value for money in terms of the amount spent versus the results, and a large advertising spend is not always the best solution for every brand.'
Delivering a vision
Even though an education job on the capabilities of PR remains to be done among an all-too-sizeable segment of marketers, greater cheer can be found in the fact that 19 per cent of respondents said they had worked in PR previously, 15 per cent that they worked closely with the PR department and 14 per cent said they supervised it. One per cent said they read a lot about PR and one per cent said they had received training in it.
Among marketers enthusiastic about PR, and with a strong vision of what it is able to deliver, is PUMA UK/Ireland marketing director David Learmonth.
'I'm a big fan of PR, provided that all efforts are well-channelled and come from a strong, empathic knowledge base,' says Learmonth.
'At PUMA we spend a lot of time on PR, though not necessarily a huge amount of cash. Our approach is to handle all day-to-day media relations in-house, managed by marketing managers who are well versed in the discipline, in our brand and our key category messages. We then complement this with well-chosen agencies for bigger projects. It may well be a cliche, but if advertising sends out our big messages I want PR to explain them.'
The case for integration
Canon Consumer Imaging product marketing manager Mark Robinson is also committed to PR as a hugely important part of the marketing effort. The product PR team at Canon, he says, is completely integrated with the marketing team to ensure maximum impact and consistency of message. At induction, new members of the marketing team work with their PR colleagues.
Sadly for PR, not all clients are as smartly integrated or convinced of the need. Only 57 per cent of respondents described an integrated marketing strategy as very important. A troubling 39 per cent thought integration only 'somewhat' important, and four per cent dismissed it as not important.
Needing no convincing of its influence is Walters. 'There's absolutely no question that, today, the most sophisticated global companies have seriously adopted the integrated model,' he asserts. 'It's not just a question of cost efficiency. It is about maximising the delivery of message to the key target audience.'
Other companies still seem to handle their marketing communications channels and agencies in isolation, which is arguably bad for PR. In all too many cases, the evidence is that ad agencies still take the lead strategic role, with PR involvement coming too late in the planning cycle to have much effect on brand or campaign strategy and tone.
Hill & Knowlton managing director, marketing and business development Richard Millar understands this more than most. He recently returned to the PR agency world after eight years on the client side, where he was group marketing director at Habitat. While at the retailer, he too found himself falling into the habit of calling upon ad agency planning directors to provide the strategic input and excluding PR practitioners from marketing's top table.
In order for PR consultancies to gain a bigger strategic voice, Millar contends, they must fight for planning functions comparable to those at ad agencies.
Accountability is also an issue. Marketers are under pressure as never before to deliver results and PR activity that cannot prove ROI is likely to be downgraded, if not jettisoned.
'The big challenge for the industry is responding to the changes the marketing director and brand managers' roles have undergone in the last few years,' adds Millar.
'The jobs have become much more commercially focused, sales-oriented and short term. Measures of success have become much more numeric, more top and bottom line. You can't hide behind old measures such as column inches any more. There has to be some kind of relationship between sales, propensity to purchase or footfall.'
Firefly Communications director Mark Mellor agrees that marketing managers partition the marketing disciplines. 'The different functions tend to operate in silos rather than being integrated'. But his experience is that PR is beginning to penetrate the brand strategy: 'People are realising that a lot of advertising is not effective.'
This sentiment could be behind the responses marketers give PR in the marketing mix. Only a tiny six per cent of our sample thought that PR was over-used. Some 47 per cent were of the opinion it was at about the correct proportion in the mix while the same number felt PR was under-used.
The optimistic in nature will immediately seize upon the fact that almost half our survey deemed PR to be under-used as evidence that marcoms PR has huge growth potential.
But the number also harbours an implicit rebuke to the PR industry. How come agencies and in-house teams have failed to convince marketers to give greater priority to PR? Why, in 2004, are many marketers not investing more in PR?
The answer, believes Haslimann Taylor managing director Bron Eames, is that 'for too long, PR has been the poor relation and can be a bit of an afterthought'. For certain brands, PR could and should be the lead discipline she says.
'I believe that PR will become increasingly recognised going forward, as more and more marketing managers see the payback of investing in professional PR resource.
'The delay in PR's acceptance as a "serious" discipline could be down to various factors,' adds Eames. 'There are the marketers who have been burned by bad practice in the past, who will hopefully be reassured by the PRCA's Consultancy Management Standard going forward.
'Also, some of us have perhaps taken something of an apologetic stance historically, intimidated by the glamour of Adland, and perhaps an assumption that big spend above-the-line qualifies automatically for a superior position in the marketing hierarchy,' she says.
'The industry is, however, growing in confidence as more and more companies see the benefits and invest in PR.'
With the whole issue of reputation management increasingly featuring on the board agenda, marketers are now realising that PR has implications outside the marketing remit. It provides an opportunity to engage with the board and the business at a strategic level, an opportunity that many marketers are eager to explore to secure their positions and increase influence.
Midnight Communications founder Caraline Brown agrees that a shortage of self-confidence within the PR industry and an inability to explain coherently what PR is all about have been major contributory factors to a lack of understanding in marketing circles.
'This lack of clarity about the scope and the benefits of using PR is too often a leap of faith for the marketing manager or director,' says Brown. 'But how can they justify the resources required if PR professionals are not educating them properly?'
Brown goes further. 'We don't even explain PR to each other well or often enough. Ask a random selection of experienced PROs - and, yes, I have done this, outside my own consultancy - what their definition of the discipline of PR is and what its key business benefits are and the responses you get will be as varied as they are limp. I believe this seeming inability to convincingly define, defend and promote our own wares stems from a lack of confidence.'
Brown does, however, believe the situation is improving. She detects a growing trend for leading practitioners and consultancies to speak with a common voice about PR - clearly necessary if PR is to reach its full potential. Brown identifies the IPR/DTI best practice report Unlocking the Potential of Public Relations as an excellent example of this increasing unity in action.
Things do seem to be moving in the right direction for PR. Almost three-quarters of respondents said they spend more time on PR now than they did a year ago. In some cases this may be because budgets are picking up after several tightly constrained years. Another more positive reading might be that some marketing money is being diverted into PR from other disciplines.
Clues can be found in the growing importance of audience segmentation and targeting. Some marketers have taken a long hard look at mass-market advertising and are now questioning ing its effectiveness.
'Narrowcasting' rather than broadcasting is emerging as the order of the day, and it is here that PR can often deliver better than advertising.
'Good marketing directors are far more aware of who they want to talk to. Targeting is what it is all about,' says Walters.
However, despite the green shoots of recovery that many have noted of late, not every marketer has benefited in terms of increased marketing fire-power. A good number have actually seen their war chests depleted.
Asked how their marketing budget had changed over the past 12 months, only 36 per cent said it had increased.
Almost half - 43 per cent - reported that their budgets were static, and an unfortunate 21 per cent said they had had to cope with budget decreases.
It would appear that any sign of a boom is still a long way off.
But while PR struggles to become a serious strategic tool, Virgin Mobile brand director James Kydd says his company thinks about PR issues at the product design stage. If there is an attribute that has PR potential it means one more tick on the checklist, increasing the likelihood of the product being taken forward.
He recognises, however, that this is far from typical. 'Some 90 per cent of companies literally see it (PR) as an adjunct to the marketing mix,' he says. 'A lot of people have still got an awfully long way to go. The thing about PR is that the people who do it well do it spectacularly well, and the people who do it badly do it spectacularly badly. The chasm between the two is huge.'
Others agree that ineffective, sub-standard PR in the past has taken its toll. Marketers who have endured bad PR support will obviously think twice about giving the channel the weight it deserves, they say.
Looking again at the figures, for instance, only 37 per cent said the discipline was 'very involved' in their marketing strategy. This adds up to a painful indictment. And even the fact that 52 per cent described PR as 'somewhat' involved hardly constitutes a ringing endorsement of the power of PR.
'As an industry we have only ourselves to blame,' says Beattie Communications chief executive Gordon Beattie. 'Standards are not high enough. I come across too many people who have poor strategic awareness, terrible writing skills and very few press contacts. We either have to drive these people from the industry or educate them.'
PR is still seen by too many people as a lifestyle career - a comfortable haven for those with a creative bent, says Beattie. 'Fluffy people should have no place in our industry. It is essential we become much more professional, strategic and commercial.
' We don't deserve to survive if we are not positively impacting our clients' bottom line or their performance,' Beattie insists.
Proving effectiveness will be key to making advances in this area. Even with almost three-quarters of respondents indicating they spend more time on PR than a year ago, it is down to PR practitioners to make their case to secure a greater share of the overall marketing communications budget.
Clients cannot afford to allocate budget on pure speculation.
Part of the problem, believes Porter Novelli UK managing director Fiona Joyce, is that the industry as a whole has not done a good enough job of convincing marketers of the worth of PR.
While good tactical activity deserves to be celebrated - in line with the pressure on marketers to deliver quick results - Joyce thinks the pendulum has swung too far, at the expense of giving the strategic role of PR the recognition it deserves.
'The larger agencies have a big responsibility here to re-educate the market and show some leadership, because we have the resources to do that,' says Joyce. 'The bigger agencies have to step up to the plate. It's been neglected, not just during the downturn but for quite a long time.'
Asked which kind of agencies they prefer to retain, our sample responded with a fairly even split. Independent specialist agencies were favoured by 40 per cent, while another 40 per cent of the respondents plumped for full-service agencies. Full-service holding companies were the choice for the remaining 20 per cent.
In terms of how a PR budget changes after a product launch, six per cent said it decreases, while 28 per cent said it increases. A two-thirds majority revealed it stays the same. Without insight into the nature of the launches and the stature of the retained PR relationships, these are difficult figures to decode.
But the finding that for 96 per cent marketing was the department that worked on brand identity came as no surprise. Branding is core to the discipline of marketing and, of course, runs far deeper than a product's name and visual identity, to incorporate positioning, values and attributes.
Chain of command
In 77 per cent of cases, the PR department reported to the marketing department, with ten per cent report-ing direct to the CEO and six per cent to the corporate communications team. The heavy skew towards marketing was expected given that our sample includes marketers.
Nearly half our sample, 42 per cent, defined themselves as 'completely' responsible for the PR budget, with another 41 per cent saying they were 'somewhat' responsible.
A worrying nine per cent, however, held the opinion that PR was not part of the marketing mix. This is, once again, evidence that the PR sector still has a major education job on its hands.
Integration stands out in the findings of the survey as a key area on which to focus. Too few marketers are ensuring maximum return on their PR investment by early involvement in the communications development cycle and making sure it both helps and benefits from what is being implemented via other channels.
'Integration, if done properly, means that agencies are briefed at the same time,' says Walters. 'It's definitely not a case of being given an advertising strap-line and being told "PR that".'
Eames adds: 'In my experience, the clients who get the best return, qualitatively and quantitatively from their budgets, consider an integrated approach to be paramount.'
That so many marketers believe PR is under-used shows there is great potential for growth. But if PR is to have a meaningful share of the marketing budget and greater clout at the strategic end of the marketing communications business, more thought and effort needs to be expended on quality control and educating marketers as to PR's capabilities.
The Marketing Managers Survey unquestionably provides plenty for the industry to think about.
But the key question is: will the picture differ next year?