OPINION: PR triumphs over archaic advertising

The most surprising thing about the decision by a string of companies to pull their advertising from Facebook is that they were surprised by the content alongside which their ads were appearing.

Hilton: City commentator, London’s <em>Evening Standard</em>
Hilton: City commentator, London’s Evening Standard

Advertisers have always matched the media in which they advertise with their target audiences, and steered clear of publications and programmes where the content  might tarnish their image or damage their brand. The casual way they have approached the internet and the social networking sites is nothing short of astonishing. Had they spent a few hours trawling through the pages then they might have had some idea what they were straying into. As it was, they were either horribly naive or panicked at the thought of being left behind.

They are likely to take a bit more care in future as a result of this. I don’t hold out much hope
that there will be a reawakening of interest in traditional media – the press, radio and television – where at least the advertiser still knows what he is getting in terms of quality if not quantity.

But there is a bigger issue. If the internet is to become the primary means of communication then it does call into question the traditional advertising model, based as it is on finding a lot
of people in one place and bashing them with a single, glossily produced message. Fragmentation of audiences makes life difficult for conventional advertising; its cost structure is geared to a small amount of high spending, not specifically tailored low-value messages. The outlook for the business model does not look good in this brave new world.

But what is bad for mainstream advertising could be very good for the purveyors of softer communications skills, the most obvious of which is public relations. The tailoring of specific messages to specialised and often quite small audiences is one of its core skills. Most of what it has traditionally done with print and broadcast media can be easily adapted to the online world.

This future model is with us already, to some extent, in the City, where takeover battles, such
as the one for Dutch Bank ABN Amro are absorbing vast amounts of PR effort, but almost nothing from traditional blockbuster advertising. What the City is doing today, mainstream public relations will need to copy tomorrow.

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