PR claims ‘win’ over advertising

THERE’S a feeling among some public relations industry players that they are stealing a march on the advertising profession and winning control of the marketing budget.

Public relations firms received a huge boost in the days and months following the 1987 stock market crash because it was believed they could offer a lower cost communications solution.

More than a decade later, most advertising agencies were hard hit by the advertising downturn that followed the 2000 stock market crash, lending further credence to PR industry claims.

However, many advertising industry figures say clients have a choice – go with the certainty of getting their message out through advertising or take a chance with PR.

Newscomm Corporate Communications managing director Rob Broadfield said public relations firms were starting to take a bigger role in marketing because of the tighter compliance regimes companies had to deal with.

He said PR firms also had a more “helicopter view” of how a business was operating and how the external environment would affect it.

“Public companies in particular face extraordinarily tough compliance regimes and that hits how they talk to journalists and investors,” Mr Broad-field said.

“Advertising agencies don’t have any understanding of that level of communication. They don’t meet the needs of better communications.

“Advertising has been its own worst enemy over the years. In terms of development of business, other than the brand, which advertising agencies handle well, those messages will be delivered by PR firms like us. Advertising has proven itself to be a one-trick pony.

“We increasingly find we are briefing ad agencies because we are involved at a more strategic level with our clients.”

PPR senior consultant Peter Harris said he was seeing public relations become a bigger player in the marketing area.

Part of that was due to the high cost of running advertising campaigns.

“Businesses all want to see a return on their money and a lot of businesses are saying they can’t afford the advertising costs,” Mr Harris said.

Oak Ridge Communication Group principal Marina Valmadre said she did not believe PR was taking over from advertising.

“However, companies are certainly taking a more integrated approach to their communications and PR firms are having more of a say at the strategic level,” she said.

At a recent function organised by WA Business News, advertising industry heavyweights such as Marketforce director Howard Read and The Brand Agency chairman Ken James bemoaned the fact that advertising had lost control of the “big idea”.

Ms Valmadre said people were becoming scared of the “big idea”.

“Most young people have a social conscience these days. They are very much interested in the triple bottom line and they want substance over form,” she said.

Adlink JLS managing director John Carlson disputed the claim that public relations firms were taking prominence over advertising agencies.

His firm includes a public relations operation that he admitted had been growing faster than the other parts of the firm’s business.

“But in absolute dollar terms, advertising would still be well a-head of PR,” Mr Carlson said.

“Most of the PR firms out there would be lucky to get one tenth of the turnover of some of the bigger advertising agencies around town.”

Mr Read strongly rejected any suggestions that PR was over-taking advertising in prominence.

“PR is certainly not taking over from advertising at all,” he said.

“Advertising and PR are quite separate fields of endeavour.

“PR certainly took off in the mid 1990s during the tech boom when companies were seeking content for their websites.”

Mr Read admitted that PR was more useful than advertising for mining companies and similar operations that did not produce consumer goods.

“Mining companies are doing well at the moment and that could explain the dichotomy,” he said.

Bowtell Clarke & Yole managing director David Owen said he did not believe public relations was posing a serious threat to the advertising industry.

“I think any claims of that sort are just good PR for the PR industry,” he said.

Mr Owen said he had seen one instance of a PR firm briefing an advertising agency but did not believe it would become a common trend.

“Most advertising people on the strategic side come from marketing and business backgrounds, whereas most PR people come from a journalistic background,” he said.

“I also think most ad agencies have a good understanding of how a PR firm operates but most PR firms do not understand how an ad agency works.”

However, while the PR industry may be claiming some points on its traditional rival, consulting firms such as accountants and human resources specialists are starting to move into areas that have traditionally been PR strongholds, such as social responsibility reporting and employee communications.

Ms Valmadre said while that was a concern for the industry, it could also be a good thing.

“I think there will be collaborations between PR firms and these sort of consultancies and that will be good for business. I see it as an evolution of business,” she said.

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