Why We Need to Embrace “PR As Marketing”

Pete Marcus

14 Apr 2021

I think something is changing in PR – in parts, has already changed – which will define the next 10-20 years of the industry.

When I first got into the PR industry back in 2004, there were essentially two types of work that most agencies did – consumer and corporate communications. These two traditions of PR can be traced back decades, if not centuries.

Consumer PR comes out of the tradition of publicity and PT Barnum. Its currency is stunts and extravagant claims that might push the boundaries of plausibility, and its work is intensely visual and emotive. Photo opportunities. Floating things down the Thames. Celebrity launches. Big moments that hit the front pages or got people talking in the pub.

Corporate PR, in contrast, comes out of the tradition of politics and spin. Policy slogans. Speech writing. Profile raising. Press conferences. Reputation management. Its medium is words, written and spoken, which is why it’s so cautious and deliberative, as a word misplaced or a gaffe accidentally uttered can cause irreparable damage. Most of its work is behind the scenes, anonymous and difficult to detect. But it’s important (and lucrative) nonetheless.

Both of these traditions assumed a relatively linear and one-way relationship between the client (a brand, an individual, a political party) and the audience (the general public or a slice of it) through an established gatekeeper – newspapers, TV, radio.

A third strand of PR

Now I think a third, vital, strand of work is emerging, which takes elements from both of these two but is fundamentally different.

It’s PR as marketing. Or rather, redefining PR activity within a marketing context as part of a buying journey.

The reasons for this shift are well known. As legacy media has shrunk, and the internet – specifically social media – has grown to replace it, the two old traditions have struggled to maintain message control and therefore their value.

That hasn’t made PR people defunct though. Quite the reverse. It’s made us more valuable – but critically it’s reframed and relocated our skills.

Content to fuel conversations

There’s a famous thesis about business in the internet age that argues that “markets are conversations”. If this is right (and I think it broadly is), then conversations need ideas and stories to fuel them, and participants to move them along. And that’s where PR people’s storytelling and idea-generation skills remain essential.

We know what makes a compelling or engaging story for an external audience. As the two older traditions of consumer and corporate comms I outlined above demonstrate, we’re good at producing the words and images that go along with these stories and make them stick in people’s minds. And unlike ad agencies, we intuitively understand how to keep our audience’s interest over weeks, months or years, without falling back simply on one message or tagline all the time.

Those are hugely powerful and valuable skills. Now they’ve been unbundled from the straitjacket of media relations alone, and we’re able to apply them better and with more commercial effectiveness within a different framework.

Media coverage is still important, it’s just far from the only metric of success now. Engaging content can be used just as (or even more) powerfully in sales conversations or digital marketing campaigns via email and social.

So, slowly but surely, traditional PR work and outputs such as visual stunts, thought leadership reports, research or opinion articles have been reclassified as fuel for those online interactions or conversations between brands and customers at different stages of the marketing process.

Targeting different stages of the buying journey

We can provide awareness-raising content for what Google calls the zero moment of truth, or   what Gartner describes as the “problem identification” stage. Or we can produce deeper content on specific topics of relevance and interest to more sophisticated customers.

Just last month we had a conversation with a global enterprise technology client who explained that our thought leadership work was actually about “creating content for the first 50-60% of the vendor research process”, the bit before buyers contact a brand for further information. Key parts of this content would then be amplified through paid programmes on channels like LinkedIn, to reach people who’d expressed an interest, with targeting based on specific topics.

On the consumer side, Airbnb recently reframed its PR work in this context too, contrasting its effectiveness as a top-of-funnel driver compared to advertising.

This is marketing work, no doubt about it, but it’s powered by a PR mindset that knows how to identify and create compelling stories.

Without wanting to date myself, nobody used these kinds of concepts or terminology when I began my career. The vast majority of PR people were blissfully ignorant of marketing theory back then. They might drive coverage or manage crises. But they certainly didn’t do their work within a marketing process or sales pipeline.

Now we do. And this has some big implications for agencies.

What this means for agencies

It’s why we’ve seen (and continue to see) more agencies with a PR heritage expanding into marketing services offerings and building out teams of planners and creatives, who were typically only found in marketing or ad agencies up until a decade ago.

It should ultimately have a huge impact on how PR agencies operate, who they employ and what skills they look for, what tools and tactics they use, what their workflows look like, and how they think about their output. Clients too are shifting in large part from being media relations and reputation specialists to being marketing, content or brand folk.

There are bigger budgets for agencies to tap into here, and they can create bigger impacts for their clients as well. It moves us beyond a fixation with media relations, which is becoming tougher and tougher as the media industry shrinks. It uses our long-honed skills but in a more valuable way for 21st century brands.

I think the agencies that embrace these developments fastest and articulate that proposition clearly will be best positioned for growth in the decade ahead.