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What does PR integration mean for marketers?


By Chris Sutcliffe, Senior reporter


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August 3, 2020 | 8 min read

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The twin disciplines of marketing and PR have always had some crossover. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which any brand with a human element wouldn’t need to incorporate a PR strategy into its wider marketing efforts.

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Over the past few years, however, the two have been much more closely entwined. For some brands, in fact, the line between the two is increasingly porous, with dedicated PR and marketing teams bleeding into one another. The new reality of communicating with audiences is being accelerated by social media and tech, and it’s likely we’ll see less delineation between them in the future.

At the Meltwater Digital Summit, a panel of experts spoke to The Drum Network’s editor Chris Sutcliffe to determine whether the integration of PR and marketing is desirable, necessary, or even inevitable.

The rise of the socially aware audience

Lebo Madiba is the managing partner at PR Powerhouse and has had experience working across the marketing and PR sectors. She explains that the industry’s drive towards personalisation – and increasingly savvy consumers – has led to a situation where PR has to be more closely integrated into marketing campaigns.

“Audiences have become more savvy. They communicate directly with clients. They know what they want and they’re creating their own experiences about brands. And what this has done is it has placed personalisation at the heart of the customer expectation.”

She argues that this, in turn, has led to a situation where the more ‘human’ strengths of PR need to be married to the sales function of marketing. The blending of the two, she says, was inevitable as soon as brands began offering personalisation as a matter of course.

Brian Mung’ei, chief operating officer of Socialight Media, notes that the ready availability of brands over social has accelerated the need for swift responses. Consequently, the human element that has been typically associated with PR is now baked in to many brands’ social strategies.

“Initially, people would converge on the TV set and watch this one channel, this one radio station… now you have to go where the consumers are and talk to them. That’s their space, and it’s a safe space, so they end up demanding far more from you.”

Mike Blake-Crawford is strategy director at Social Chain. He believes that the storytelling aspect of social media has altered the power balance between audience and brand.

“I’d hypothesise that, from a marketing perspective, the growth of social media has flipped the control of brand storytelling over to the consumer. So advertising messages can now be easily distorted and challenged in respect to brand reputation. And a great example would be that Pepsi advert with Kendall Jenner a couple of years ago, which was a piece of advertising aimed at driving sales and ended up going viral for all the wrong reasons, damaging the brand’s reputation in light of a broader political movement.”

Effectively that is where PR starts to become important within the broader marketing context, as it allows real-time management of unintended audience responses.

Oil and water

From a brand and agency perspective, however, the historical differences between the two disciplines means that integration isn’t as simple as just pulling two teams together. Mung’ei argues that there are three sides to bear in mind when thinking about integration – customer support, digital marketing and PR/comms.

He says: “There’s a risk of collision in terms of the objectives, in terms of who takes leadership in case there’s a crisis. Does it mean the PR takes over the social media platforms and then marketing take a step back?”

Blake-Crawford draws the analogy between two different trades to explain why he doesn’t necessarily believe the collision is desirable, stating: “Look at the construction industry. You could argue that there’s a crossover between bricklayers and joiners, but you probably wouldn’t task a bricklayer with joining. They probably couldn’t do an adequate job interchanging disciplines. There’s a real challenge in ensuring that they work well together in their respective roles”

Madiba suggests that one way to mitigate the issues is to ensure that the PR-oriented team members are thinking about the long-term marketing goals. She believes that marrying that longitudinal outlook to PR’s more short-term, impact-oriented approach can benefit a business more widely.

“Now, PR still falls short of saying: ’This is what we do. This is how we’re going to measure.’ And, as a result, it ends up falling by the wayside because brands and leadership in businesses opt to go for where they know they will find results. That’s where PR needs to start, looking at understanding the language around results as well.”

Pulling together

Despite those potential pitfalls, the panel was keen to stress that they believe PR and marketing both have vital roles to play in ensuring a brand’s message is conceived and received well by the public. While they disagreed slightly about how deep the integration should be, each notes that there is a need for both disciplines and will be for the foreseeable future.

Blake-Crawford believes that the reality of socially-conscious audiences means brands need to employ both PR and marketing specialists to a degree. “The key thing about the young generation is they are very open and very loud about what they stand for. ’What about humanity?’ they’ll ask. ’What about the environment?’ They want you to stand for them and not just ask them to spend money with you for the sake of spending.”

Mung’ei agrees, noting the need to combine creativity and purpose in order to stand out among the growing number of brands keen to demonstrate their values, meaning that PR and marketing specialisms are more vital than ever.

“There’s an element with us becoming proactive in terms of telling stories that we connect with customers. Marketing will come in, but there has to be a certain amount of something emotional or something that can actually create empathy out of your consumers. So that’s one of the strong points PR practitioners can bring to that side of the industry.”

Madiba agrees, noting that the empathetic aspect of PR can potentially forestall or even prevent marketing campaigns being taken the wrong way. She advocates a proactive approach to listening to audiences, to ensure that ‘crisis management’ isn’t a reactive scramble to limit brand damage.

“Brand safety becomes very important because in a marketing campaign, PR is able to come up with different types of scenarios to look at around how the consumer we are engaging with will react, and you can almost see when a brand has stress-tested a policy because it’s fool-proof. There are no gaps for social media to hammer a brand for getting it wrong.”

So while the panel agrees that the two disciplines are more tightly bound than in the past – mainly due to social and tech trends – they believe that the specialisms each have strengths to bring to any marketing campaign. As new social media markets and platforms propagate, it’s almost certain that the two strands will be working in tandem to ensure that a brand’s messaging lands in the most effective way possible.

Watch the on-demand presentation and panel recordings from the Meltwater Digital Summit here.


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