Is there any point to PR agencies? Or why Mad Men trumps Ab Fab
I’ve worked in PR for nearly 20 years and I’ve seen a huge amount of change in the industry. I used to be faxed (for younger readers, here’s an explanation of a fax machine) press releases from clients in the US, would re-type them and then fax them back for client approval. They’d then be posted out (again, explanation here) to arrive on a journalist’s desk the next day (if Royal Mailwas willing and able). If it was really really urgent you could fax it to a journalist, provided they worked for a publication so important that it boasted a fax machine. And fax machines always jammed – I distinctly recall being physically restrained from throwing a particularly recalcitrant one out of the window when it chewed up 20 pages at a crucial moment.
Another thing that has changed for the better is the recognition of what PR can do for a business. Connecting companies with their audiences to get the right messages across at the right time is seen as a critical part of marketing. Content is king and companies need to deliver compelling and interesting stories to potential customers quickly and in a way that engages with their concerns. Social media is all about conversations and relationships – content is what drives these to a successful conclusion, whether it is making a sale, re-assuring existing customers, gaining investors or recruiting staff. At a time when people simply don’t watch or believe adverts PR should be moving to the front of the marketing toolkit.
And this importance doesn’t depend on your size. Whether you are a nascent Cambridge startup, a giant multinational or a government department, PR can get you noticed. I’ve seen this amongst the companies I work with – sure, money is tight but they know PR can deliver results.
So does this mean that all is rosy in the PR industry? Well, not really. PR agencies are being offered the chance to lead company marketing efforts – but they are ducking the responsibility. Just as when SEO arrived and digital agencies seized a chunk of the marketing budget that could have gone to PR, the same thing is happening now. Ad agencies are busy reinventing themselves as storytellers and leading integrated campaigns that could/should be championed by PR agencies. It’s not just me saying this – the PR category at the recent Cannes Lions event was won by an ad agency. For the third year in a row. Judges criticised tactical campaigns submitted by PR agencies that simply lacked big ideas.
The problem is that PR agencies aren’t used to big ideas (or often big budgets compared to advertising folk) so tend to be grateful for what they can get, rather than pitching to run the show. So when you’re a global marketing director looking for the killer campaign, who are you going to turn to – Don Draper from Mad Men or Edina from Absolutely Fabulous? There’s no contest – PR may well be the key marketing element of the next decade, but it probably won’t be traditional PR agencies doing the work.