‘Are we monkeys or just fools?’ asks Mango’s Claudia Macdonald

Since I can remember, PR has been notable for its comparatively low fees and, by correlation, high ROI. In fact, PR people often proudly proclaim how much they can achieve for so little.

The perception that PR (and its close associate social) is a low cost communication option is much more prevalent in marketing communications where PR sits alongside other disciplines that have traditionally commanded high budgets.  A one million dollar advertising campaign including film production, media buy and agency fees can often include a PR budget that is less than five percent of this sum.

The rationale for this has typically been that lower external costs and fewer people are involved in public relations campaigns, and that the results are not always measurable by recognised standards, such as TARPS. Or that media buying and content production is expensive and has a guaranteed outcome.

PR people all know that sinking feeling when the creative or media agency announces that of the client’s two million dollar budget a mere $10,000 has been allocated to PR. Or the client says that, unfortunately, the other agencies have blown their budgets and yours has been cut. This is all the more galling when getting PR coverage is often the mark of success.

How many creative and effectiveness awards now measure the success of a campaign by the amount of PR it has achieved? If it hasn’t been covered by international media, it’s not really worked.

However, it has been changing. Lately, as PR rises in profile and marketers find ads less effective at engaging consumers or getting them to change their behaviour, the budget discussion has been easier. Marketers are more inclined to understand that two-way conversations between brands and consumers are best managed by PR experts who understand how to protect and enhance a brand through the nuance of direct communication and the use of influential platforms. As importantly, we know how to listen and to feed back the feedback.

Social influencer campaigns, promotional partnerships and native advertising are increasingly sitting under the PR roof to ensure the brand story is told in an authentic channel appropriate way. PR, experiential and social (PRES) practitioners are really good at ensuring that the two-way conversation between brands and consumers is managed to mutual benefit. We don’t regard channels as simply spaces to be bought, but places through which to tell stories and engage. 

But recently that old sinking feeling returned when I heard that one large global was refusing to pay for ‘thinking’ done by its PR company, saying that only implementation was worthy of its money.

Surely this is back to front? Wouldn’t you want good thinking first and foremost and be happy to pay for it?

I suspect part of the problem lies with the change in the media landscape. As our traditional domain has shrunk so PR agencies have moved to embrace new ways of reaching consumers through social, experiential and media partnerships. And as marketing PR has become more and more akin to other marketing disciplines, the unique benefits of a PR person’s thinking seem to have been overlooked.

Ensuring that clients value the thinking of their PR, Experiential and Social (PRES) agencies as much as they do brand or corporate agencies is a discussion the CAANZ PRES committee is currently having. It would not be surprising if clients were simply confused (or annoyed) by the numerous agencies all offering a slightly different take on communicating with their consumers. 

Let me make a plea then for public relations thinking. PR consultants are trained to sit at the interface between an organization or brand and its public or audiences. We are the interpreters and the negotiators, the navigators and the mediators but we are also the ideas people, the ones who know what will help consumers think positively about a brand and engage with it, often using third parties to carry our message.

This requires quite a lot of thinking. Lots of research, insights and debate on the best way to deliver the message, the message itself and the impact of that message. So why should a PR marcomms agency’s thinking be less worthy than any other? Have we allowed ourselves to be seen as producers, not strategists, as media monkeys, not relationship builders?

I’d challenge any PR consultancy to push back on their clients next time they suggest they not pay for the work before the ‘work’ begins. Ask them if they would pay for an architect before the builder knocks down a wall, or an anesthetist before the surgeon takes out the scalpel.

And I’d ask marketers to engage with PRES agencies earlier and challenge them to show their thinking before they show their tactics.

You know the old adage, if you pay peanuts you get monkeys. We communicators need to value our work and our efforts much more than we currently do. If we don’t, we’re fools.

  • Claudia Macdonald is managing director of Mango Communications, a founding member of CAANZ PREScom and a fellow of PRINZ. 

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