What's the difference between advertising and PR? According to an old adage, "Advertising is what you pay for; publicity is what you pray for."
But what if you can't pay for advertising? Are publicity prayers enough to keep an enterprise ahead?
I was faced with that dilemma when a company I worked for was in the midst of a massive rebuild. All available budgets were diverted to transforming the business, leaving little for marketing — very, very little. Our competitors were spending roughly three times as much as us. We needed to think differently or risk getting crushed.
We cut TV ad spending entirely that quarter, which was unheard of in our product's market category. With our budget, we didn't have a choice. To take advantage of our situation, competitors ramped up their own TV budgets. We realized that we had to win another way. We couldn't drop bags of money on our problem, so we implemented a PR-heavy campaign that put our creativity to the test.
The result? Brand equity, purchases, intent, and revenue growth all stayed the same and, in some cases, even grew. Given our severely crippled marketing budget, our strategy had worked beyond anyone's imagination.
While I had never underestimated PR's potential, the PR-in-place-of-TV plan converted the skeptics around me. They saw that, especially when supported by other marketing channels, PR is an ideal way to achieve three corporate goals:
Goal No. 1: Raise brand awareness
Some companies take an 'everything but the kitchen sink' approach to boosting brand awareness: splashing cash on tv and digital ads, sponsoring sports teams, and paying celebrities to say nice things about them. Spend enough, and something will stick, right?
Of course, a proper branding campaign involves studies and analysis before launch. But even the best-laid plans for TV and social media marketing need a hefty dose of PR.
When I worked for a leading business software company, it was best known for its work implementing large-scale, complex enterprise resource planning (ERP) projects for multinational corporations. But it wanted to transition to the small and medium (SMB) space in the Canadian market, which was a growing, untapped market segment at the time.
Leadership, marketing, and sales all teamed up with our communications team to develop an integrated approach to crack the SMB market. From sponsorships to advertising to analyst relations to customer communications to PR, we had it all. Together, we rebranded the firm from one that advised large enterprises to one that helped SMBs realize their vision, grow their revenues, and compete with the big boys and girls.
Sure enough, after a few weeks of the campaign, a CEO of an SMB called to tell us that he'd read the featured story that we'd pitched to a national publication. His company was facing the same issues, he assured us, and he wanted our help. When all was said and done, PR had helped our software company earn its stripes in the SMB sphere.
Goal No. 2: Demand generation
PR will never replace the marketing engine behind demand generation. Content marketing, events, product campaigns, and so on will always be at the heart of building demand. But PR can bring a lot to the table as well.
There are a few ways such a partnership can work. First, when a marketing team launches a specific campaign, PR can not only help to amplify the campaign, but also develop its own reinforcing initiative. We recently took this approach at my current company, attributing 17% of the campaign's inbound calls directly to PR.
The other way is to have PR lead its own campaign and use the marketing team to provide the surround sound: webinars, events, content marketing, social posts, and more. These two strategies aren't mutually exclusive, either; they can run simultaneously in the same company.
While reputation management will continue to be PR's bread and butter, why wouldn't you want PR's help driving demand, pipeline, and revenue? Integrate PR and marketing from the get-go. With open lines of communication, the teams can tackle demand generation in a strategic way, maximizing resources without stepping on each other's toes.
Goal No. 3: Prevent and mitigate brand blunders
Advertising — especially digital advertising — has become more expensive and less effective at swaying public opinion. Now, a few loud voices on social media can fan the flames of an issue with your brand until there's nothing left but ash and smoke.
PR can fireproof any campaign early on. Often, PR is only consulted when a situation reaches crisis level, but by that point, it's too late. PR best protects the brand when it's brought in during decision-making or project approvals. It can play devil's advocate during the conception of a campaign or preemptively develop defenses for an edgy campaign. A wary PR team might have foreseen issues with the Snapchat ad that lost the social media firm $800 million when Rihanna rightfully condemned it.
But PR can take its cue from marketing, too. Sometimes, marketing's understanding of the customer base can inform PR's decision on whether to go in and fight a fire or just let it burn out by itself.
For instance, I joined a multinational company that was doing battle with an antagonistic publication. Without much success, the company had been blowing countless resources, time, and energy to balance the narrative. As the new communications director, I decided to put an end to it. The publication was going to write a negative story no matter what. Why waste another dime to fight it? Instead, we spent our budget connecting with the bloggers and influencers that really reached our customer base.
The fallout from that hit piece? Zero. No impact to brand equity or sales during the month the article appeared or thereafter. Because we'd educated the bloggers and influencers who our customers cared about, they were even able to refute the negative and inaccurate points of the article.
Bigger marketing budgets don't always mean bigger results. A few moves from an astute PR team can sometimes do more for a brand than a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign. So stop paying or praying for publicity. Instead, round up your PR professionals and start planning for it.