Building brands through PR – Is it still a challenge for marketers?

One is no longer sure if there is a thin line or a thick line between PR and Advertising. A brand manager’s first choice would be to look a mass reach and advertising which helps in raising quick awareness, which then leads to quick trial if the product is delivering the desired promise. Having said that, many major brands are born through publicity and not advertising. A closer look at the history of the most successful modern brands shows this to be true. In fact, an astonishing number of brands, including Palm, Starbucks, the Body Shop, Wal-Mart, Red Bull and Zara have been built with virtually no advertising. But how far this is true is debatable, as the role of PR is seen more as a support medium and there are many brands who still look with a telescopic lens when they have to involve a PR agency for their PR activity.

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Though PR as a marketing tool has changed in the last few years and especially after the advent of social media, the acceptance of PR as the primary marketing tool by most marketeers is still not high on priority. While the school of thought is that PR builds credibility and is a crucial ingredient in brand building, but it has still not sunk deeply into many marketers’ minds. Yes, the advantage of PR is that you need not outrageously open up your budgets, but the speed of awareness creation is always a point to debate and question. Some of the reservation or demerits of PR as compared to advertising is that there is no guaranteed coverage and results that one can expect. Since there is no control on the messaging and the onus lies on the journalist, the story can sometimes be slanted or deviate from the core proposition of the brand or sometimes they can misquote, which will have serious implications for the brands.

Technology companies like Infosys, Intel, Symantec and Dell to name a few have been virtually built through PR. Nano is another such brand that leveraged PR to the maximum and the entire brand building was done to a large extent only through PR. PR helps when you need to tell a long story and demystify things and make it simple. Most PR companies work on strict deliverables, but one is not sure if those deliverables will deliver the desired results as there is always ambiguity on the commitment and the measurement rules applied for evaluating the PR campaign, which again is a deterrent factor for most young brand managers to rely totally on PR.

While PR agencies are now trying their level best to bring in some best practices in PR for more brands to leverage, it will take some time for brands to put their total faith on this marketing tool. Many in the industry feel that PR has not given to its clients the right stimulus when it comes to brand building as the self-belief to work on PR campaigns by brand manager always took a back seat. Consumers today are experiencing a crisis of faith. To make PR work hard, brands should trust their PR partners and it is imperative that brands need to re-evaluate their messaging strategies and their approach to get the best value for their brands. Confidence and reassurance need to be instilled in the clients, therefore, PR should be seriously viewed from a long-term strategy and should not be seen as just a tactical effort that is run in short spurts.

Sharing his perspective, Ajay Kakar, CMO, Aditya Birla Capital, remarked, “They say that people remember God in moments of pain or need. Regrettably, that seems to best describe the way PR agencies are perceived or remembered. In moments of dire need. And on a day-to-day basis, PR agencies are best remembered by the last article that appeared. Or did not. Having been on both sides of the table, and also having had the honour of leading a PR Consultants industry body, I believe that the PR industry needs to invest time and effort in doing their own PR. I believe PR partners have not got their due respect as strategic partners to CEO and boardrooms. They are more known for Press Relations and execution. I see PR partners as those who help build brands and reputation, credibility, awareness building and brand advocacy.”

He further noted that it then puts the onus on the industry to first know and understand the client brand in a competitive context – possibly better than many at the client end know themselves – to then draw a list of key stakeholders, be they influencers, decision makers or users. And most importantly, create a bank of messages that will help move perceptions for each audience, convincingly.

“That’s why you will find  that leading consultancies employ professionals ranging from lawyers, journalists, social influencers, bureaucrats and policy makers who are able to bring their experience and expertise and add value. This will help in the agency solving complex problems in certain verticals. Therefore, my honest advice would be to focus on clients who know the true value of PR. Provide them with value that makes you invaluable to the client. The world is then your oyster,” Kakar said.

Public Relations is integral to building and protecting both brand and corporate reputation. Sharing his perspective, Nikhil Dey, Executive Director, Adfactors PR, said that the opportunity lies in ensuring that the role of PR and the goals of a campaign are well aligned and articulated. The experienced PR practitioner can co-create measurable goals with a client that help ensure expectations are in sync before the work begins. This is always reassuring for a client as they have a clear understanding of what outcomes to expect.

Dey further pointed out that asking the right questions and framing the opportunity is a first step to creating and delivering value. According to him, some simple ‘must ask’ questions would include:

  1. Who is the priority audience for public relations?
  2. What behaviour or knowledge shift do you want to catalyse?
  3. What message do you want to engage this audience with?

“Three simple questions can help get a clear understanding before jumping to deliver solutions, ideas, and tactics. Once this clarity emerges, it paves the way for creative collaboration. When a team of people align behind a common purpose, and they know what they are in pursuit of, magic happens. Clear goals help teams to score the winning goals,” he added.

Atul Raja, Executive VP - Marketing, Wadhwani Foundation, affirmed, “The importance of PR is unquestioned. However, the challenge is that its evolution over the years has largely remained stagnant, which is why questions are now arising today:

  1. How can PR keep pace with the rapid advancements in other marketing verticals?
  2. With marketing automation virtually exploding, how can PR be measured scientifically?
  3. How can PR be better integrated with other marketing plan elements?
  4. How can PR be transformed from more of a reach and awareness activity to a substantial contributor to business objectives?”

According to him, implicit in the answers to these questions lies the transformation of its relationship with the PR agencies that the clients desire. The PR agencies should look at the following to upgrade their operations and create enduring bonds with clients:

  1. Upskill the current workforce and acquire top talent
  2. Invest in tools and software that lay to rest debates on the efficacy of PR campaigns
  3. Strive to be a strategic arm of the marketing function with an E2E approach from conceptualisation to implementation of ideas that have a direct impact on business objectives
  4. Shift the mindset from traditional and conservative PR to emerging and non-conventional media
  5. The client servicing teams should develop a deep understanding of the client’s business and must constantly keep updating themselves about the client’s business.

Ashish Mishra, EVP - Marketing, ACKO, noted that over time, PR has evolved, but it continues to play an important role in building and protecting a company’s reputation. PR goes a long way in building trust and credibility for the brand among stakeholder groups like customers, employees, investors, regulatory bodies, and the government. In addition, PR creates a positive environment for the business by educating customers and supporting the brand in category creation.

He further observed that as a strategic function, PR plays a crucial role in helping new-age companies build their profile and win customer trust by creating a positive disposition through focused storytelling in both national and international markets. “PR agencies have also come of age and have created new streams of digital, social, and purpose-driven communications. The agencies have become integrated and agile to meet the growing needs of businesses,” he added.

According to Tinu Cherian Abraham, Director and Head – Global PR & Media Relations, UST, it is vital that corporate communications/ in-house PR teams consider PR agencies as partners and extended teams. He added that it is equally important to find PR agencies that are right-fit and synergies to the brand and organisation. “When I select agencies for my company, I insist on meeting the account team members, whom I probably would work with, during the final pitch process from the agency. Agencies need to set realistic expectations, scope of work, and goals during the pitch process,” Abraham said.

He also remarked that, “You cannot promise the moon and under deliver when it comes to execution, which is when the brands will mistrust the agency. The agency partners should be very proactive and work closely with the brand regularly in formulating the messaging and stories. The onus of the outcome is on both the parties. The brand also should understand what is earned media and paid media coverage. If the coverage is ‘guaranteed’, it is not PR but advertising. For start-ups and brands that aren’t well known, you must understand that PR and media relations is a long process, and shouldn’t expect unrealistic and immediate results.”

Sarah Gideon, Vice President- Corporate Communications, Flipkart, remarked that most marketers view public relations as a critical part of their reputation-building efforts. Misconceptions arise when there are expectation mismatches of what public relations can achieve.

Over time, public relations has become integral to managing perceptions and positively impacting businesses, yet limiting its perceived effectiveness to desired consumer behaviour or expecting changes to be purely an outcome of public relations is misplaced. Reputation building needs to be viewed holistically, supplemented by programs and initiatives that showcase intent and work towards results.

“Clearly articulating the objective of programs and identifying possible outcomes realistically helps build trust and appreciation for public relations. Supplementing it with proof points, which should be a shared business, brand, and public relations goal, is key to successful partnerships,” opined Gideon.

Priya Patankar, Head - Corporate Communication, PhonePe, noted that when engaging with a PR agency, what a brand looks for is a clear understanding and alignment with its business goals, credibility and trust in the PR partner and measurability of any PR activity which is being undertaken. I think PR agencies have a key role to play in making sure that any messaging they do is aligned with what the core ethos of the brand is.

Continuing further, she said, “Since PR is seen as predominantly a push/ “in your face” mechanism, the perceived “connect” is seen as a bit contrived sometimes. Hence, PR agencies need to address that proactively, and align all their efforts so they are seen as a natural activity for what the brand represents and not a force fit. Also, the measurement needs to be more on sanity and not vanity metrics. This means sometimes doing less aggressive campaigns, and letting organically generated activities take precedence while keeping a keen track on the pulse of the audience. This will make the brand owners see the PR agency as a trusted partner, and let them drive more of the activities independently and reassure them while building long-term trust.” 


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