PR peer panel

As boundaries between the marketing and public relations sectors blur, five PR specialists answer questions posed by Marketing Week about the sector’s burning issues.

The panel

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Leslie McGibbon:

Senior vice-president of global corporate affairs at InterContinental Hotels Group. IHG operates more than 4,300 hotels in nearly 100 countries under brands including Holiday Inn and Crown Plaza.

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Nick Hindle:

Vice-president of communications at McDonald’s UK. The company has around 1,225 restaurants in the UK, with about 67,000 employees.

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Lauren Branston:

Communications director at Coca-Cola UK & Ireland. Coca-Cola markets about 21 brands with more than 100 products in the UK.

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Tessa Tennyson:

Director of communications for MTV Network UK. MTV Networks claims it attracts more than 17 million viewers each month.

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Karen Myers:

Director of communications for IPC Media. It has 80 magazines, which it claims are read by more than 26 million people collectively.

Marketing Week (MW)Do you believe that as disciplines, public relations and marketing are closer than they used to be?

Leslie McGibbon (LM): The lines between PR and marketing get more blurred every day. With social media and user-generated content, whose job is it to manage these channels? PR and marketing must work hand in glove to make the most of the opportunities these new outlets create.

Nick Hindle (NH): Yes, both have moved closer to each other. Marketing has realised PR is a more contemporary communication technique; and PR has realised it needs to use data and insight as smartly as marketing and take greater accountability for creating outcomes.

Lauren Branston (LB): We’ve certainly done a great deal of work to ensure that, where it makes sense, marketing and PR work as one team.

Tessa Tennyson (TT): At one time, PR was very much seen as an offshoot of marketing, or simply an often forgotten element of customer-facing activity. But in recent years, reputation has become ever more paramount to business PR.

More importantly, PR’s value has grown to become a force in its own right with phenomena like Facebook, Twitter and search engine optimisation or marketing making the role of PR more exciting and challenging. The two disciplines should now complement each other by using their specific strengths to deliver brand objectives in communicating with the audience.

Karen Myers (KM): I don’t think marketing and PR have ever been as far apart as mythology suggests. During my 26 years in PR, there has always been a degree of competition, but ultimately the goals are the same, even if some of the techniques are different. And there is mutual respect.

A barrier can be created, however, by some marketers’ outdated view that PR is simply free marketing and the lack of acknowledgement of the level of strategic insight and input that PR brings.

MW:What could marketers learn from PR professionals?

NH: Public relations people operate in an environment where we don’t have control. This gives us a headstart in a world where customers take your marketing content, play with it, critique it and turn it into something you hadn’t thought of. This can be for better and sometimes for worse.

LB: Marketers are more used to dealing with self-contained controlled messages through campaigns that they “push” out to consumers. PR professionals have more experience in entering into dialogue with a variety of different audiences. So I think marketers can learn from PRs on how to engage with consumers in today’s much more complex media environment, where you have to listen and respond to a wide range of views. But we can both learn from each other.

LM: I agree that PR and marketing can learn from one another. Traditionally, marketers have been better at showing measurable returns for their work, which is always helpful when it comes to asking for budget. Good PR professionals have a very clear understanding of their audience group and how to get the biggest “bang for your buck”.

TT: That depends entirely on the brand, the ethos and the organisation in question. Broadly speaking, communications professionals can often offer a more immediate insight into specific audience groups as they tend to have experience in reaching consumers in hundreds of different ways, with the same message.

KM: Marketers could learn that the measurement of PR success is not about “Advertising Value Equivalent” and “Opportunities to See”. It’s about quality, not quantity, and the metrics should be about degrees of influence and improvement in sentiment.

MW:Can PR lead other disciplines within brands in managing campaigns? Does this ever occur for you?

LM: Absolutely. We are currently in discussions that could lead to a number of our brands in certain markets only using PR next year (and no traditional marketing) as a way to build the brand and drive revenue. PR is such a “catch-all” term and means a lot of different channels and tactics that ultimately should give you a fantastic return on your investment.

KM: Of course PR can be the lead discipline because it can often make strategic sense for the balance of a campaign. Each discipline is equally capable of leadership but in terms of the broader skills in planning, strategic thinking, building relationships and influence, PR people are well placed to lead multidiscipline teams. At IPC, with so many brands with varied PR and marketing needs, PR is often to the fore.

NH: Yes, but on a case-by-case basis. As long as the strategic objective is a common one and if it is managed properly, a natural lead discipline will emerge from the planning stage for every campaign and issue.

LB: Ideally, you want a mix so your message is amplified through different channels. But there are opportunities where PR can lead and be effective. Our Talent from Trash campaign, for example, was delivered in partnership with Football League clubs and councils. It encouraged football fans to recycle more of their household waste. Clubs received cash for youth development so there was an incentive for supporters to take part.

We started a communications campaign through the clubs and local media which invited fans to pledge daily to recycle more on a bespoke Talent from Trash website – and it had a measurable impact in changing attitudes and behaviour among people who did not normally consider recycling their waste.

TT: I’m not convinced that any one discipline should take the lead in campaigns because in most cases work undertaken will, and should, cross many departments. Instead, a collaborative effort, where each area of the business contributes their expertise and shares insight, will often deliver more creative and ultimately more successful results. The key is involving everyone at the same time – ideally as soon as the germ of an idea is formed.

MW: Should PR/communications be represented at board level or is this unnecessary?

TT: Yes, absolutely. Communications should be represented at board level simply because of the ultimate impact that reputation has across all areas of business and performance.

LM: Communications is an essential and crucial part of any big business. For it to be taken seriously, it has to be part of the culture of the business and part of how you do things. Reporting to the CEO or sitting on the board sends a strong signal to your business that communications is important, but it is only part of the challenge. Creating a culture of communications is key.

LB: A board’s membership should be reflective of a company’s priorities and key activities. Any company that isn’t serious about communications and corporate reputation potentially doesn’t understand the crucial importance of an organisation’s reputation to its bottom line.

Recent research conducted by Populus shows that nearly two-thirds of the public believe that businesses must have a broader responsibility to society than just offering their goods and services at the lowest possible price. And up to 38% of those polled said they actively avoided buying anything from companies that they thought behaved badly. You can’t afford to ignore numbers like these.

NH: I believe PR should be represented at board level because reputation and trust are now key to the success of every organisation and brand. Public relations tends to have an instinctive understanding of reputation and the experience to advise boards on how to protect, build and leverage it.

Public relations can do a better job when it is part of the leadership conversation and its executives are as well equipped in context and insight as the other leaders in the organisation.

“I don’t think marketing and PR have ever been as far apart as mythology suggests… there has always been a degree of competition, but ultimately the goals are the same.” Karen Myers, IPC Media

KM: In an ideal world, the answer would be “yes”. It’s always better to be right at the centre of the decision making – and witness to it. But it’s not essential if you work in an organisation where the role of PR is valued, irrespective of board membership or reporting lines, and you have open and easy access to the CEO.

MW: Has the job of PR been made easier or harder by Twitter? Does it require you to respond too quickly or is it a useful channel for customer feedback?

LM: Twitter is another communications channel to manage. We should not get carried away with it. Yes, it’s important to respond quickly to customers and the media, but wasn’t it always?

NH: The digital space has brought both a greater complexity and urgency to the job of PR. Whether Twitter has made things harder or easier for you depends on the organisation or brand you represent.

TT: Twitter forces brands to ensure they can be succinct in their messaging. It also brings the immediacy of communicating to the fore, which can both enhance and damage a story. But I would look more to blogs for feedback – those who contribute to blogs tend to do so via conversation about a particular topic, whereas Twitter is a collection of random thoughts, limited to an exact word count.

LB: Twitter is another vehicle for getting our messages across or responding to public concerns. It’s popular as well and – as the Trafigura incident shows [where the lawyers Carter Ruck aimed to prevent The Guardian publishing an item and Twitter pressure saw the injunction dropped] – can be very powerful. So we already know that PRs need to consider the “Twitter” effect. But it’s still new and I am not sure yet we have discovered as an industry how to use it properly or effectively.

MW:What percentage of your PR initiatives is carried out through digital and how much through non-digital means?

LB: The majority of our PR initiatives now contain a strong digital element. We have been busy scaling up our digital work as we recognise what a great opportunity it is to reach millions of consumers and, in particular, for a real two-way dialogue.

Our consumer-focused website Letsgettogether.co.uk enables consumers to ask any question they want about our company or products. And they are jumping at the chance with more than 1,300 different questions asked – and answered – over a whole range of issues.

We’ve also run some of our bought media campaigns online, for instance about our commitments on recycling, which has reached a huge number of people. So we intend to do more – and we will.

LM: This really depends on the project. From a consumer PR point of view in our world, 85% of people who book hotels use the internet, which means we focus a lot of our efforts on digital and online communications.

NH: We’ve removed the lines in our own minds. We communicate through the right channels and that means both environments in every instance.

TT: It really depends on the campaign or initiative. Some of MTV’s shows – often those that are less mainstream or more niche – can suit viral campaigns that can deliver organic growth and interest online, whereas established shows often benefit from traditional communications activity. However, traditional PR can often be strengthened by digital activity to broaden potential audiences and give fans a better experience.

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KM:

Our corporate website is instrumental in carrying through many of our PR initiatives and helps to generate traffic for our brands’ sites. We target news sites for both consumer and corporate stories to increase reach – indeed, some newspaper sites will carry stories that the paper wouldn’t if they are for a younger audience.

We find that new music is better targeted online, so with something like the NME Radar Tour – NME’s touring showcase of new music – there’s a higher percentage of digital PR. And there’s a growing number of influential bloggers. For our fashion and celebrity brands, for example, we know that bloggers’ endorsement of a story and audience reach is as important as a non-digital route to coverage.

MW: What digital innovations have you introduced lately?

LM: We have an IHG YouTube channel, numerous Facebook and Twitter sites and we use online photo sharing sites like Flickr to manage internal photography competitions, which have gone down really well with our colleagues across the world.

We now release our quarterly results via video on YouTube and at the time of our half-year results in August, more than 1,000 people had watched our CEO talk through the results within six minutes of them hitting the market. The impact is huge and it’s an excellent way to get a sentiment and tone across that cannot be achieved by the written word.

LB: We are working very hard to improve our digital presence and the way we communicate with consumers to build on successes like CokeZone. We have some really exciting developments and campaigns in the pipeline. In particular, we are keen to use our involvement in the World Cup in South Africa next year to develop innovative content and initiatives.

We’ve also launched a global social media campaign featuring three young people visiting all the 206 countries where we sell Coke. The aim is to bring our “Open Happiness” campaign to life as the group will be sharing their experiences online throughout their journey. It will also be interactive through the Expedition 206 website, with fans giving suggestions on where they go, what they do and who they visit in each country.

“PR should be represented at board level because reputation and trust are now key to the success of every organisation and brand.” Nick Hindle, McDonald’s

NH: Our most successful PR innovation has been the launch of our Makeupyourownmind website, where we invite questions on all aspects of our business and do our best to answer them. It’s not that new and it’s not that innovative technologically, but it enables us to be transparent in a way that helps us to manage our reputation on a number of levels.

KM: It’s great having brands like Mousebreaker.com that can develop topical games at short notice like Jedward: X-Factor Vote Grabber, Spank the Banker and Ashes 2 Ashes: Zombie Cricket (launched for the Ashes series in the summer and still one of the most popular games on the site). PR campaigns to launch new games are naturally digital and word spreads very quickly through social media – and of course journalists enjoy playing the games too.

MW: Which of your peers do you think has elevated communications to a strategic level – affecting their brand’s bottom line in a positive way?

LM: [IHG’s rival] Travelodge in the UK has done a great job in showing how PR can really bolster marketing activity. It has also used PR effectively to build a high political profile, which adds to its reputation. Director of communications Greg Dawson and the team there do a good job.

KM: Paul Charles of Virgin Atlantic – previously Eurostar – who is about to join Lewis PR and bring his strategic experience to bear in an agency environment. I also admire my Time Warner colleagues Deborah Lincoln at Warner Bros and Claudia Coles at CNN.

NH: The NSPCC. To me, its campaigning is consistently more effective than those it competes against for awareness and fundraising. It’s also created and nurtured one of the most long-lasting campaigns in recent times.

LB: Marks & Spencer is an obvious choice – Plan A set the bar for companies communicating their commitment to sustainability.

The retail sector in general has been quick to wake up to the link between reputation and purchasing. The recession has been tough for many companies but switched-on businesses know that a commitment to sustainability is as relevant as ever.

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