Advertising vs PR -- amazingly, the debate continues
One of my colleagues pointed out a piece in CNN Money.com answering a question about which of the marketing elements -- advertising or PR -- would be more effective for a smaller company during the recession. If you really boiled down all of the answers and the comments to the posting, the answer would be "it depends." But I found a few nuggets that I thought would be good to share.
First of all, the person posing the question received a number of offers for PR help at a very low cost if he chose PR over advertising. I know times are tough, but it almost sounded like "Will do PR for food," which was a bit distressing. Here's his specific comment:
I always thought PR was too expensive for small businesses, but in doing my research I posted my project on AllPublicists and got many low-cost offers from publicists. One firm, for example, doesn’t charge anything unless they deliver results.
Ah, the offer of pay for results -- which I lovingly refer to as contingency PR. It sounds very enticing to prospective clients. At the end of the day, all PR is about delivering results and if you aren't hitting and beating the metrics you have signed up for you should be let go. But telling a company that you will only be paid for specific results turns PR into an ATM machine of sorts which can lead to scatter-shot pitches to untargeted media or "low hanging fruit" just to pile up some hits so you will get paid. Or it can cause the PR person or team to be overly aggressive with the media or bloggers even if a story doesn't have all of the elements it needs to make it newsworthy. Either case could potentially damage that company's reputation with key media and, ultimately, be lower ROI than a focused, well-targeted program where the PR person or agency is paid for strategy as well as execution, with carefully agreed upon metrics.
Two researchers, Don Michaelson of Echo Research and Don Stacks from the University of Miami, have been studying the topic and reported finding little difference between the effectiveness of advertising and PR. They based this on the awareness created by a fake NY Times story and fake advertisement about a fictitious product shown to mall shoppers. In the CNN Money article, Michaelson stated:
"At every single point of measure, when you found out about the very basic level of awareness and intent of purchase, there wasn’t a lot of difference between the two."
There were a few areas of divergence. When it came to communicating depth of information, public relations was more effective. Ditto for the “relationship” between a product and person, and for inspiring thoughts about how it might fit into their lifestyle. But with advertising, the message was much easier to control. With PR, you not only can’t guarantee placement, you have little say in what comes out on the other end.
So the researchers found that the simple answer is “there is no simple answer,” Michaelson says. When you are dealing with choice between PR and advertising, the answer isn’t one or the other, it’s both.
In our own specialty areas, technology and life sciences, we definitely see the PR advantages the researchers cite. For complex messaging and stories, PR is the right tool to use. It also is the right approach for companies that don't have a large, sustainable advertising budget, as PR can be used cumulatively and continuously in a planned way more cost effectively than a sustained ad campaign -- online or in print -- in targeted media and sites.
None of this is particularly new data for this debate. What was interesting, in my view, was citing free sites that small business owners could use to get their own coverage:
Free sites such as PitchRate.com, which Nicholson helped found, and Help A Reporter Out narrow the gulf between you and the media. If you have an area of expertise or compelling personal story behind your business, sign up on those sites and put your shingle out. If it’s relevant to a reporter or producer, they will contact you. And it’s not just free until a story happens– it’s completely free.
If you have savvy communicators internally and a very small budget, you definitely can check out these options to get your story out. It may catch the eye of the reporters you want to talk with. Then again it may not, which is why PR professionals and agencies add tremendous value when a company is at the level to need a sustained push in a competitive market. Reporters are so pressed for time right now -- and are such a scarce commodity -- that they are not necessarily trolling for stories on sites. They are juggling multiple stories about large companies and doing their very best to stay up on the smaller players in the markets they cover. PR people can be a help to them by making sure they are aware of these smaller players and are kept abreast of the news of value to their readers, either by directly contacting them or using social media to get a company's story and news out more broadly.
PR is never free, just as nothing of value really is. Someone in those small companies who are using those free sites has to devote a serious chunk of time planning what information to make available, doing the outreach and following up with reporters or bloggers who may express interest. It's a great option for the really small companies who want to put a toe in the water. Ultimately, though, the company will have to bring some real professionals on board with an actual program, whether they invest internally or they decide to outsource.
The last interesting point for me in the discussion was in the comments section. One of the commenters, listed only as John H. from Albany, NY, noted that PR people can double for advertising people easier than the ad people can drift over to the PR side.
PR reps are trained to be out in front, disseminating the company’s message and being the face of the company and can be especially effective if they have intimate knowledge of the organization that they work for or are hired by. They often bring the additional benefit of some level of graphic arts/design to go along with the crafting of a message which is in line with advertising.
We definitely have been seeing this blurring of the lines, especially around the elements of social media newsrooms and videos/podcasts that we're helping companies add to their sites to communicate with customers as well as the media and analysts. This evolution likely will continue for quite a while -- long enough to prompt another another article on this subject a quarter from now. . .