Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in May-Jun 2016

Three steps to PR magic

For PR to achieve its potential, brands and companies need to stop seeing it as a cheaper alternative to advertising.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

Having spent almost two decades abroad, I returned to Pakistan six years ago and set up Latitude as a full service communications and PR consultancy. Soon after, I wrote an article for Aurora on Pakistan’s PR industry. At the time, I noted that the rapidly developing media landscape had resulted in an increased appreciation on the part of brands and corporates of the importance and influence of the media. Simultaneously, brand and marketing managers began to understand the ability of PR practitioners to tap into this influence. As a result, I surmised, Pakistan was witnessing the rise of its PR industry.

Yet today, despite greater interest from brands and corporates, matters remain much the same. True, the industry has witnessed some growth – mostly in terms of more new agencies cropping up – as well as increased client and brand interaction. Nonetheless, PR continues to be the poor cousin to advertising, often given the dregs of marketing budgets.

Although it is hard to find quantifiable figures regarding the size of the PR industry in Pakistan (a report submitted by the Pakistan Chapter of the International Public Relations Association in 2010 estimated this to be in the region of $40 million – a figure I take with more than a pinch of scepticism), most industry insiders agree that PR probably takes up between five and 10% of the domestic marketing industry. This begs the question: why, despite an increased interest in PR as a marketing practice, is growth still sluggish?

I believe that in order for the PR industry to realise its potential, there are three areas that need to be developed.

1) Clients
When it comes to clients and brands, the challenge is to demonstrate how PR and strategic communications hold their own unique place within the marketing mix. Unfortunately, for most brands in Pakistan understanding of the various tools available to PR professionals is woefully lacking. The majority of corporates rely on press releases, interviews or profiles, with little or no focus on generating thought leadership or taking viewpoints or positions on industry issues. Fashion and lifestyle PR – which has largely propelled the growing visibility of the PR industry here – continue to rely on reviews or profiling, and although the digital space has grown exponentially, both corporate and lifestyle brands focus their attention on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. One of the issues is that many agencies continue to rely on ‘bread and butter’ PR tools without pushing the boundaries or thinking of new ways of engaging audiences.

As I wrote in 2010, there are myriad ‘agencies’ which claim to offer a ‘wide range of PR services’ – but in reality they are events-led publicity initiatives (in other words, coverage in the social pages of weekend magazines or other social publications like Hello! Pakistan, GT or OK!). The reason for the continuing popularity of such media-driven PR is largely a lack of understanding on what PR is, how it works, and what it can and cannot do. Most companies equate PR with getting into the media and not thinking beyond media outreach. This reliance on media relations as the pinnacle of PR may be one reason why such events-led PR initiatives continue to dominate the field.

For PR to achieve its potential, it is essential that brands and companies stop seeing it as a cheaper alternative to advertising. In fact, many brands have their PR agencies draft press releases of ‘special offers’ and other commercial activities that, in all fairness, are better suited as advertisements – however, to circumvent media spend, companies send out press releases instead. To give an idea of what I am talking about, we once sent out 28 press releases in a month on behalf of one of our clients – of these, five consisted of actual news whereas the rest were complete fluff.

It is not only clients who are responsible for the lack of creativity coming out of PR agencies. Nor is this a problem endemic to Pakistan. According to The Holmes Report’s Creativity in PR research in 2015, content and integrated ideas have emerged as two of the key areas where PR needs to step up its game. Interestingly, creativity also remains a key requirement for clients in Pakistan, with most brands seeking ‘big’ (or as one client put it to me, ‘nuclear’) ideas.

According to The Holmes Report, as many as 73% of clients approach their agencies for big ideas, yet delivery continues to lag with only 14% of clients consistently happy with PR agency creativity. Nonetheless, clients are beginning to recognise that creativity does not lie solely with their advertising or design agencies. In fact, 30% of respondents felt that PR creativity was better than that provided by advertising agencies.

2) HR and training
Both remain disconnected from driving creative practices. I believe that the lack of – or limited – creativity coming out of PR agencies stems from a systemic lack of trained talent and professionals. At Latitude, we made it a point to drive our initial recruitment from outside PR and marketing circles. While the subjects of PR and marketing have become increasingly popular at leading universities, such as Beaconhouse National University and Kinnaird College or even Punjab University, the majority of students (both at undergraduate and post-graduate level) enter the workplace with little or no understanding of how the industry works from a practical perspective.

Most new entrants have no clue of the importance of time tracking (the mainstay of PR billing practices), or of something as simple as writing a contact report following a meeting. When it comes to communicating – whether with journalists or clients – there remain many slips twixt the cup and the lip. A pet peeve of many journalists is PR professionals pitching ideas that fall nowhere near the journalist in question’s beat (to this day, I continue to receive press releases for events and products – although I stopped being a journalist over a decade ago!).

3) Industry integration
Unlike the advertising industry, the PR industry has no governing or representative body. Yes, the Council for Public Relations (CPR) Pakistan does exist – yet interaction with the Council remains negligible. The lack of a governing industry body also means that there no checks on practices (indeed, anyone can call themselves a PR practitioner) and it is only when the results fail to impress that the client realises they have hired the wrong kind of professional. As a result, the industry as a whole suffers. There is a strong need for a governing industry body that promotes and enforces best industry practices – and herein lies the greatest challenge. For most of the large players there is no need to ‘rock the boat’. Seasoned practitioners currently fail to see the value in sharing best practices or knowledge with new entrants.

So where do we go from here? Simple – it is a three-step roadmap to success. Step one: educate clients on how PR can help benefit their brands and businesses in concrete strategic ways, rather than coverage just for the sake of it. Step two: educate staff and new entrants. This means greater interaction between established agencies and PR programmes at leading universities and colleges. Invite guest speakers to talk about the day-to-day practicalities of PR; why it is as important to know how to talk to someone as it is to know who you are talking to, and why you are talking to them. Step three: establish industry rules and guidelines, do’s and don’ts, and a body of professionals tasked with enforcing and educating. Put these together, and 1, 2, 3 – we are talking PR magic.

Omar Jamil is CEO, Latitude CRS, a Grayling affiliate.