Published in May-Jun 2022
In the later part of the 19th century, while experimenting with cold cream and strawberries, Aamna creates a new kind of dessert and decides to sell it. She rents a small shop and puts up a sign that says, ‘Iced Cream’. Standing outside her shop, she rings a large bell, proclaiming: “It’ll cool you off after one bite!” She ends up getting one to two customers in a day who are curious to try the new product. Since only people who are passing by the shop are aware of its existence, Aamna visits nearby areas with her iced cream and offers samples of it for free – she tells people it is suitable for children too and asks them to bring their family to her shop if they like it. As positive word spreads, Aamna acquires more customers. When Aamna breaks even six months later, she decides that for every five rupees she makes, she will donate one rupee to the school down the road. One day, two of her customers fall ill after eating the iced cream. Aamna immediately closes her shop and checks all the ingredients and equipment. She realises that if the iced cream is kept longer than three weeks after the day she makes it, it will go bad. To ensure this does not happen again, she starts to keep a record of the dates and asks the local newsletter to publish an apology on her behalf to the town. Fast forward and Aamna has successfully created brand awareness (most people now know what ‘Iced Cream’ is) for her product and established her image as a child-friendly and responsible business owner.
While our fictional Aamna instinctively developed her very own public relations strategy, many Pakistani companies are still unaware of its benefits, and even those that are, do not allocate a significantly sufficient portion of their marketing spend to it. In fact, according to Raheel Pasha, CEO, Woot, the overall PR budget of most companies amounts to three to eight percent of their total marketing budget… and it should be much higher.
Why is this so? Is it because most companies assume PR is only necessary in times of crisis? Or is it because they are unable to differentiate PR as a separate function from marketing? What do the heads of PR agencies and corporate communications specialists think about this?
How Is PR Different From Marketing?
While marketing is paid and focuses on driving sales by promoting products, services and ideas, PR is earned (unpaid) and helps maintain a positive reputation for a company and their brands among their consumers, the media and their employees.
Take the Pakistan Super League (PSL). They use marketing to inform people about where and when their matches will be played, as well as to get them to buy tickets for their matches and buy their merchandise. With every PSL season, there is a new ‘PSL anthem’ – which, says Samra Muslim, Chief Nut, Walnut Communications, is “from a lifestyle and brand equity perspective, their biggest communication asset (read: PR strategy) as well as their biggest point of critique.” Muslim is referring to the fact that every time a new anthem is released, social media in particular does not miss out on the opportunity of commenting – sometimes negatively. Yet, despite the negativity, the way the response is handled leaves the brand’s reputation untarnished. Muslim elaborates on an incident which took place last year: “When Groove Mera was released, we had to tackle negative audience responses, especially regarding Naseebo Lal, who did not enjoy the best of reputations. So we engaged with influencers as well as regular people via social media and print to counter the negative comments about her background. Today, in the light of how far Naseebo Lal’s career has progressed, the high numbers Groove Mera has hit on social media and the number of TikTok videos created using the anthem… well, it clearly worked out.”
To take an international example, in 2018, some teenagers began to record themselves eating Tide Pods and uploaded the videos on social media, calling it the ‘Tide Pod Challenge’. The videos went viral and audiences began to react negatively to what they were seeing and blamed the brand for encouraging a dangerous practice. Tide immediately issued health warnings about the risks of eating Tide Pods, and released a digital video with NFL player Rob Gronkowski cautioning people against using Tide Pods for anything other than for their laundry. They also invested heavily in Super Bowl ads that year. In this way, they were able to successfully counter the negative impact and maintain their sales.
Looking at the PR function in broader terms, Aisha Sarwari, Director, Public Affairs, Communications and Sustainability, Eurasia and the Middle East, Coca-Cola, says, “Marketing departments are all about creativity and ‘pushing the envelope’ and PR acts as a safety mechanism to ensure that while pushing the envelope, we remain relatable to our customers as well as other stakeholders and do not alienate them.”
Her point is best illustrated by what happened to Nike’s ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign, which raised a whirlwind of emotions among consumers when they used Colin Kaepernick in the campaign. Kaepernick, of course, had made his mark by becoming the first person to ‘bend the knee’ against racial injustice. His appearance in the ad led some people to burn Nike products and boycott the brand, while others championed Nike’s partnership with Kaepernick. Nike’s PR team were prepared for the backlash, and despite the negativity, they maintained their stance and did not back down. The result was a 1,300% increase in Twitter mentions and a 31% increase in online sales (source: Business 2 Community).
PR also has a major role in terms of reputation management – something which marketing is not equipped to do. In fact, in today’s woke world, reputation management is critical to a brand’s health. According to a Forbes article, “Businesses that are able to prove they are sincerely trying to make the world a better place will be the ones that win over those who haven’t yet made up their minds and eventually rise above the rest.” An example by Forbes is from 2017, when Netflix fired Kevin Spacey from the blockbuster House of Cards series following allegations of sexual misconduct. The decision cost Netflix millions of dollars; yet, the company believed the cost was worthwhile in order to maintain their reputation.
Should Companies Use Traditional or Digital PR?
PR today falls into two categories: traditional and digital. According to Raheel Nabi, Director and Chief Disruption Officer, Xenith PR, traditional PR is what happens offline (press releases in newspapers, magazine articles, TV, radio interviews and events) and digital PR is online (social media forums, blog posts or articles on websites and influencers). Digital PR, of course, has been the great disruptor, especially as a consequence of the pandemic, although the shift was beginning to manifest itself before.
In this regard, Hussain Ali Talib, Head of External Affairs, Unilever Pakistan, says that “Print used to have more publication/organic PR space. Now, however, getting press releases and editorial pieces published in most newspapers has become challenging due to space restrictions. So, PR has turned to digital journalists and influencers because they have more freedom with content creation and are not restricted by the editorial and space requirements of traditional publications. Unlike traditional media, with digital media, consumers too have a semblance of control on the narrative they want to follow.” This is where digital influencers come in – the most used form of digital PR. Digital influencers are followed en masse by today’s generation in order to keep up with the latest happenings – a new eatery in town, a healthy diet to live by, the best phones to use and what is fashionable and what is not. However, the dilemma with digital influencers is that most are paid for their product promotions and it is therefore difficult for their followers to know whether the endorsements really come from the heart. That being said, the point is that if influencers like a brand enough to mention it organically (without seeming like they have been paid), there is no better way to create brand awareness.
Muslim says that in order to create awareness for EBM’s Cake Up, the company sent the product to over 1,000 influencers with a note asking them to try the product and talk about it on their social media feed if they liked it. “It was really basic, but it put the product in the limelight. When the product formally launched a couple of months later, consumers were well-aware of it.”
Nabi gives an example of how Xenith used digital PR to gain 10,000 new users for a telehealth app: “Digital influencers such as Danish Ali and Zhalay Sarhadi spoke about the app without being creatively limited on their Instagram pages. Articles explaining the app’s services were written for high-visit channels such as Dawn.com. We also created awareness about the company’s founders and their business model to establish legitimacy and credibility.”
The added advantage of digital PR is that, unlike traditional PR, it can be measured. “Digital PR is one of the most effective and efficient ways to garner reach, visibility, longevity, flexibility, accuracy and predictability. However, we still need traditional PR when it comes to policy-focused advocacy,” says Andleeb Uroos Ahmed, Head of Communications, Philip Morris International.
So, clearly, despite the hype surrounding digital PR, traditional PR still has its place. The choice boils down to figuring out what will work for a brand within a particular set of objectives – or as Nabi puts it: “Is it to talk about the company at large, employer branding within a company, their future vision or a product launch?” Coca-Cola’s Sarwari, seconds this opinion. “You cannot have one without the other. A mix of both is important, especially in a country like Pakistan, where we still give importance to showing up to weddings, birthdays and funerals; in other words, showing face – the human connection cannot be underestimated. Moreover, we are a low-trust society and tend to focus on people and companies we consider trustworthy – companies that take a stance on important social issues. At Coke, we balance both forms and try to ensure there is a human component (Coke Studio).”
Another good example here would be Dettol Pakistan’s ‘Hoga Saaf Pakistan’. The brand’s ‘Safai anthem’ garnered over 11 million views across digital platforms while their on-ground initiatives (the Dettol School Programme and the Dettol Antenatal Programme) reached over two million school-going children and 140,000 mothers. Both traditional and digital PR were used to amplify the campaign’s reach to different audiences.
Why, then, aren’t more companies using PR? To date, for many companies, PR is still “Aap kis ko jaantay hain,” says Talib. In his opinion, organisations that believe PR is only for crisis management are the ones which have not had the chance to use the PR function effectively. “Communication is an asset that needs to be invested in during the good times so that it can be effective when times are tough. If you have not invested in your narrative or perception during the good times, buray waqt mein maujiza hee kaam aaey ga.”
After her initial crisis, Aamna continued to maintain her iced cream’s reputation even during the good times. She established herself as a caring business owner in the town and gained a loyal customer base who trusted her.
Perhaps more Pakistani companies should consider taking a leaf out of her book? But first of all, perhaps PR companies need to do a better job promoting themselves. Maybe they need PR?