Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Is It Time to Board the PR Express?

Published in Nov-Dec 2021

PR can play a determining role in helping brands promote trust among their audiences, argues Zohare Ali Shariff.

Babar Bashir, brand manager, known to friends and colleagues as Brando, left his office in deep depression. Things had been stressful for many months already, owing to the never-ending pandemic. And then today, the management decided that the new marketing campaign he and his team had feverishly worked on for weeks, would be put on hold indefinitely owing to budget cuts. It was heartbreaking. What could be done?

Several young marketing executives, like himself, from his own company and others in the neighbourhood, were waiting at the stop ahead for their transport home. Was he imagining things or did most of them seem to be as miserable as he felt? Had they been compromised with budget cuts too, he wondered. Just then, a smart, electric-powered bus glided smoothly past Brando and pulled up at the stop. Emblazoned on the side of the bus were the words ‘The PR Express’, and below the figures, 24/7 – 365.

Hello, what is this, he wondered? Then he heard the sound of someone running in high heels behind him. He half-turned to look and it was Amna Arshad from Personal Care, nick-named Amna Activate, due to her passion for activation. In their company, almost everyone had been given a nickname. It was an old tradition. Brando had a secret soft spot for her, but she hardly ever even looked at him in the office. As she ran past him towards the stop, his eyes followed her. The automatic doors of The PR Express whooshed open, but none of the marketing crowd made a move to hop on the bus; they just stood looking at it curiously. As Brando looked on, Anna Activate reached the bus, took one step into the doorway to get on board, and for no explicable reason, she paused, turned her head to look at Brando, still several steps away from the bus stop, and gave him a beatific smile before boarding the bus. Brando’s heart missed a beat and almost by reflex, he dashed forward to get on the bus. Whatever The PR Express was and wherever it was heading, he was not going to miss this bus, he told himself.

Marketing, as we know, is a dynamic discipline impacting all of us as consumers; keeping us informed of products and services, shaping our preferences, tempting us with subtle (and often not so subtle) messaging and offerings, and even influencing our conscious and subconscious thought processes sufficiently enough to make us advocates for certain brands.

To remain dynamic, marketing techniques and tools have been continuously evolving, leveraging the huge new capability which advanced digital technology offers, both in terms of creative design and production and in terms of the digital platforms available for communicating the messaging.

Advertising remains by far the principal marketing tool and is intrinsic to it. Broadly speaking, advertising can be said to comprise two main components; the message and its presentation. Both elements need to come together seamlessly to arrest the attention of the target audience and persuade them to opt for the product or service advertised. Exponentially evolved technology has opened up practically limitless possibilities for the presentation part, especially considering the audio and visual tools available today, with holograms perhaps at the cutting edge, creating a wow factor beyond imagination. But has the other critical component of advertising, the messaging also changed?

Perhaps there is no empirical way to evaluate this and the answer will remain largely subjective. In the opinion of this writer, while one does come across advertising copy that touches the heart and the mind, a lot of advertising messaging is still pursuing the traditional aspirational narrative path, using celebrities, exotic locations and impossibly happy situations to entice consumers. Then there are the TVCs that are of the hard-sell type, relying more on their high repetition rather than a message that hits home the first time or with only a few repeats.

All very well, especially if you argue that one of the main objectives of advertising is to generate top-of-mind recall. However, we need to accept that the world has changed in so many respects since the pandemic. Every human activity was impacted, and from a marketing point of view, budgets were slashed as companies resorted to all-around cost-cutting, in response to reduced spending by a shell-shocked public. Faced with the daunting task of staying engaged with their target audiences, prudent marketers (like Brando and Amna Activate in our little anecdote earlier), climbed on board The PR Express to explore the vast potential of PR for marketing.

PR as a tool for marketing makes sound sense, particularly in the current circumstances when, on the one hand, budgets have been reduced and on the other, the public needs reassurance and support to counter the uncertainty, despondency and even panic caused by the prolonged pandemic. People don’t know who to trust.

Speaking at a virtual conference organised by Reuters earlier this year on the theme ‘Rethink, Rebuild, Recover – A New Vision for a Better Tomorrow’, Richard Edelman, CEO, Edelman, and a global icon of the advertising and communications industry, said that during these Covid-19 times people have tended to place the highest trust in businesses more than in NGOs, governments and mainstream media. He said that although in a crisis the most authentic information is expected to come from governments and the media, in this Covid-19 crisis both failed, whereas businesses were seen as ethical and competent. These are wise words, worthy of deep thought. Seen another way, this continuing uncertainty (resulting from the pandemic and the general economic slowdown) is an excellent opportunity for brands to build strong trust with all their stakeholders, including their customers. With trust comes brand loyalty.

Thus, while brands reshape their advertising and activation campaigns to make do with reduced budgets, a little spending on PR will go a long way in achieving brand saliency and a stronger foundation for the post-pandemic future.

The key lies in understanding how PR can be used most effectively and this itself depends on understanding the strengths of PR and how, although different from advertising, it can complement it. As a thought-starter, it is to be understood that unlike advertising – a one-way communication by and large, PR aims at two-way communication, allowing audiences to reach out to the brand and the brand to reach out to audiences, thus gleaning invaluable insights into the real needs and wants of audiences, as well as their reservations, apprehensions and opinions. By focusing on building strong relationships with stakeholders, including the media, PR enables independent third parties to speak highly about you – which logically is much more credible.

If marketers believe that at the end of the day, above everything else, consumers need to trust their brands and the companies behind them, then they need to get on The PR Express and focus on building strong credibility and trust. People need reassurance and support not only in this period; they will also need it when things settle down. If anything can be said with certainty, then it is that it will be several long years before the fallout of the pandemic is behind us. 

Zohare Ali Shariff is CEO, Asiatic Public Relations Network.