This past June our global chairman, Paul Taaffe, was a judge at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival. Last year, for the first time there was a category for PR. We were all quite surprised to learn that the award actually went to an advertising firm which put together a brilliant campaign to promote Australian tourism. This year with a panel of PR judges, an ad company took the prize in PR once again. Disappointed with the participation of the PR industry in general and with H&K in particular, Paul called upon the company to do a significantly better job with our creative products, strategic insights, digital execution and deliver tangible results. He also encouraged us to discuss what it means to be creative in a PR firm.

As someone coming from a PA background I have always encouraged my marketing colleagues to focus on the business results of their assignments. Too often, marketing PR focuses on process. Superior execution of events and media coverage are pre-requisites to success. But if these activities don’t drive business results then our efforts are largely marginalized in the marketing mix. I don’t criticize us for our preoccupation on execution. Most of our clients measure us on the volume of ‘clippings’ we create and our success in getting our message out. We focus on performance objectives to which we are measured against.

And now digital is changing the way we measure success. There are all sorts of programs to track the point-of-sale impact of our performance. If content is king, constructing a compelling story with catchy messages on a platform that is visually appealing should be very much within the in-house capabilities of any serious PR company, this should hold for corporate as well as PA. That said, I’m not sure this will be sufficient to compete against an ad company in the marcomm space.

While PR ‘types’ profess they are experts at messaging, I am not convinced this is much of a competitive advantage. Ad companies have creative departments full of copy writers and visual artists whose business model allows them to ‘create’ programming without having to account for each billable hour at the end of the day. In fact if you look up ‘creative’ in the dictionary you will see that the noun is a marketing term referring to writing and visuals that form the content of an ad.

So where is our competitive advantage? The first rule of strategy is to never fight a war on your opponents’ territory. It strikes me that ‘creative’ is the domain of ad companies and at best PR shares the territory of content.

For some inspiration I thought it would be useful to do a little summer reading about the worries of the advertising industry. Terry O’Reilly and Mike Tenant, authors of Age Of Persuasion -a  witty and thoroughly interesting book – note that the thread running through marketing is “the impact of technology – From Morse code to …..…broadcast to the internet. In their haste to seize each advance in technology marketers tend to embrace the short cuts and savings, but overlook the hidden costs; the distance added in-between the brand and its audience……The desire for transactions has displaced the need for relationships”.

Relationships eh? Well that’s something PR does know a lot about! Most marketing experience is based upon mass communications. But we influence by pitching the individual journalist, stakeholder or politician with our client’s message. Usually we pitch to people we know, often through shared work experience, values, politics or interests. We have relationships that are deep and trusted. And in the new age of persuasion one-to-one relationships, whether formed over the net or the old fashioned way, are usually much deeper than those advertisers enjoy with mass audiences.

Our networks are our most precious assets, each one of us has developed these networks over years of working together. If we were to give the entire list of our contacts to an ad agency,  they couldn’t leverage it because they lack the trust to influence the people on the list. PR practitioners and bloggers have to wake up to this. As a lobbyist I have made a good living from providing access to my network to my clients.

There is a lesson here! PR professionals need to start taking relationships more seriously and position them as something of value. We need to think more about how we can effectively and ethically turn this to our advantage.