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What's in a Brand Name? PR and its Role in Brand Storytelling

Post by Tom Kirkham, International Account Director, Kite Hill PR

To claim that today's PRSA Tri-State Conference was content-rich would be an under-statement. We've had a fabulous time being sponges, absorbing as much as we can from a series of genuinely engaging sessions spanning everything from cross-market campaigning to crisis comms and best-practice media pitching.

One session that particularly stood out for us during the afternoon was the panel debate, 'What's in a (brand) name?'

PR has traditionally taken a back seat to other areas of the marketing mix when it comes to brand storytelling, but today's panelists claimed that this is now changing.  Marco Greenberg at Thunder 11 began on this topic. "PR is the tip of the spear when it comes to branding. Yet we have a bit of a chip on our shoulder - an inferiority complex... Who are we to sit at the table with the key branding players?  Yet PR plays a critical role in establishing and affirming the brand," he explained.

"The key is to understand what is the soul of the brand and how you bring it to life from a storytelling perspective," said Joe Cohen at Axis Capital. "20 years ago, PR was not really sat at the table, but now there's a lot more opportunity for communications professionals to drive the brand-building process."

"Who knows the brand more than the PR person?" was the question posed by Lindsay Kaplan at Casper. "No one knows better than us how to tell those brand stories and see if they resonate". PRs can test the stories and report back to the senior stakeholders within the business.

"Creatives are not just in advertising," stated Greenberg. "I would argue that there may be more creative opportunities in PR than advertising right now," jumped into Cohen. "Advertising has very segmented roles these days - in PR there's much more opportunity to be creative, particularly with social media having forced more brands to play aggressively in the branding space."

Host Jeremy Goldman of Firebrand Group jumped in at this point, asking Kaplan how PR has fueled Casper's growth,  "We look at marketing as a closely collaborative spectrum - an idea can come from anywhere," she explained. "What's most important is that the idea works across multiple layers.  PR is one great arrow in a quiver of weapons!"

Goldman then asked a great question: do different industries look at the importance of PR differently from a brand storytelling perspective? Cohen took up the baton, highlighting the growing desire in areas such as corporate finance and B2B to focus on earned media and building a brand - "In the past, for these industries this was just a nice to have. What I've seen in recent years is a lot of uptick in areas outside of traditional consumer sectors."

Kaplan raised an interesting point when using PR to build brands, which was to ensure you're looking beyond the media itself as the mark of campaign success.  She posed the question, "Beyond the media person you're pitching to, does the story actually resonate with anyone?  Are their audiences - i.e. your end customers - sharing it? Also, I've always looked at press meets press. When other journalists see the story that one outlet has covered, how likely are they to cover it themselves?"

Greenberg highlighted the amazing advantage to be gleaned from having a genuine point of view and making this a central part of PR engagement. "When it comes to expressing points of view, unfortunately 90 percent of spokespeople go for vanilla.  You need to find a spokesperson that can really push the envelope."

"If you have a well-defined brand, you have much more freedom to go out on a wider range of stories and issues.  If your brand is less well-defined, the risks are less clear and there's likely to be more caution about what's on/off limits", added Kaplan.

The panel was most divided on the subject of measurement, with disagreement about whether 'impressions' and other forms of quantitative PR metrics had any value. Cohen made perhaps the best point, noting that as a PR, "If you're at the top table, surrounded by CFOs, CMOs and other people who live or die by numbers, and your response is to claim you don't do maths but you can write a nice press release, you're only serving to reaffirm the wider business world's negative perceptions about PRs."  Clearly there is still a way to go for PRs to strike the right balance of "art and science", as Greenberg described it.

Goldman then asked whether PR was less or more important as a brand-building technique given the huge increase in the number of communications channels. Greenberg was absolutely on the money with his response. "I think we're more important than people realize in the branding process, but I think a lot of people see what we do as a commodity business - as smiling and dialing to get media hits. If we're only defined by this particular attribute, then something is off."

"There are misperceptions about the value we bring," concluded Cohen. He explained that today's hyper-charged media landscape makes the role of PR in brand-building more important.  But he noted that, "As far as comparing the value of PR strategists to those in advertising or other disciplines, there's still work to be done.  We're starting to get invited to the table - maximizing the opportunity when we get it is vital."

For us, this sums up the ultimate goal and purpose of Communications Week - to arm comms professionals with the tools they need to deliver the greatest possible impact for their clients at the highest level. Perhaps 'We're more than smile and dial' should be our mantra for the week ahead...