Getting creative with PR

The basic premise of public relations hasn’t changed for over a century, but what has altered is the relationship it has with marketing. Within New Zealand’s small market, agencies such as FCB, Colenso, DDB, TBWA and Special Group have all embedded PR into their business, aligning their strategic creative objectives with targeted communications for their clients.

Here, Mollie Edwards chats to professionals at agencies that have recently bolstered their media integration, hears from those who’ve been in the PR game for many years and looks at what this change means for the industry.

Public relations & creative storytelling

Gone are the days when advertising agencies were able to force bland creative through overpriced TV spots; with today’s varied media channels, a campaign should leave audiences talking and curious to know more. Achieving this has traditionally been the role of a public relations team, and the guidance of a PR director in a creative agency can help spread that elusive talkability even further. This is also why PR is often linked to creative storytelling. 

CEO of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand (PRINZ) Elaine Koller says facts alone aren’t sufficient when it comes to engaging with people – and that’s where storytelling comes in. “To pique their interest or resonate with them emotionally – whether it’s done through visual, written, oral and or experiential – a campaign needs to capture the attention, engage and be relevant to your specific audience.”

Special PR’s Head of PR & Influence Kelly Grindle adds that to build a pitch that sells, you have to wrap some form of creative storytelling around the idea. “We’re the ones who can make an idea relevant, build a backstory and connect it to ordinary people. It’s what we do – at least in the consumer space.” 

The scope of PR activity is very broad and encompasses specialist areas of focus, including media relations, government relations, community relations, marketing communications, employee communications and so on. Elaine says that although many people specialise, PR needs to be thought of more holistically and integrated across all aspects of a business. “With this ongoing shift, boundaries between disciplines such as internal communications and HR, digital and IT, as well as advertising, marketing and communications, will continue to blur.”

Integrating marketing with comms

Most people have only a vague idea of publicity and its usefulness for a business. The agencies that have figured out the value of having PR as a part of their marketing mix are the ones on top of the most current trends and strategies. 

In a world suffering from information overload, PR can really shine. With too much coming at them, consumers are increasingly looking for trusted third-party sources to get their truth from. PR has the ability to harness the power of these third parties to present a brand favourably. 

DDB Group recognised the benefit of integrated marketing communications more than 20 years ago, when its PR arm Mango was established. “What’s unique is that we made the move so early, which means we now have the leading PR and creative agencies in the market working alongside each other,” says Mango Managing Director Claudia Macdonald. 

A good example of them in action is the DDB Group campaign Sperm Positive, which is helping to change the perspective of those living with HIV. Mango worked closely with the agency and the client to get the message out to the world, and went on to win Gold at The Pressies 2020 for Best Use of Media Relations. The campaign also won a  Golden Lion at the 2021 Cannes Lions Festival for its use of PR. 

Another agency that’s recognised the importance of comms is Special Group, who have recently launched their aforementioned new PR arm, Special PR. Special PR was created to help protect the integrity and success of client work, and is now a one-stop shop guiding clients from brief right through to execution across almost all channels. 

“I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve worked with clients who’ve developed a marketing strategy, a social and digital strategy, a PR strategy and an events and partnership strategy – all completely independently of each other,” says Kelly. “Not only is it more time-consuming and much more expensive with five different agencies billing you, it’s also far less effective.” 

Eleven PR’s Managing Director Angelina Farry says the benefit of marketing and comms teams working together is that it gives a brand one consistent voice and personality. 

“Think of a brand as you would a person – someone you enjoy, have an affinity with, like to hang out with sometimes. It’s always nicer to spend time with people who are calm and consistent, as opposed to those who are a bit all over the place.”

Laura Platts.

What this means for independent agencies

Agencies like DDB, TBWA and PHD might have their integrated PR teams, but exclusive PR agencies such as Goode, Lassoo and Pead still remain. As creative services become more integrated, this begs the question: do independent agencies need to do more? We Are Pead partner Anna Farrer says that as an independent player, Pead is master of its own destiny, and it values the agility that affords. 

“We see time and time again that networked agencies are being forced to swim in their lane, because there are others in their group delivering creative or digital or content. Happily, that’s not a concern for us. At Pead, our focus is integrated work that marries complementary disciplines. Oh, and no one signs off our champagne budget!” 

Anna says the industry has been at a crossroads for some time, and marketing dollars, traditionally managed by advertising agencies, have trickled down and been redirected. “There are PR agencies that will continue to adapt, upskill and innovate, and these are the ones that will continue to flourish.”

For Lassoo, being an independent agency means it’s unconstrained when it comes to adapting to client needs and a rapidly changing business environment. “It’s our very independence and lack of corporate structure that allows us to move at speed and make decisions quickly,” says its Communications Director Louise Paul. “Lassoo is 100 percent New Zealand- owned with a focus on working with New Zealand-based SMEs, yet it offers scale and capability comparable to larger agencies [while still being] nimble enough to move fast and innovate.”

Having spent time at Pead and Special PR, Kelly says he’d argue that the days of the exclusive PR agency are over, at least in New Zealand. “You’re seeing the rise of paid media opportunities, the proliferation of social and digital influencers, live events and media relations all in the mix. Those disciplines need to be wrapped together by a strong creative strategy, and PR-exclusive agencies historically haven’t delivered on that.”

Anna Farrera.

Tighter budgets & creativity

With PR, you can gain credible media coverage across a broad range of news outlets, obtain product placement on TV and get online exposure through influencers that would often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars if you were trying to run an advertising campaign. Claudia says Mango has completed projects on which PR is the only marketing lever being pulled, and the results have been fantastic. 

“Bought media is really expensive, and so is film-making. You get so much more bang for buck with a strategic integrated PR programme, and you ensure that the brand’s reputation remains intact at the same time.”

Regardless of budget, brands should always aim to be more creative with their PR. With a compelling insight and a strong creative idea, you’ll always get far more traction and talkability. PRINZ’s Elaine says there’s long been a perception that PR is something that’s done for free and subsequently budgets set aside for its activity are often tiny.

“People need to understand that if you want to roll out an effective PR campaign, you need to ensure an appropriate budget, including money to research, measure and evaluate the effectiveness of the work that’s undertaken. Good ideas can come in a flash or take hours of grind. You’re  paying someone for their years of experience, problem-solving abilities and creative spark.”

Kelly Grindle.

The future of PR

Looking forward, the PR industry will expand and grow as the pace of news accelerates. News is immediate and the appetite for breaking news has never been greater, given we’re all more plugged into culture than ever before. 

“The demand for public relations is massive right now and brands that stand for something ‘good’ are more than having their moment,” says Director at NSPR Kate Grant. “For several years, the Colmar Brunton Better Futures annual research has shown that the conscious consumer [group] is growing exponentially and PR is the best way for authentic businesses to tell their story and build awareness.”

Simultaneously, the ways in which we communicate will change with time, meaning more and more PR teams are likely to embrace the tools of marketing and advertising agencies. In New Zealand’s small market, it’s probable that more agencies will offer the full gamut of comms, as DDB Group has done for decades, engaging specialists within their teams to implement them. Many other creative agencies are now doing this too – FCB, Colenso, TBWA and Special all have PR embedded in their businesses. 

PR agencies are the natural storytellers of the marketing world – and people are always going to connect with good storytelling. “It’s our job to cut through apathy and communicate with audiences in the way they want to be reached,” says Anna. “It’s this adaptation that’s exciting and keeps it interesting.”  

What to look for in a PR partner

Another agency to introduce a new PR arm is the Ogilvy Network New Zealand, which has recently announced the launch of Ogilvy PR. The new team, based in Auckland, will be led by Laura Platts, working closely with Ogilvy PR in Australia. 

Laura says the team sees a huge opportunity in the market to provide a truly integrated PR offering. “We get to bring the big PR agency way of thinking, but to a more mid-sized Kiwi agency, combined with our own local approach, so clients get the best of both worlds.”

When asked what marketers should look for in a PR company, Laura says traditionally relationships are key. From a consumer PR perspective, though, she believes brands will always be looking at what media and influencer contact an agency has, and what partnerships they can help put in place. 

“From a more corporate point of view, with the rise of social media we’re finding issues management and corporate reputation play an increasingly significant role in any communications strategy. Ultimately, we need PR agencies to have it all, as well as the credibility to demonstrate to clients that we understand the market in which they operate and how their issues might evolve based on a variety of different factors.”

Claudia Macdonald.

Looking to the future of PR, Laura says agencies need to adapt to more nimble ways of working and have a true online-flexible approach to the practice. 

“That’s why I think an integrated offering is so crucial, with more flexibility to expand beyond traditional PR and consider all factors of the wider marketing spectrum. I also think we’ll eventually see more PR support integrated into media agencies. No one really does that yet, but it’s a sitter for PR.”

This article was originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

Mollie Edwards

About Mollie Edwards

Mollie Edwards writes across ICG business titles, NZ Marketing, StopPress and The Register.

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