Close-Up: Live issue - How important is PR to a campaign?

Making an ad may not be enough to get it noticed in the fragmented media, Caroline Lovell says.

"It was not a PR stunt," Ian Armstrong, Honda's UK marketing manager, says of the recent live ad on Channel 4 for the Honda Accord. The spot saw 19 skydivers jump out of a plane at 14,000 feet to spell out the letters H, O, N, D, A.

Instead, he stresses, the three-minute live ad idea came from a brief which was preceded by five short, unbranded skydiving films and followed by the main TV ad created by Wieden & Kennedy.

Whatever his motivations for disassociating the live ad from PR, Armstrong's comments add momentum to the notion that PR has often been viewed as the poor cousin to advertising.

It's not hard to see where this class tension started: advertising is paid-for airtime and PR is free. But PR has sporadically been used by ad agencies as a tool to amplify a campaign's message. If you look back at Wonderbra's "hello boys" campaign in the 90s, when breasts moved from the glossy pages of women's weeklies on to Britain's billboards, the press was covered with stories about a rise in car accidents near those sites ... or so the PR machine said.

But now PR appears to be stepping up a few rungs of the ladder in our fragmented media world. Rather than creating publicity storms after the campaign has broken, clients are increasingly looking to integrate PR throughout their campaigns to reach out to a wider, more complex, audience.

It's a strategy VCCP used with its alcohol units campaign for the Department of Health. Over the past year, the news has been littered with stories on Britain's binge-drinking culture. This was the first part of VCCP's campaign: zero advertising and 100 per cent PR.

"We wanted to create a news storm," Amelia Torode, the head of digital strategy at VCCP, says. "Before you start to talk about units, you have to let people know there is a problem without finger-wagging. It's so much more compelling to have the front page of The Sun talking about middle-class binge-drinkers than an ad."

Tragically for the anti-knife crime campaign, created by Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, there was no need to use this type of PR, as the issue was already of national interest. The Government was guaranteed news coverage when it launched the campaign, but Emma Roberts, the head strategic communications advisor at COI, who led the campaign, was more concerned with using PR to enhance the message it delivered to young people by getting them involved from the start.

As Torode says: "If old-school PR is about getting journalists to write about the campaign, then new-school PR is about getting the bloggers to push it."

Another major reason for the growth in PR is that agencies are realising that ads themselves are now a spectacle and can create good PR, if done properly, and can amplify communications messages.

Mark Roalfe, the RKCR chairman, says: "PR is a way that we all look to, to make our campaigns less pure advertising. We all set out to create ads that will impact on the nation somehow or other. But advertising is now a news event the public is more interested in.

Despite the Honda ad apparently not being a PR stunt, the PR driven around it certainly helped to get the ad seen. Even The New York Times got on the phone. "That reflects the power of the internet, propagation and PR," Armstrong says.

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PLANNER - Laurence Green, chairman, Fallon

"I think PR is increasingly important. In the old world, when media plans were concrete and your exposure was largely dependent on your budget, PR was a useful additional tool to amplify advertising. But in the new world, it's much looser and free-formed in terms of the media we consume and what an ad is.

"If you're a good client or smart agency, you'll do everything you can to invade the free media, rather than rely on what your media budget affords you."

"Also, wearing a PR hat, even if you're not a PR agency, is important. Sometimes, more people know that Kerry Katona is the face of Iceland than know her commercials."

CREATIVE - Mark Roalfe, chairman, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"Newspaper coverage is a way to enlarge a budget when you are looking for a larger share of voice in a more complicated market. The split-up of media has meant that PR has become quite important.

"If everybody tried to get their advertising in the newspapers by making it a news event, it's never going to work as the press will stop covering it. It has to be sporadic."

CLIENT - Ian Armstrong, marketing manager, Honda UK

"It would seem odd not to use PR. If you have an idea that is worthy of investment, the best thing is to put it where people can hear your message.

"It is increasingly important in a congested world to learn through word of mouth; we recognise that PR has a massive role to play in that.

"Marketers are often seen as people who do sexy stuff, but we are a commercially rooted function and face the same pressures for best value for money. PR is always in our mind to ensure the campaign is more integrated."

PR EXECUTIVE - Penny Furniss, creative director, Sputnik Communications

"PR is the last uncharted continent for the advertising industry. 'Public relations' is such a dismal misnomer that it has practically disabled the whole category. It's like calling advertising 'consumer relations'.

"Advertising and PR are both incredibly effective if they are done well and both formed out of the same three rigours: strategy generation, idea generation and implementation.

"Good PR is about currency and momentum. If it is good, you don't realise it is there, other than having a sense of purpose and direction. But if it isn't, you notice it.

"Good advertising and PR can throw up ideas and make them unstoppable."