Blurred Lines: 4 Insights on the Evolution of PR & Advertising

My first “real” job was at an advertising agency. It was a crash course in big personalities and the value of insight-driven campaign planning. We were small enough of a shop that I got to regularly work closely with the creative teams on campaign development. My degree also happens to be in advertising and promotion, so when I was recently asked to speak on an AdWeek panel discussing “The Fine Line between PR, Marketing, and Advertising,” I was excited to share my views.

Joining me on the panel were three other D.C.-based executives from big PR agencies, so I expected our opinions to be pretty aligned; they were not. What we ended up with was a lively discussion that reflected how truly undecided people are on this subject. While the variances in our opinions hopefully kept the audience engaged, it also solidified my thoughts on this “line” between PR and advertising and how our industry is rapidly changing in four major ways…

1. The Idea Wins: There really is no fine line between advertising and PR when it comes to disciplines such as content marketing. With tactics like short and sharable videos commonplace, advertising and PR agencies alike are crossing-over into other disciplinary lanes and will continue to do so as the marketing mix evolves and traditional advertising channels lose their relevance. With that in mind, it remains clearer than ever that the best ways to accomplish clients’ goals are with great ideas that tie-back to the product in an organic way.

2. Insights Rule: Directly tied to the above, great ideas rarely come as epiphanies from the ether. A great idea is usually based on an insight – whether it’s a target audience insight, or one that identifies a meme relevant to a client’s product or service. This is true in both advertising and PR and a core reason why our planning processes tend to be similar. In the end, we’re usually looking to accomplish the same goals – changing awareness, perceptions and behaviors.

3. Risk in the New World: Native advertising is the 2014 equivalent of broadcast or print advertising. In most cases, you get to say exactly what you want and shape your image in a way that just won’t happen through earned PR. You write the words, you choose the pictures, it’s a dream. When that dream can turn ugly is when it becomes misleading, because consumers can’t tell the difference – something 50 percent of the population is prone to do – as John Oliver pointed out on his HBO show in August. In this new world where we are executing new forms of content on new channels, we must all take the high road and go for transparency, along with easy, obvious disclosure or you put yourself at risk.

4. Campaign Conductors: This new PESO-driven world we live in is also changing the specialist model. Hyper-specialization requires hundreds of hours of focus and dedication, and we need these experts to achieve excellence in our campaigns. Simultaneously, we also need “conductors” to run our efforts – someone who knows enough about social, digital, earned media, crisis and creative to successfully integrate it all and make sure it is laddering up. These people are the key to helping clients achieve their goals through multiple content channels. Without them, our campaigns are shouting from one corner instead of in surround sound.

We will still keep asking these questions as we collectively evolve and explore the nuances of the brand marketing landscape: Whose wheelhouse is native advertising in? Can a big advertising or PR firm really excel in social as well? Is it appropriate to offer ideas outside of the box when you’ve been hired to own earned media? In addition to achieving excellence in “traditional PR,” we must continue to embrace on-going changes in the definition of our jobs – as this may be just the beginning of the evolution.

Samantha Stark is an award-winning senior public relations professional in Ketchum’s Technology team based on Washington, D.C. With over 20 years of experience at top marketing and public relations agencies, she specializes in the planning and execution of integrated communications programs focused on building and protecting reputations. You can follow her on Twitter @sammystark.