The Bizarre and Uncomfortable Future of Advertising & Public Relations Convergence

Advertising v pr

Ever since it became clear to us all that “social media changes everything,” we’ve seen a not-so-slow-motion convergence of PR, Digital and Advertising.

PR is relationship-centric.  PR cares first and foremost about making everybody happy.  Can we make the mainstream media happy with our clients’ stories?  Can we make consumers or B2B prospects happy with our clients’ content?  “Relationships” are central to the strategy.  Tactical considerations around “what type of content do we create? … how do we distribute and promote it? … how do we store and tag it?” spring from this mindset.

Advertising is creative-centric.  It’s ironic to think about, but Advertising cares even more than PR’s spin doctors about “buzz.”  What is the best creative approach to get people to consider our clients’ products/services?  How can we wow people enough (via creative executions, digital tools and relevant placement) to generate positive Word Of Mouth?  When advertising execs think about “PR” it most often tends to be the type of PR that springs from their creative concepts, e.g., as a byproduct of the ad campaign.

While Social Media has led to convergence of these disciplines, most of us have been around long enough to know that this isn’t the first time such convergence has been attempted.  Past efforts have largely failed because of the dichotomy of mindset described above.  The PR groups spawned from within Ad agencies rarely rose beyond “red-headed stepchild” status; PR firms that essayed to tackle the Advertising game invariably fell before the creative onslaught and superior funding of pure-play creative shops.  As a result, the pendulum shifted in the mid-90′s: clients started to prefer “best of breed” agencies over “integrated” shops.

This time may be different, as Social Media is conveniently “horizontal” and can legitimately be considered the glue between PR and Advertising.  Thus the fierce rush to tout converged capabilities.

But let’s pause for a moment to imagine what this new world could look like… 

124689856If you are an Advertising exec, can you imagine a scenario in which you’d suggest to the client that they do PR/Social — and only PR/Social — for a 6–12 months before considering a creative push?

Think about my recent case study re: using Social Media to drive message development.  In the course of six months of listening, engaging, etc. we learned a whole lot about consumers’ true preferences and issues, and were able to deploy a genuinely differentiated PR strategy.  I imagine a genuinely differentiated advertising strategy could also have been executed with such “relationship-centric” fodder.

But if, on Day One of the program, you’d relied instead on research conducted via expensive focus groups and expansive market analyses, you would just as likely have suggested an out-of-the-gate advertising campaign based on the client’s “superior network, unprecedented contract flexibility, cool phones,” etc., and might have further suggested that the WOW FACTOR of your campaign ideas be bolstered by a supplemental PR push about the campaign.

On the other side of the equation, if you are a PR exec, can you imagine a scenario in which Advertising should take the lead?  For example, let’s consider a well-known brand that has taken a few big hits with regards to its Customer Service.  Say the company’s CEO had made a transformative decision as a result of this bad press, and was diligently installing revolutionary technologies and protocols to become #1 in their industry when it came to Customer Service.  “Relationships” with consumers have been frayed, but you know once enough people know about these changes, they might give the brand a fresh shot.  In this scenario can you see yourself making the case that a splashy, mass-audience ad campaign, backed by PR in social channels, might be the best approach?  (I can see the wisdom of the approach but if I am being honest my first reaction, as a PR guy, is to make a case for wooing consumers via PR/Social before considering an advertising campaign.)

I am not trying to paint with too broad a brush; I do not mean to suggest that no one in advertising respects or considers a relationship-centric approach. Nor do I mean to imply that PR folks don’t like or “get” advertising. (Nor have I even considered the difficulty of convincing “Old School” clients to adopt the agency’s preferred approaches!)

What I am suggesting to those clients and agencies gravitating to the convergence strategy is that Social Media does make such a strategy more possible than ever before … but it also impels (what feels like) a bizarre and uncomfortable mindset on practitioners accustomed to pure-play execution.  Before you start chatting up an integrated approach, it seems to me that you need to prove that the model works within your own four walls.  Can the adherents to each discipline put “alignment” above “ego,” and let the chips fall where they may?

Posted on: September 16, 2011 at 11:25 am By Todd Defren
9 Responses to “The Bizarre and Uncomfortable Future of Advertising & Public Relations Convergence”


  • Gerard Braud says:

    Great post. I feel that in PR and Media relations social media is changing nations. If you work in this industry then this shift affects your communications and how you work with your audience. Like you mentioned, for all the benefits of Social Media, there is a lack of quality and reliability of social media response!

  • Yang says:

    First of all, good post! I quite agree with the idea about “relationship-centric” public relations and “creative-centric” advertising. PR and Advertising have their own different centric considerations, and I think this difference makes the convergence of PR and advertising kind of difficult. Social Media may provide a platform for the convergence strategy, but it also makes a “bizarre and uncomfortable mindset”.

  • roxanne says:

    Great post! Thought the analysis on the integration of these three industries into a cohesive unit was very relevant to today’s market. Agencies should be open minded and willingly to test the waters of other media platforms. Here’s something interesting about social media integration that can be found on our site:


  • sara mcclendon says:

    First of all, great post. As a Public Relations student I feel like this “bizarre and uncomfortable mindset” is present in the academic side of both PR and advertising. It makes me wonder if social media calls for an entirely different tactic all together – one not quite advertising or PR (or a mixture of the two). Or, is it going to redefine those fields completely?

    To me, it will be interesting to see how everything plays out. Will there ever be a point where we can look back and point out how everything began to change?

  • Very nice.

    I like the classic paradigm distinction you’ve made between “creative-centric” advertising and “relationship-centric” Public Relations.

    Modern communication solutions do seem to require a hybrid paradigm, which were initially difficult for agencies to grasp.

    Perhaps the best method of evaluating your next agency is to see if they practice what they preach. How’s their Social PR-Social Advertising working for them? Yes, I’m sure they can provide you with a client case study that looks a lot like a press release. But, that wasn’t the question. How is their hybrid model of communication strategy working FOR THEM?

  • Hi Todd:
    Been following you for years, and can always rely on you to provide light, not heat, to any discussion. Thanks for another genius post. Love that chart at the top, especially.

    I think the inherent difficulty here, of course, is procedural. How do all the players, who all had their very specific roles, find a seat when the music stops?

    There’s also a fundamental branding issue, here. A chicken and egg type discussion. Do you leak out your information socially, and wait for customers to react and define you, or do you boldly go all channels out and make revisions as you go? I think a lot of that can depend on the company and the product in question. And as we’re very much in an experimental era, no one’s got a good fix yet on when to use one technique over another.

    There’s also another open question that has yet to be identified: that of the quality and reliability of social media response. This situation exists in the formal focus group discipline. You find likely suspects on the street, bring them into the room with some free sandwiches and experts looking at them with rapt attention, and you ask them how they would react to a product or advertising campaign in the real world. Except this conference room is not the real world. And a lot of time, people tell you they would do something that they might not, really. And you get bad information.

    One can make the argument that social feedback through social media involves your best and most involved customers, so the feedback is more accurate. But is the sample so minute that you’re not getting a good cross section of the opinions of the bigger, more broad market? Could you be making decisions about your brand prematurely? No one has really been able to pin that down. Therin comes the risk.

    Much to consider as we enter a brave new social age.

  • Judy Shapiro says:

    The discomfort you paint is very real since its underpinning lie in trying to re-engineer older marketing system with newer approaches – kinda like putting wings on a car and expecting it to fly.

    The mashup you describe is very real and some companies (like us) are creating a different paradigm – basically we are creating a system from scratch that integrates all of the options.

    IMHO there is a square hole/ round peg issue plaguing the business of marketing which means people are either trying reshape the peg or the hole or both.

    I agree- let’s stop the madness :)

    Great piece. Thank you!

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