Time to take a fresh look at PR

How has PR been used in the IPA Effectiveness Awards?

What lessons can the 2020 IPA Effectiveness Awards teach us about the future of advertising? In our next chapter from Advertising Works 25 – The Definitive Guide to Effective Advertising, Helen Weavers explores different uses of PR in the IPA Effectiveness Awards.

It appears that there has never been a focus on PR in the observations made by judges in the new learning chapters of the Advertising Works books.

This is surprising. Since 2002, the IPA Effectiveness Awards have actively encouraged entries about communications in all channels, not just advertising, with the intention of demonstrating the commercial impact of communication ideas per se, regardless of where they appeared.

Moreover, we have been aware since the 2013 IPA publication, The Long and the Short of It, that campaigns designed to create brand fame are extremely effective, and many IPA winners have ably demonstrated that. Agencies now use 'fame' principles such as 'how do we get the idea talked about?' or 'how do we get the brand into culture?' as part of their planning process ... so we might expect PR to feature prominently in effectiveness award entries.

However, that has proven not to be the case. IPA papers have been rarely purely, or even mostly, driven by PR. Of the 1500+ entries since 1980 in the IPA’s EASE database, only 28 are listed as having PR as a lead channel (less than 0.02%). Only three of these won Gold awards, and all of those were for non-commercial campaigns (Stoptober, 2016; Art Fund, 2016; Organ Donation, 2007) where limited funding precluded the use of advertising.

With its typically small budgets, it’s not easy for PR-led activity to be extensive or long-lasting enough to generate the behaviour changes and payback that the IPA Effectiveness Awards require. Nor is it easy to isolate the specific impact of PR; in the cases that mention PR as a support channel or show earned media coverage as a communication outcome, the effect of PR is rarely, if ever, quantified.

Another challenge is the difficulty of even defining PR. Is it a channel, a marketing discipline, any earned media, work originated by PR agencies…? PR has evolved considerably over the years. It’s no longer simply ‘press relations’ that aim to indirectly influence consumers and stakeholders via achieving favourable newspaper coverage.

It’s now a much broader range of activity that can also go direct to consumers and often involves the creation of impactful communication ideas in their own right. PR agencies are often now a key part of multi-agency working, involved early on in strategic planning as well as a vital component in the execution and dissemination of ideas.

Have we perhaps failed to keep up with this evolution in the Awards cases and related insights that the IPA publishes, or even in the way we judge the Awards? PR can trigger heated debate in the judging sessions: accusations that ‘it was just a stunt’, ‘it’s only buzz’, or that successful instances are accidental and opportunistic rather than strategic or planned (hence hard to replicate or scale). There is no doubt that the effectiveness of PR is hard to evaluate and demonstrate, but does the marketing community suffer from a lingering subconscious prejudice about PR?

Therefore, it was very interesting to see among this year’s winners four cases that featured PR prominently, only one of which was for a charitable cause: from KFC Australia, CALM, the FCA (for PPI claims) and Heinz [Seriously] Good Mayonnaise. These cases deployed PR in quite different ways, illustrating the range of ‘use cases’ and approaches now possible.

My personal favourite was the KFC Australia ‘Michelin Impossible’ campaign: striking for being powered almost exclusively by PR and earned media, making its impact relatively easy to isolate and quantify. It was also notable for using PR to tackle a tricky perception challenge for a long-established brand (not to create buzz for something new or to shock on behalf of a charity).

KFC has been operating in Australia for over 50 years, but faces stiff competition from the much larger McDonald’s and from newer fast-food brands perceived to offer better quality food. It suffers from the nickname ‘the dirty bird’ and various communication approaches in previous years had failed to convince sceptical Aussies that KFC food was good quality. The brand needed to find another way; a PR-led, ‘aim for fame’ strategy proved to be a very effective answer.

The agency observed that no Michelin star had ever been awarded to an Australian restaurant but that, given the criteria were that a restaurant be considered ‘very good in its category’ and ‘worth a special journey’, KFC could theoretically qualify – especially the KFC restaurant in Alice Springs, one of the most isolated places in the Australian outback. The owner of that restaurant, Sam, was enlisted to champion the mission and travel to Paris to meet with the director of Michelin. A carefully orchestrated local and national PR campaign ensued.

The media loved the story, enabling it to achieve a staggering 564 pieces of coverage, delivering 29 impressions for every person in Australia. The public also loved the idea and talked about it, with KFC achieving a category-record YouGov Brand Buzz score. Food quality perceptions improved while transactions and revenue grew significantly, paying back the modest investment many times over.

This case, and the others mentioned above, illustrated some useful principles for how PR can be a very effective choice: when there may be resistance to the message if communicated in paid channels such as advertising; when you can create or support an unfolding story that repeatedly draws people and the media in; and when the coverage earned can't help but convey the desired message, because it is 'baked in' to the idea.

This is an abridged version of Helen Weavers’ chapter from Advertising Works 25 – The Definitive Guide to Effective Advertising.

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Last updated 21 April 2021