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PR v. Advertising: Negative Campaigns and Social Media

August 10, 2009

It’s Monday, and as always, I read the paper. Search my Google Reader for interesting stories. I came across this piece in the Miami Herald about PR and advertising at a crossroads. Something stuck out at me though:

“Despite the potential for backlash, Steinhour says he’s seen a steadily growing body of brands adopt tactics that risk negative publicity with some to rack up views in a target demographic.”frustrated-business-owner

Does anyone else think this is a bad idea? Seems to me that advertising and PR should be working together with a more integrated marketing approach. We, as PR professionals, need to understand both marketing and advertising. I think we are on the road to a more blended approach, especially as new advertising tactics come into play.

The article also discussed how the two are engaged in a weird tug of war with social media. Why? Social media is about engagement. The people that just advertise their brand don’t succeed. Don’t you think this is why it’s even more imperative for marketing and PR professionals to understand social media?

To me, the above approach only makes our job harder. What happens if it backfires? Should this be the norm? How can we work together to make an integrated approach to communications and social media?


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23 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2009 8:35 am

    I’m trying to think of an example that has been successful where a brand risked negative exposure just to get pageviews and I’m having a hard time coming up with one… maybe Skittles? But I think that was more of a case of them trying something new and out there versus actively trying to engender negative press for the sake of publicity. Maybe a celebutante is a better example?

    Regardless, I think that type of tactic might product short-term gain and buzz but not much in terms of long-term results or financial impact. You may get a lot of people in a short amuont of time to visit your site just too see what the fuss is about, but eyeballs don’t always translate to dollars. You need to have a plan to capture that audience that you create and foster them so they move from being audience members to customers.

    I agree with you that a blended approach is key, and so far the organizations that have taken that approach with social media seemed to have been the most successful. And it goes beyond advertising and PR – customer service, marketing, product development, etc. need to be involved, too.

  2. August 10, 2009 8:40 am

    I didn’t read the original article, but the sense I get from that quote isn’t that advertising people don’t understand PR, but that they are willing to upset some folks to produce something they believe will be engaging for others.

    For example, AXE body spray makes online video content all the time that would be over-the-top risque and obnoxious to some – maybe many – but that its target demographic – teenage boys and young men – can’t get enough of seeing. They are willing to risk upsetting some to drive engagement and views of the people who matter most to them in terms of sales.

    In creating potentially controversial content, hopefully they inform their PR team and give them first look at it so they can prepare proactively if any backlash happens. Depending on your brand, who it’s targeting and your level of risk aversion, it may or may not make sense to go down this road.

    There’s definitely a bit of tug-of-war between advertising and PR folks in terms of social media strategy and execution. I think both sides bring different pros to the table, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.

    PR people are good creating a compelling story, community management, social network participation and interaction, crisis management, etc.

    Advertising people are good at storytelling, as well, plus interactive people have a lot of the technology knowledge needed to actually understand and create the back-end infrastructure needed for some initiatives.

    So, I think it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

    Sorry for the novella. :)

  3. August 10, 2009 8:48 am

    Lauren – Interesting read, and thanks for sharing the article. The quote you’ve pulled out says one thing to me – advertising and PR, despite the good intentions of many savvy pros on both sides of the aisle, are still siloed. That’s why you’ll see one side risk alienating stakeholders of another…if it isn’t happening in marketing/adverting than it just isn’t happening. I know many savvy marketers who will tell you that PR is subservient to the marketing beast. That the marketing beast is what we really mean when we talk about communications. Trust me, they are out there with more people pledging allegiance to that POV everyday.

  4. August 10, 2009 9:01 am

    Reading into the Herald’s post, and more specifically Burger King’s campaigns that garnered some wary eyes, I’m honestly not surprised that companies are looking at off-beat strategies such as these. I think it stems from two aspects:

    1 – Companies are wary themselves of this medium and aren’t always entirely sure what it equates to for their business and how they can properly integrate it, without having to go the way of controversy (Opportunity for us).

    2 – Controversy sells. Whether it’s on our blogs or TV ads. It’s what gets people talking, even if some of it may be negative. Brands have always understood this and though they may not be doing it the way people expect it to be done within the social media space, they’re experimenting and whether we like it or not, are seeing some sort of results.

    Could it be done better? Most certainly. It may seem like it’s making our job harder but it’s (I hope, at least) creating more opportunities for us and allowing us to create something more integrated and sustaining vs. that short-term buzz (as Amy stated).

  5. August 10, 2009 9:04 am

    Amy – thanks for the point about financial impact. That’s language that advertisers can understand. How can we as PR professionals educate ourselves more on it? I think that might be the compromise point when coming to the table to discuss strategy.

    D Mullen – I agree that it’s all dependent on what you’re trying to accomplish. Do you think some negative campaigns will be successful if positioned correctly? Risky, sure. But something like AXE might benefit from it.

  6. August 10, 2009 9:06 am

    Chuck – I think you’re right. Traditional silos will always exist – it’s the foundation of being in this industry. But how can we overcome that and move forward? Use it as a foundation, but be open to new things and better understand the advertising field?

    Sonny – Interesting, because you’re right – Controversy does sell. It’s what gets people talking. If they accomplish it short term, do you think they can still carry it out to the long term?

  7. Keith Trivitt permalink
    August 10, 2009 9:19 am

    Here’s the thing with negative publicity (when done intentionally) – and it’s big brother, controversy: they are both quick-hit ways to get attention, but they also fizzle out very, very quickly. From my standpoint, I would much rather a company or client be provocative – that is, garner good attention from peers, customers, fans and the general public by helping people to think about new ideas and concepts they had not considered before. In doing so, a brand creates LASTING buzz, public awareness, brand identity and loyalty. That, to me, is the true impact of what powerful, provocative statement can do for a brand or a client.

    But to be negative or to be overly controversial in an intentional manner is just bad business, in my opinion. If you’re working to serve others or deliver a great product to your customers, why would you want to potentially alienate (and intentionally) a large swath of them just to achieve a little bit of short-term buzz that will quickly fade away? In the long-run, controversy leads to very little long-term brand recognition and loyalty; instead, it just leads to a short burst of buzz, and then fading again back into another cycle of trying to come up with the next shady PR/advertising scheme.

    Keith Trivitt (@KeithTrivitt)

    • August 11, 2009 11:16 am

      Keith – right on. Lasting buzz is what should be important – but one of my favorite sayings is:

      “Patience is a virtue I can’t wait to have.”

      Seems appropriate, no? :)

  8. August 10, 2009 9:22 am

    I think of my Integrated Marketing Communications class in grad school when I read this. The book and professor harped on the fact that an organization cannot operate with each department in their own “silo.” There must be cross-communication between the ad, marketing and PR departments – especially since they should all be working toward similar goals. Yes, there are differences between departmental goals, but organizational goals are the same for all, leaving plenty of room for sharing ideas.

    The risky tactics, in my opinion, come from a proliferation of information available to consumers now. So, how to stand out from the rest? Well, employing strategies that create buzz – even negative buzz – is going to have people talking. In my opinion, it isn’t worth ruining a brand’s image for a little bit of talk – it could have extremely negative backlash and you will end up back at the fundamentals of PR – open, transparent communication to build strong relationships – when cleaning up the mess your misadventure made.

    Taking risks isn’t a bad idea, but risking your company’s image is.

    • August 11, 2009 11:17 am

      Erica – Exactly. Why risk your company’s image for 15 seconds of fame? You are right in that we need to differentiate between the two.

  9. ColbyWG permalink
    August 10, 2009 9:35 am

    The third paragraph of your post, Lauren, hits on an issue I am dealing with right now. Heading in to my junior year of school, I am facing a choice between marketing/advertising and PR. I’ve been told by many that I have to choose one. Erica states that there must be a cross-communication, which I agree with, but why can’t that go to a further level and create a cross-professional? The journalism industry is already doing this- at Mizzou, you can earn your degree in convergence journalism, where you learn to be a radio, TV, and newspaper journalist as well as web design, video editing, and producing skills. Do any of you PR professionals see the potential for this convergence in your industry as well?

    On to the post, nearly every strategic tactic has some sort of risk (realized or not). It’s when the risk isn’t realized, or it’s realized and not proactively dealt with, that an issue can get out of hand. The cross-communication between PR and marketing, before the strategy is enacted, increases the chance of readiness in the event something does go awry. But why can’t the PR and marketing teams work together from the get-go when forming a strategy, especially in a shared space like social media? Is that a feasible option, or are the silos in most companies too separated for an action such as that?

  10. August 10, 2009 10:11 am

    I think it all depends on what the brand’s goals are.

    Yes, all AdMarComm team members need to be on the same page, though.

    Not every brand wants to be a sanitized, PG-rated, family-friendly company. If they want to focus on one or more target demos, there is nothing inherently wrong with that.

    Take a look at radio stations who do much more “narrowcasting” to audiences than broadcasting to the masses. That industry thrives on targeting a specific audience and really not caring about the rest.

    I would never recommend to a client that they tick off potential buyers, but if they are focusing on their core market, it may be worth the risk in some situations.

    • August 11, 2009 11:21 am

      Mike, I think you’re right about the specifics. It’s something we always need to be aware of – which is why you have to know 100 percent what brand you are representing.

  11. August 10, 2009 10:28 am

    Colby – I think we are already seeing it. Integrated Marketing Communications definitely is a topic I am interested in, but am not too well versed on. I believe that David Mullen has a position that deals more with this – you might want to ping him. :-)

  12. August 10, 2009 11:56 am

    It’s completely brand and company dependent. But if your core communications are integrated (and DO have that edge to them) I think it’s perfectly fine to aggravate a certain demographic.

    The key is having all of your messaging in the same vein. You can go negative…but make sure you think about it before you do and ensure that you are undertaking the right strategy.

  13. August 10, 2009 5:17 pm

    I think we need to establish what negative publicity entails. Is it simply people talking about your brand? Are we talking about purposely creating a crisis? Doing something that intentionally creates buzz and gets people talking is great. Doing something that’s edgy and a little controversial is fine. Doing something that you know is unethical simply to create some public interest is not.

    Each department has its own goal. Granted, the overall goal of any organization should be one in the same, how each department achieves that goal will vary. It may be counterproductive for PR & advertising to clean up each other’s mess; you shouldn’t be afraid to take risk.

    Quit focusing and sticking with the traditional model. Be innovative – evolve!

  14. August 11, 2009 6:52 am

    I think the Ad side and the PR side need to learn more about each other’s roles with clients. The grey area of where advertising ends and PR begins (or vice versa) is getting smaller and smaller due to the popularity of social media BY the people both sides are targeting for our clients.

    At the end of the day, Advertising/PR/Marketing and social media for that matter, is all about audience cultivation and message delivery. Whether it’s a video ad on a website, an article about the latest gadget or an email-based coupon, we are all peddling content to various segments of people.

    I think the real change will come when clients demand that their Ad and PR shops work in tandem and more so than just concalls and emails. Service consulting teams need to be TRUE teams, and that means across agencies and companies for the sole reason that the client’s messages must come across in a unified front and not fractured. Single overarching messages is what we always tell our clients. It’s up to the Ad and PR agencies to work together, learning from each other and make that happen. Who cares about lines in the sand. At the end of the day, keeping the client’s happy and keeping their programs moving towards goals is what we should be all about.

  15. August 11, 2009 6:57 am

    Stuart – Good point. Maybe Friday’s is a good example of that? (not negative, per say, but really being demographic specific.)

    Kasey – What if you have good intentions by creating the controversy, but it backfires? Ad should talk with PR before going ahead with a campaign, just so they can be prepared. Does this always happen? I don’t know. You bring up a good point about how we should evaluate the potential and define what’s negative.

  16. August 11, 2009 6:58 am

    Don – I think that should be happening right now – and that’s why it always feels like a battle. It just doesn’t happen. Chuck brought up a point about being stuck in traditional silos – but you’re right, with the SM aspect, we need to work together.

    Thanks for reading!

  17. August 11, 2009 8:18 am

    @Lauren – sorry, my day got away from me and I never had the opportunity to respond further to your questions. How do we eliminate silos? Not an easy question…marketers are generally distrusting of PR and vice-versa. Part of the problem, at least in my opinion, are the terms. What if we just called everyone communicators? Or the communications department? Not the marketing/advertsing and PR departments?

    • August 11, 2009 11:18 am

      Not sure how people would react if we were just called communications. Should it be? Yes. But people pride themselves on being ‘PR’ or ‘Ad’ and making fun of each other. But we do need to work together for a common goal – positive promotion of the brand.

  18. Danielle Cyr permalink
    August 11, 2009 8:52 pm

    Whether it’s advertising or public relations, endangering brand equity by willingly engaging in negative brand publicity seems like a foolish gamble. To that extent, there should be a strongy synergy between advertising and public relations initiatives.

    There is tremendous value to be gained from developing a comprehensive creative and communications strategy that employs advertising and public relations for the benefit of the brand. I find it frustrating, both personally and professionally, when I see a brand that has employed different strategies for the two, as the messaging often unintentionally contradicts itself and clouds consumers’ image of the brand.

    Along with disjointed advertising and public relations initiatives, negative publicity can also cloud consumers’ brand perceptions. If the only mechanism a company (and its ad/pr teams) have for generating a buzz around a brand is to endanger the company’s reputation, then they need to reevaluate their strategy. As brand ambassadors, both public relations and advertising professionals have an obligation to represent a brand with accuracy and integrity. I feel it is foolish council to advise a brand to intentionally subject itself to negative publicity. (Let’s face it – with social media amplifying the speed of communications, there are plenty of opportunities for one disgruntled consumer/audience member to trigger a spiral of negative brand publicity without an advertising or public relations team fueling it.)

    Speaking to the point about social media, both advertising and public relations intiatives can benefit from engaging audiences through social media. It seems absurd to me that there is a tug-of-war dynamic. If companies harness their creative energies behind integrated campaigns that embrace social media as a tool to leverage both adversiting and public relations initiatives, they stand to gain both increased market share and the opportunity to position themselves as a (successful) model for other brands to mirror their marketing and pr efforts after. All of which can be accomplished without encouraging a brand to intentionally flirt with negative publicity.

    • August 12, 2009 5:52 am

      Great comment Danielle – you hit some really great points. Thanks for reading!

      Here’s my thing on social media – too many voices, and you take away from the brand. I think people can contribute in the strategic sessions, which should happen before any SM launch. ONE person should be running your Twitter and FB pages though. People identify with the brand voice, not with multiple.

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