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PR: Truth or spin?

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By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman

While the perpetual crusade of the marketing industry is “truth in advertising,” a key criticism of marketers, advertisers, and public relations (PR) practitioners is that they are propagandists and panderers. “Spin doctors,” they are often called.

Take this classic example. A commercial photo of a hamburger looks appetizing on the menu. But when the waiter brings it to your table — alas — on the plate is a flat, sad, and bland burger. Whatever happened to the pretty picture?

“Let me call it ‘creative license.’ Food should always be appetizing. When a customer goes to a restaurant, and the photo does not match what is on the table, you have every right to get disappointed. So what do you do?” asked ABS-CBN head for corporate communications Ramon “Bong” Osorio, who is also the president of the Public Relations Society of the Philippines (PRSP).

The PRSP, a non-profit organization of the leading PR practitioners in the country founded in 1957, held its 22nd National Public Relations Congress on Sept. 24. The theme of the convention went back to what should be the basic and core practice of public relations: authenticity.




“A lot of people will resent [falsehood] knowing that a lot of us in the industry follow the truth in doing. Maybe there are some deviations, but at the end of the day, in the long run, if you’re telling a lie you are not going anywhere,” said Mr. Osorio.

“Authenticity could only be proven over time,” he added.

Before going further, it is important to explain the differences between public relations (PR), marketing, and advertising. Marketing is the big umbrella, the process through which goods and services move from concept to the customer and includes the identification, selection and development of a product; the determination of its price; the selection of a distribution channel, and the development and implementation of a promotional strategy. Part of the promotional strategy is advertising which is defined as the activity of producing information for promoting the sale of commercial products or services. PR focuses on creating and maintaining goodwill of an organization’s various publics (customers, employees, investors, suppliers, etc.), usually through publicity and other nonpaid forms of communication. (Definitions from www.businessdictionary.com.) All three — marketing, advertising, and pubic relations — are supposed to have the same goal: to communicate a credible and truthful image to the public.

WHAT IS AUTHENTIC?
These days, when technology and social media seem to rule the world, competition in advertising has become tougher. Successfully selling something — and sometimes just surviving — is increasingly difficult. With this, marketers and public relations practitioners (PRs) resort to a multitude of communication strategies to convey their message, and with this comes the danger of false and shallow marketing.

“More than PR posturing or kowtowing to political correctness,” Mr. Osorio said truth in advertising engages, and almost promises, long-term success for a company.

According to the CustomerThink web site, 90% of customers who are satisfied with a brand are more likely to share their good experience with friends and online. Meanwhile, Mark de Joya of McCann Worldgroup Philippines, said 81% of customers will share their bad experiences online and with friends.

“[Successful PR/advertising communication] starts with a commitment with the truth,” said Mr. de Joya at the conference. McCann is the creative company behind a number of popular commercials that tug at one’s heart strings including Coca-Cola’s #ShareACoke campaign, where Pinoy names are printed on softdrink bottles; Biogesic’s “Ingat” commercial with actor John Lloyd; and Jollibee’s Jollitown, which teaches kids values and education.

“People rewarded clever work, but it has changed over the last 20 years. Gone are the days of a 30-second commercial and an expected brand recall,” he said, “A survey among youth consumers asked them what brands they want. Most of the answers was Google, because it’s the purveyor of truth — and that’s what the PRs want to embrace.”

He said there is seemingly no absolute formula for achieving timeless brand recall, but promoting authenticity is a key ingredient.

“It’s not a question about creating a balance between marketing and sincerity. The question is how embedded is sincerity in marketing? They should be as one,” he said.

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THE PR AND THE PUBLIC
This is where the PR practitioners come into the picture, because they stand between a company and the public.

There are two kinds of PRs in an agency: those in media relations who, obviously, deal with the media, and the account executives who deal with the clients. Different agencies vie for a contract/deal with companies which seek PR agencies to both groom their image with the public and inform consumers — via the media — of their products, corporate profiles, or social responsibility pursuits, explained one PR-media relations practitioner.

A contract with an agency like Ogilvy, Havas, Agatep, Green Bulb, Bridges, Stratworks, Virtusio, and Geisermaclang, among others, can range from a few thousand to several million pesos, depending on how big the client is and how long is the contract is for.

A contract can include the release of exclusive features in newspapers, and holding press conferences, media launches, and roundtable discussions, among others. For instance, if a company wants to promote a new product, it may budget, say, P5 million in a year for publicity and grooming. Successful branding and imaging then depends on the PR agencies.

There are basic principles when creating a successful content, said Kankan Ramos-Lim of Havas Media Ortega, a PR agency. She said campaigns should be compelling, consistent, relevant, inspiring, de-cluttered, and target market-oriented.

“A successful media content should facilitate exchange of stories among a community,” she said at the convention.

Content should foster discourse among the target audience. In a way, PR practitioners are both mediators and narrators.

“Like journalists, PR practitioners are also storytellers,” said Leah Huang, the managing director of the PR department of Ogilvy Philippines, who has been in the industry for 28 years. Ogilvy handles various companies including The Medical City, Microsoft Philippines, Zalora, and L’Oreal.

“While we are contracted by our clients to send an awareness of their public image and perception, we have a responsibility both to our clients and to the public. The message that we tell should always be truthful,” she said.

Grace Antonio, the media relations supervisor of Grupo Agatep agency agrees. “As a PR practitioner, we value our client and, of course, the greater public. It should be beneficial to both. To quote my boss, PR guru sir Charlie Agatep, ‘PR is essentially storytelling.’ We need print, radio, TV, and digital media platforms to convey the clients’ stories to fast-moving target publics,” she said.

Agatep handles the PR needs of companies like Warner Bros., Emirates airline, Grab Taxi, and Grab Car, among others.

“Good PR work is not about sugar coating the truth. It is about diplomacy and finding the most persuasive way to get what you need. I always feel like a general negotiating for terms of surrender,” said Dessa Joyce Virtusio, vice-president for account management of Virtusio PR Inc. “[I] am never faced with the best choices, I always just strive for the scenarios with the least casualties. It is a very important skill that most PR professionals must learn.” She handles Manulife, Globe, and Wattpad, among others.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE
Credit must be given to the consumers. Mr. Osorio said critical consumers look for authenticity and social consciousness among a bombardment of brands pleading to be patronized.

“I always believe you [give] credit back to the consumer, because you [the consumer] have the power to discontinue any trust, commitment, or support. You have a choice,” he said. He likens it to watching television shows. “You have the power of the remote. Go to another station that will give you the joy you’re looking [for].”

Mr. Osorio answered his own question on what the public should do if a marketing message is misleading.

“The only thing you can do there, aside from not believing what is shown to you, is to walk away and not return. I think that’s the best punishment for untruthfulness.”