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Public relations is critically important to branding; perhaps even its most important element. This is because PR is the primary architect and facilitator of stakeholder engagement, its brief being to be concerned about both the organisation and its stakeholders – their knowledge, opinions and behaviour. And a brand is built, these social media-powered days especially, as a partnership between multiple entities.

PR helps to build brands

Now – of course! – marketing will claim the high moral ground for branding ascendancy. And it has very good arguments for doing so. But if public relations is the best qualified in, and most concerned about, ensuring all stakeholders’ (including the organisation’s itself) holistic well-being, then I can’t see the logic in marketing trying to boss PR around in this argument.

But whether PR or marketing holds the branding reins (and you can be sure that when marketing falls over due to a dodgy product or a death on the fun ride then PR will be called in to save the day) the main point here is recognise the value PR adds to the branding magical mystery tour.

Paul Barasa, however, in a fascinating post on branding and PR, purports that the two areas have little to do with each other. PR is all reputation, he says and its role was, “never really to build a brand.” He goes on to say, “…reputation – which can loosely be defined as trustworthiness – is not brand. Brand is image, while reputation is reality.”

Interesting stuff, though I’m not sure marketers will be too pleased to hear this! But do they care, with their fixation on short-term profits, rather than long-term organisation-stakeholder benefiting relationships?

Classically speaking, Paul is probably right about what a brand actually is, but limiting it to a name/logo etc seems pretty hollow and inane. A brand should tell a story and that story will include the good and bad bits, all the narratives the stakeholder is aware of. And as PR should be a master storyteller, it has got to be fundamentally concerned with the brand and all the equity it does or doesn’t contain.

PR brand building platforms

There is a range of ways in which PR can contribute to a positive brand impression – events, sponsorship, stakeholder newsletters etc – but, really, brand means big. So unless these platforms are big ones, and there is no reason why they can’t be, then they aren’t going to have a huge impact on the brand.

The two main broad-reach platforms that PR can use to help build brands are media and social media.

Positive placement of stories about a brand in editorial media, sustained over a period of time, is an excellent way to build a brand. Editorial discussions of a brand, or discussions that feature it, will deliver a much higher degree of positive stakeholder engagement than advertising.

Editorial has an implicit third party endorsement of the brand, whereas advertising does not. And as the media is typically thought of as being quite critical in their reporting, their implied or stated approval adds impetus to brand momentum.

PR is the discipline that is generally best placed to implement, or at least have the strategic oversight of, social media activity, too. Social media is clearly a dialogic activity and PR has traditional strengths in dialogue. Marketing’s commitment to dialogue has been a façade.

Product pushing social media programs driven by marketing are all very well. But they should be part of a broad, strategic approach, otherwise they will undermine and fail a brand.

Other key areas of business communication that PR manages which can have an immense impact on brand equity include (HT to PR pro Jocelyn Hunter for some thoughts on this):

  • government relations and lobbying (yes, sadly, lobbying is a sub-set of public relations, though the capacious egos that operate in this field tend to have a problem admitting this…!)
  • investor relations and mergers & acquisitions
  • employee communication (employees are the most potent weapon any organisation has in building a brand)
  • as implied earlier, issues and crisis communication.

Strategic PR brand building approaches

Thought leadership is an excellent way of building a brand. It can be rolled out through any number of platforms; such as media, social media, direct mail (e.g. white papers to those on a database) and speaking engagements.

Thought leadership entails determining a position on a topic, then adding value to stakeholders’ perspectives through the sharing of insights and analysis. It will often refer to the perspectives of others, but it should add at least some unique value through the process (or else there’s not much leadership going on!). Inherent in the process is adding this value without a blatant sales emphasis. Hard sell is inappropriate in this context.

In a crisis communication scenario, organisations have a number of choices to make that can often be reflective of strategic decisions that have been made about the culture of the organisation itself. Needless to say, because of PR’s boundary spanning dimension, it is ideally placed to provide intensely valuable information to an organisation to assist it on its cultural – and by extension, branding – journey.

Some of the basic strategic crisis scenario decisions an organisation can make include:

There are more, and I am not saying any of the approaches are right or wrong, but they will each impact on brand equity. In fact, by taking one of these approaches a mini brand story is being told in itself, don’t you think?

Boundary spanning is an incredibly strategically significant aspect of public relations. By identifying stakeholder information (issues, interests etc) of relevance to organisations, this can influence the way organisations shape themselves (i.e. their brand). Choices include:

  • not always going to make big bucks and quash the opposition
  • looking outside the profit-driven marketing square
  • integrating stakeholder advice and thinking into the brand/organisation.

In many different ways, PR is essential to the big picture thinking which informs effective branding.

Have you contributed to brand building and/or the planning behind it as a PR professional? Where have you met barriers as a PR pro when trying to make a contribution to branding? If you are involved in PR wearing a marcomms hat, has it opened doors to branding? What other ways can you suggest PR adds value to branding that are not articulated in this post?

PS: I’d welcome you joining my 1,400-strong LinkedIn network (send me an invite!) or interacting with me through Twitter.