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PR is in danger—again—of losing relevance: What’s missing this time?

by | May 29, 2024 | Public Relations

Is the PR industry in danger of losing access to budgets and being pushed further to the edge of the marketing matrix? For the third time? Yes, but we can stop it. The answer is for public relations agencies and internal PR teams to own the affiliate networks critical to modern PR success for brands ranging from basic consumer goods to sunglasses, consumer tech, snowboard jackets, and financial entities. 

I don’t have an old-school mentality to PR, but I definitely have an older-school background. And looking back on my early days until now, I’m afraid PR is setting itself up to fail by not fighting for what we should own in the world of comms. 

I started my career in the big-agency PR landscape of NYC during the late 90s when blast-faxes were a thing, and they delivered results. Sony, Burton Snowboards, Intel, Audi, Old Spice, Lexus, and Guinness were brands I cut my teeth on. Later, as a consultant, working with some open-minded and nimble brands gave me the freedom to experiment and build inroads into the tastemaker blog world before the term hypebeast was more common. I’m not name-dropping to show off my portfolio but rather to lend credence that I’ve worked with some majors and, later, a lot of upstarts and challenger brands. 

Over the last few decades, PR agencies and public relations pros have let tactics that add value and amplify budget slip into the hands of others in the marketing world. And we need to stop it.  

The first time PR made a big mistake

Besides using AVEs for measurement, the first time I saw PR teams drop the ball was in the advertorial space. In my early days, public relations teams didn’t touch advertorials. We barely touched anything paid. We would handle satellite media tours and VNRs, but nothing as overtly controlled as a 2,000-word ad buy in a glossy mag. 

Instead, those ad buys were left to the advertising agencies. Why? Because they didn’t take the moral high ground of “pure” editorial. Not fighting to own advertorials opened the door for ad agencies to grab the client’s ear and purse. And these advertorials, similar to a lot of the branded content out there today, were less than compelling. They’re often written by copywriters and read like something from a catalog mailer.  

Why did many on the PR side leave the control of advertorials to the ad agencies? I never asked my mentors. Maybe it was to keep the separation of church and state. Perhaps it was because if we’re already charging to secure earned media, would a client wonder why we’re asking for additional funds for a paid advertisement?  

Mistake #2: PR has always worked with influencers. Why did we let that go?

Our next big mistake was with influencers. Or content creators. Or whatever you want to call those who have become famous through social media. 

What we consider influencers in the social media sense are self-published journalists. They don’t make the paper or the platform their content is published on but they paint on a canvas in a way that some people find desirable enough to consume. 

The forward thinkers in our industry approached influencers from an editorial perspective. Someone with 30,000 active followers in your city may have as much influence, if not more than that free regional newspaper thrown on your driveway. This is why smart PR teams have always targeted them. 

Eventually, more influencers started looking for compensation beyond the currency of insider access to an event or a free product to preview. And this led to new platforms, and a rise in a subset of agencies focused on aggregating these interactions, in many cases dramatically focusing on quantity over quality. They want to be compensated financially. We call them paid partnerships, but they could also be considered a looser version of advertorials. 

Many PR firms do work with influencers with financial compensation as a part of the program. Still, the number of companies I’ve seen that work specifically in this space, either through unpaid editorial or #ad disclosed content, leads me to believe we could have done more from the jump. 

This brings me to the latest and most significant change in the PR world in the last ten years: the rise in affiliate programs.

PR teams need to take what’s ours: Affiliate marketing as a part of media relations

Affiliate marketing is no longer a side business of your favorite fitness influencer. It has its place for brands in finance, action sports, tech, CPG, and beyond.  

Unlike anything prior that a PR team has had the ability to manage, an editorial-driven affiliate program allows teams to showcase the power of a PR placement not just through impressions or other KPIs but through sales.  

Affiliate marketing is now a critical part in public relations efforts and one that PR teams should be driving. We can’t let it be the domain of internal e-comm teams or performance marketing agencies. However, based on the number of inquiries I receive on LinkedIn every time I post about this topic, that’s exactly what is happening.  

The gatekeepers on the affiliate side of publishing usually have titles along the lines of “commerce editor” or “shopping reporter” and seeing those titles alone should give credence to this being the domain for a skilled PR team. They’re editors and reporters. Many of whom have been journalists before affiliate networks became so mainstream. 

There are more concrete reasons why PR should be the leader when it comes to affiliate marketing. A brand’s affiliate efforts should dovetail with its earned media. But often those who handle affiliate networks aren’t in the loop with the priorities of the PR and earned media group. This leads to duplicate pitch efforts and a push towards editorial coverage that doesn’t align with, and sometimes prevents, the earned media teams from achieving their KPIs. 

Besides ensuring an affiliate program doesn’t derail editorial outlets from featuring products that match the goals of the PR team, there’s an even more important reason that PR should control the affiliate networks.  

Managed properly, a PR team’s affiliate efforts can pay for a significant portion of their monthly fee. Imagine showing your client that at the end of the month, your PR retainer was 1/10th the cost because the affiliate program, which you managed, covered 90% of the monthly fee. 

For the PR pros reading this, I hope this inspires you to take this message to the brand managers and shot callers at your current and potential clients and help convince them that the growing affiliate landscape should be owned by the PR teams already working with editorial media.  

Editorial-driven affiliate programs are built with PR efforts in mind. It’s now up to PR teams to take ownership.

Bill Byrne
Bill Byrne is co-founder and managing director of Remedy PR. Based in San Diego, he leads a nationwide team that works with a diverse range of brands, in industries that include consumer tech, healthcare, active-outdoor pursuits, finance, beverage, and youth-driven industries. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Instagram.

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