Academic journal article Public Relations Journal

Public Relations in Disguise?

Academic journal article Public Relations Journal

Public Relations in Disguise?

Article excerpt

Public Relations IN DISGUISE?

By its very nature, corporate advertising often calls for involvement by both the public relations and advertising camps. When should one versus the other be in the driver's seat?

Corporate advertising--advertising on behalf of the corporation as an institution rather than on behalf of its specific products or services--has long been something of an oddity within the advertising family. It has a wayward tendency to turn up in corporate communications and public relations departments--and even to enter the world through public relations firms--instead of following the path of its big brother, product advertising, from the marketing department through the ad agencies.

Despite the shared surname, corporate advertising is in many critical respects less closely related to hard-sell product advertising than to investor and public relations, with their embrace of complex objectives and issues.

Issue of identity

Although the borders that set corporate advertising apart from product/service advertising and public relations are fuzzy, certain functions fall squarely within the specialty.

The classic roles of corporate advertising are image and issues advertising. Image ads seek to give a company a specific, recognizable "face" to its public. This identity-building role is particularly important in corporate transitions, in which the name stays the same but the company changes, or the company stays the same but the name changes. In the wake of mergers and acquisitions, two or more distinct companies become one indistinct one, often with additions and discontinuances of lines of business, as well as name changes that drop the prior identity of at least one party (e.g., Sperry Corp. and Burroughs Corp. became Unisys Corp.).

Corporate advertising may also be used when a company is little-known or poorly understood among important audiences, such as financial analysts and current or potential stockholders. For example, Ball Corporation, best known for the beloved jars that contain Grandma's jam and pickles, is heavily involved in aerospace and defense.

And then, of course, corporate advertising can be called upon to counter a bad image or to swing public opinion in the direction of the company's viewpoint. A pioneer in this area is Mobil Corporation, which raised issues advertising to new prominence by popularizing the "advertorial"--paid advertising on the Op-Ed page--during the OPEC oil crisis of the 1970s. Mobil balanced this advertising offensive with high-profile sponsorships of such programs as "Masterpiece Theatre."

Terrence N. Hill, executive vice president and director of corporate advertising at Burson-Marsteller, also lists a category called "fight ads."

"Used in such crisis situations as takeovers, these ads can be pulled together overnight, and we often prepare contingency ads in anticipation of our opposition's moves," he says.

Bottom line isn't forgotten

More than a decade ago, corporate advertising was heralded as a panacea for a multitude of marketing challenges. "As an umbrella to cover an entire line of products, corporate advertising was expected to cut the costs for individual brand advertising," says Hill. "But in fact, corporate advertising is always the first thing cut." It is far more vulnerable than product advertising because its budgets are so much leaner and because of the perception that product ads have a more direct impact on the bottom line. "When things are tough, budgets for product ads might be reduced, but funding for corporate ads may be wiped out completely," says Hill. Nevertheless, corporate ad expenditures as a whole have been steadily rising for the past five years.

Although corporate advertising may arise from little more than an uneasy suspicion among top executives that a company needs to be better understood for what it does and what it stands for, the lean and mean companies of the '80s demand accountability for any significant ad expenditures. …

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