First, do no harm: The true role of public relations in branding

Public relations is better than advertising at building a brand, argued Laura and Al Ries in their prescient 2002 book, The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR. At the time they were right; in the post-dot-com era, advertising had indeed lost credibility while the media still had it. But in 2006, one can no longer be so sure: in an age when video news releases regularly substitute for real news, as the Center for Media and Democracy reports, people have learned to be skeptical about the media's objectivity.

The media is constantly pressured to compromise its impartiality. For one thing, there is a relentless need to produce news, sometimes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In addition, they are owned by mega-sized corporate entities who, more than ever, are in the business primarily to generate profit: the press survives by selling airtime and print space to advertisers.

These two factors together, in addition to any bias internal to the culture of the media entity itself (e.g. Fox News), leave the media vulnerable to press releases and other prepackaged content put together by private agencies hoping to get the word out about their clients, especially if those clients are willing to underwrite advertising time and space. People are not stupid. When a television segment on health is sponsored by the same entity that is featured in it, it causes the media producer that aired it to lose credibility.

If the media is compromised in terms of its trustworthiness, then Ries and Ries' argument falls apart: no credibility = no brand.

Yet one can go much further than this. I would argue that the role of PR was never really to build a brand in the first place. Rather, it was to do no harm to it. PR is inherently a tool for building a great reputation, as writes in "A strong corporate reputation is increasingly a PR responsibility.": "Image generated through an advertising campaign or a corporate document or the look of an organization's premises..[while] reputation is..built through developing relationships and what an organization does. It is largely what others say about you." One implication is that PR grows the reputation to protect the brand.

Just to clarify: Reputation - which can loosely be defined as trustworthiness - is not brand. Brand is image, while reputation is reality. What this means is that everybody knows that brand is fake, or has elements of fakery, while reputation is closer to truth. Therefore, brand is best conveyed by a consistent sales/marketing/advertising "core message," while reputation is best conveyed by transparency.

Now transparency, which is the real job of a public relations professional (though they may not be able to express it in practice), means to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the organization, and in so doing to portray the organization as trustworthy. Therefore PR is actually the antithesis of branding, which is to tell a very partial, even propagandistic, truth. Really, branding is pure selling, aimed at owning a single idea in the audience's mind. No matter how they are written up in the Wall Street Journal or Fortune, the brands of Nike, Disney, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola have little to do with the real world inside their organizations, and much to do with the image they represent to the public.

There is one exception, and that is where PR and transparency comes in. As mentioned above, PR uses transparency to build the reputation of a brand, to insulate its image against damaging attacks. So when Starbucks embarks on PR-driven corporate citizenship campaigns like "fair trade coffee beans," the effect is not to build the brand but rather to enhance the company's reputation. Let's face it: Starbucks doesn't get $2 per cup of coffee because of its coffee bean policy, but rather because it represents something completely different and special: "time out for myself." And the Starbucks brand is primarily built by all the activities it undertakes to promote this image. Some examples would be its television commercials, one showing a harried mother taking time out for a Frappuccino, another portraying a young worker in a rush to get to the office, but taking time out for a refrigerated Starbucks DoubleShot espresso.

To reiterate: The only reason for reputation-building activities, or PR, is to protect the brand against being damaged by scandal. Nike has not been skillful in this regard, and the "just do it" image suffers from the company's association with sweatshop labor. One illustrative story is the MIT student who sought to personalize his Nike sneakers with the word "sweatshop" and was refused (see In my view, his challenge to the company's reputation effectively damaged Nike's brand because Nike hasn't effectively defended its working conditions in the consumer's mind. It may be that Nike working conditions aren't as bad as people think, but as long as the PR doesn't transparently show a safe, clean, fair working environment, the damage to Nike's reputation will continue, even though it remains a superbrand.

Thus far, we have established that PR does not build the brand, but rather defends the brand's reputation. But one can go even further than this. To go back to the initial discussion of the media's tarnished objectivity: PR has a new hurdle to face in defending a company's reputation, and that is to actually deliver transparency. It is no longer sufficient for PR to develop and disseminate "white propaganda" (the truth, delivered with a credible source, but emphasizing only the positive). Rather, to counter the perceived bias of the media, PR has to deliver objective information about an organization to the media, even when that information sounds negative. Otherwise, jaded viewers will know that the media has been corrupted by a PR message, and will simply tune out.

And another step further: advertising should not be perceived as a blockage to building a brand. For branding is an image-building activity, and advertising is explicitly an image-building technique. The audience expects advertising to try and "sell" them. In addition to this, advertising clearly acknowledges its source and sponsor, whereas this does not necessarily happen in the media. So to come full circle, Ries and Ries may be incorrect when they say that advertising can't build a brand because it lacks credibility: it may be that people trust advertising more than they do the media.

One final point: I think that people enjoy the brand-building activities that advertisers create. They like a good advertisement or television commercial, and they enjoy finding out about a product or service that is new and interesting. What they don't like is to be tricked, fooled, or enticed to buy something from a company that is unethical or that doesn't deliver on its promises. Steering consumers away from those particular dislikes is the job of a good PR specialist.


  1. Ries, Al, and Laura Ries. 2002. The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR. New York: HarperCollins.
  2. Center for Media and Democracy. April 2006. "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed."
  3. February-March 2005. "A strong corporate reputation is increasingly a PR responsibility."
  4. Viewed June 26, 2006. "Just don't do it!"

Copyright 2007 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.