Should PR agencies hire experience or raw talent?

The race is on for agencies to build their digital assets.  Get it right and PR firms will grow faster than they have in decades.  Get it wrong and they’ll have a struggle on their hands.  So as agency heads look at their talent base and their potential new hires, they have a tough question to answer.  Do they hire experienced marketing professionals who have some digital skills or the typically younger, more digitally literate who have only limited experience?  Sadly for the more experienced group, the answer appears to be that agencies are trending towards hiring younger digerati, rather than grey hairs.  This in turn is reshaping agency structures, product offerings, and pricing.  To twist an old saying, we are who we hire.  With agencies moving from a classic pyramid model towards something that looks more like a coat hanger, the opportunities for today’s experienced professionals are becoming fewer by the day.  Is this fair?  Probably not but this drive to hire younger, cheaper talent is in part the result of another force, not just digital.  Client procurement departments have acted like sand paper on PR budgets for years and have increasingly made it more desirable to hire doers over strategists.

Most agencies are racing to build a ‘new’agency on top of their existing one.  While they do need some experience to prevent the thing from collapsing in heap, what they need most is staff that can get on and ‘do’ at a price point that makes the investments the agencies are making viable.  This effectively forces agencies to hire lower cost staff.  These of course tend to be kids from college who have no real experience but can tell you anything you want to know about Facebook and Twitter.  For this generation, SEO is a form of grammer and html was a choice alongside Spanish and French at school.  Given a brand is now defined by the size and strength of its social network, it’s hardly surprising that many agencies will value these skills over someone who has known the editors at a business publication for a decade.

So is it all doom and gloom for us oldies?  Far from it.  We can start and build these new agencies, they do after all need some adult supervision.  We can also explore the boundaries of owned, earned and paid media.  These are the places where real value lies and where experience can really come to the fore.  But we cannot assume that because we have decades of experience that our futures are secure.  We have to bring something of value to the transition to digital.  Identifying what this is is crucial and could yet save the careers of many.  We are in an era of marketing where the value of experience is trending downward.  In years to come that will of course change as digital becomes the norm but for now the digital natives are set to become the new leaders.  That may not be what people want to hear but our industry is, like many, Darwinian.  In our case the fittest are the digerati.


Digital is a massive opportunity for PR but…

We all have our favorite way of getting a point of view across.  This includes the structure of our arguments and the channels we prefer.  Yet if the digital revolution has taught us anything it’s that people want to consume content and conversations through their favorite channels, not the ones we may prefer.  So it concerns me that so many social media gurus are almost exclusively using Facebook and Twitter to help drive interaction with customers.  My fear isn’t that these are the wrong channels but rather that we are in danger of simply replacing an old set of channels (traditional media) with a new and arguably narrow set (social media).  In other words we are moving from people that were good at getting news media to get our news out, to people that are good at tweeting.  There is surely a lot more to digital than this?  Done right digital is about creating channel agnostic content and by engaging with the customer through their preferred channel (rather than ours).  By driving people to Facebook and Twitter we are being sensible in that a lot of people are hanging out in these places BUT we are missing a huge opportunity that digital creates and that is to be where the customer wants to have a dialog, rather than insisting they play on our pitch.  Some will argue that brands have simply followed customers to these places.  That is only partly true.  Much of the growth of Facebook and Twitter is because brands have adopted these sites.  My message to you is not that you abandon Facebook et al but rather that you shouldn’t assume that these channels are the starting point.  Digital is without doubt the biggest opportunity our industry has seen in decades. Let’s not waste it.


Should PR agencies develop technology? Have a CTO?

PR agencies have been people businesses for as long as I can remember.  Yet the emergence of digital has created the opportunity for these same agencies to start selling ‘technology based solutions’ (an overused phrase I know).  These ‘solutions’ cover areas such as analytics, blogs, email marketing, micro site development… the list goes on.  Most agencies outsource this development to… developers.  This is largely because most agency heads can write a press release or a blog but wouldn’t have a clue about how to write code.  Many agencies can see that if they want to get away from an hourly business model they need to sell technology IP and ideally IP that can be resold to many clients without much additional development effort.  Again, though, most agencies simply don’t have the skills in house to develop the technology, or even the skills to effectively manage the  development of technology.  In other words, if agencies really do want to sell ‘technology solutions’ they are going to have to start hiring developers AND people capable of managing these people.  If this happens the idea of a PR agency have a CTO (chief technology officer) that is client facing will become commonplace.  Does your agency have a CTO?  Should it?


Online PR isn’t just about conversations

In the last few years, PR people have rightly stopped talking about stories and started talking about conversations.  The idea being that brands can start or join conversations that their customers are interested in, or are already having.  They can do this by contributing news, perspective, insight and raw content.  This shift is both important to the way PR is carried out and to the role it plays in the marketing process.  It opens new doors and new budgets for an industry that has long believed it deserves a bigger slice of the marketing pie.  But I’d like to remind PR people about something advertisers have known for a long time.  Getting our attention doesn’t necessarily mean engaging in a conversation with us.  My daughter’s laptop can often get her attention without any information being exchanged.  She simply enjoys watching entertaining content, or playing some mindless game.  She is no different from any of us in this respect.  We all have parts to our day when we simply want someone to take over our brains and let us escape.  Advertisers have figured this out to the extent that during some computer games, such as a car racing game, you will see billboards advertising products.  They recognize that the brands that ‘sponsor’ escapism are as important as the brands that sponsor educating us about the important issues of the day or the decisions we have to make.

Now the idea of creating content that helps people escape isn’t something you hear a lot in PR meetings.  PR meetings tend to be all about getting the message across in an increasingly noisy market.  But what if you created content such as a game or a video that was just so darned entertaining that people WANTED to watch it AND they knew your brand had sponsored this little mental vacation?  Wouldn’t that be just as powerful as that major news item you were hoping to get someone to blog about?  I’m not for a minute suggesting that we all ditch conversation management and move to entertainment.  I’m simply suggesting that digital channels open the doors for PR to much more than just conversations. Try this on for size in your next PR brainstorm.  Oh and happy 2011.


2011 will be the year that:

Here are my more serious predictions.  Some I want to come true, some I simply suspect have a chance of becoming reality.  What’s on your list?

  1. Obama develops a backbone and starts to be the president we elected.  He will also learn that Gibbs has to go and that he needs a far better comms team.
  2. Facebook or Twitter gets bought/files for an IPO (I have no inside knowledge).  If this happens the IPO market will catch fire for lots of other companies.
  3. The Euro becomes a common currency for the chosen few of EU economies.  If not at least one EU nation will file for bankruptcy (Can they do that?).
  4. Foursquare goes the way of Digg.  Facebook’s places has already made them irrelevant.  The final nail in the coffin is just waiting to be driven in.
  5. Microsoft Kinect will spawn a whole new category of businesses well beyond gaming.  The possibilities are endless.
  6. A major daily newspaper will stop its printed version.  The economics have pushed them all to the brink.  One will jump.
  7. Julian Assange will end up in jail.  It may not be in Sweden but he will be found charged by someone for something.
  8. The environment will come back on the agenda.  As the economy improves people will stop worrying about their jobs and start paying attention to the horrors that climate change will bring if we don’t act.
  9. Those of us in PR will figure out digital comms and we’ll be shocked by what it means for us.  We’ll find out either by accident or because a competitor that we never expected starts to show us the way.
  10. Blackberry (RIM) either realizes its products are horrible and changes path or it accelerates towards that brick wall that is currently at the end of the road they are on.

What digital skills should a PR PRO have?

PR agencies are all trying to figure out how best to take advantage of the shift to digital.  The main point of debate for most agencies is whether they should embed digital skills across the agency or simply create a group of digital gurus.  This is a real challenge and hard to get right.  Given we all know that in time digital is going to be as commonplace in PR as the press release has been in the last 50 years, it would seem to make sense to take the route of spreading the skills across the agency.  The counter argument to that though is that some of the skills needed to excel at digital communications are not ones all PR people can easily learn and are not ones they’ll always need.  Some skills are so specialized that to load them on to the skill list of the average PR consultant is simply unrealistic at best and a waste of time at worst.  Looked at this way it seems logical that some middle ground is the answer.  Yes PR operators need to understand digital but they don’t need to be masters of everything, instead they need to call on experts to help them out.  In many ways it’s like asking a crisis comms expert to come in when you need one.  Most PR operators know the basics and could make a pretty good job of handling most crises but when a company’s reputation is on the line it seems sensible to bring in an experienced pro.

So what digital skills should a PR PRO have?  Here’s my suggested list:

  1. They need to understand the basic online analytical tools that are available to capture what is being said on Twitter, Facebook, a Ning or Grouply site etc.  They also need to be able to interpret the results of these social media measurement tools and connect the dots between this data and other data such as traditional media measurement output.
  2. They need to know how to manage a community so that it becomes a real community and not just their client posting to a sea of indifferent followers.
  3. They need to be able to create content that is suited to the various platforms the Internet offers.  This is potentially the most difficult area as it requires PR people to move away for pure text-based content to visual images, audio and video as means of influencing people.  PR people need to be able to think in terms of the impact an image or a video or a  can have on someone’s perception of a brand.
  4. They need to understand search.  This of course means SEO not just how to look something up on Google.  It therefore means knowing how to optimize text, images and video so people find them.  This is an area that is evolving.  Right now all PR people should learn the basics but equally every PR agency should have access to an expert.

If you are just starting out, or have been in the industry for some time, these are skills that are going to be essential in the next few years.  There are of course many others but in my view if you have a grasp of these you will be on the right track.


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