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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Marketing budgets are tight, very tight in fact. It’s not, therefore, uncommon for CMOs to put aside a portion of their budget and have the agencies pitch their best ideas to get a share of that pot. When it comes to PR, the idea de jour is to create some program that utilizes social media or digital in some way. This is actually pretty sensible for many situations BUT the challenge comes when you have to justify that spend versus other, more traditional areas of marketing. Let’s say you propose creating a vertical social network on Grouply for people that love mountain biking. It’s a pretty targeted program and you could measure the success based on how many people join the network and how many actively engage with the community. Great idea if your client is somehow connected to this community. You could suggest a blogger relations program to address certain misconceptions about your clients product. Again, great as in this instance you can measure how the bloggers now talk about your clients products. However, the challenge here is how does the client know that spending money on a social media program that would be a better use of his or her budget than say placing a piece in a trade publication? The end metrics are very different and not easy to compare unless you’re very lucky and the client only does one form of marketing at activity at a time.
Right now some clients are leaping in to social media/digital because they inherently know it is a good way to spend money and they have a good enough reputation within their company/they are brave enough to deal with the consequences. However, for all the ones that are doing this, there are still plenty that aren’t. By this I don’t mean that they aren’t spending money on social media but rather that they are not spending as much as they could. Clients still default to the tried and trusted that is easier to justify. And frankly I don’t really blame them. Having failed as an industry to convince our clients that they have to use measurement tools for every campaign, I fear we are about to repeat the mistake with digital. If we do we will lose a lot more than the pots of money CMOs are putting aside right now. We will have lost the opportunity to make PR truly the new advertising and that would be a real shame.