What digital services do PR agencies need to offer?

PR agencies are jumping on the digital bandwagon and rightly so.  But what constitutes digital?  A lot of agencies describe digital as social media relations, or online PR.  In that regard they embrace social networks (they monitor them and find ways to create communities for their clients).  They also embrace bloggers and of course all the online publications and wikis.  Much of this shift to digital is simply replacing traditional media with online content sources.  I’d argue that such an approach is not true digital but a much narrower form of digital communications.  True digital is far more complex and difficult.  My description of digital embraces:

  1. Analytical tools and services that enable companies to fully understand the extent to which they and their rivals are participating in the conversations and communities in the digital world.  And some insight into what to do next!
  2. Search skills and the ability to influence the terms people use when searching for clients and their rivals.  SEO skills are not a part of most PROs toolkits.  They will be though.
  3. The ability to design and build web properties.  Right now agencies are outsourcing the task of designing and building micro-sites etc.  But the structure and content of web properties is increasingly becoming a more central service and not a skill that should sit outside the firm.
  4. Connection to CRM technology and the customer support side of the business.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to find the join between customer relations and public relations, thanks in large part to the online relationships that now exist around brands.  This creates both a technology and skill challenge for agencies.
  5. Creative direction.  The concept of having a creative director is not a common one for many PR agencies.  Indeed, we often assume that all our people are creative.  With the convergence of digital advertising and digital communications, many clients actually expect to see a creative director.  Furthermore, B2B PR actually needs another level of creativity.  In B2B PR we are so used to focusing on key messages that we can forget the value of simply making people enjoy their connection with the brand.  Consumer PR people understand this challenge well, which is why creative teams and creative directors are more common in that world.  Put another way, we engage with brands intellectually AND emotionally.  B2B PR tends to focus on the former.  In a digital world it has the chance to put equal focus on the latter.  Bring on the creative director.
  6. Community building skills.  PR firms are used to leveraging influence through existing communities.  For example we use the editorial or blogger community to get our messages out there.  We are embracing Facebook and Twitter but we need to do a LOT more.  We need people who can really build communities.  This thinking goes well beyond Facebook and even Ning and Grouply.  It needs to embrace online and offline community management skills.

There are actually other areas, such as video content that a true digital agency should embrace but hopefully this shows that digital done right is a lot more than just basic social media relations.  This transition is going to be fascinating. I’m dying to see who the new kings and queens of communications will be.

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If you had $500,000 how would you spend it?

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.