PR needs to evolve to survive in the digital age

16 Apr 2012 by Lynne Wilkins.

Digital is the hot topic that is showing no signs of cooling down, particularly as far as the financial sector is concerned. We asked man in the know, John Evans, head of digital EMEA at Weber Shandwick to share his thoughts.

Change.  It’s a word that has been associated with our industry for so long now that I think it is taken for granted that we are in a constant state of transition. For anyone that has been in the field of marketing and communications over the last 15 years they can probably quite successfully argue that there are few industries which have had to adapt, adopt and reinvent themselves more than PR in the digital age. And this requirement to change continues to push us on a daily basis. The media is changing, methods of pitching news and news consumption are changing, consumer buying behaviour is changing and, most importantly, our client’s expectations are changing.  The good news is that the new landscape offers more opportunity for PR companies than ever before.  However, to realise this potential, agencies must also have more firepower than ever before.  The days of needing a phone, fax and little black book of journalist names is over,  we now need more skills available to us both in-house and from experts in fields that compliment and amplify the core services of a PR agency; and give us the skills available to allow us to compete with the broad array of other agencies we find ourselves up against.

It is the growing emergence of digital that has forced CEOs to rethink their agency structures and work out how to compete on the increasingly competitive playing field where PR agencies go head to head with a new profile of rivals in the form of advertising, media and digital specific agencies.  If your agency is one of the survivors, you’ll probably notice a new breed of people sitting amongst you, many of whom are from completely different backgrounds.   They may well have worked at ad agencies, media agencies, digital agencies or have even have held positions that were not in existence 5 years ago such as content strategists for online news publications, in-house community managers and the list goes on.  Add these to the technical and development skills required to build and deliver many of these communication tools; suddenly it’s looking like agencies need a cast of thousands to do the job that is expected of us.  It is true, we do need a wider set of skills available to us on a ongoing basis, and some of the skills are much more similar to what you would have historically found in a digital agency.  So which skills are needed on a permanent basis?

The answer is (as you’d expect from a PR person), it depends.  Agencies (of all descriptions) are in the business of selling time, so logically the best people to have on staff are the ones that can most easily be sold for the highest rates for the most amount of time.  It’s not quite that simple, but not far off.  There are a set of digital skills that should be applied to running accounts on a day to day basis.  There is a real need for skills such as strategists, planners, community managers, content experts and analysts all of which are critical to the design, planning and delivery of digital campaigns.   However, there are also a broad spectrum of skills that are only required on an ad hoc basis.   As part of drawing up coms strategies for clients we are likely to advise on the use of websites, microsites, I-Phone apps, android apps, Facebook apps and even games to name a few, all of which require different skills and many of which are exclusive skills to each product class.   However, it is extremely unlikely that an agency will need to manufacture the quantity of these products required to maintain high utilisation rates.

Quite aside from the cost of having swathes of people sitting in-house underutilised, agencies need to recognise that there are companies that specialise in the delivery of these products and services.  Whether it is app development, SEO, ad serving or augmented reality these companies are experts and it is in our best interest to use them.  This is their core competency and they are equipped to do the job, not just with people but with hardware and software that is alien to the PR agency.  The challenge for PR agencies is to have the right amount of resource internally that understand what the end result should look like, how the products should work, manage the production process whilst also  building meaningful working relationships with these experts. The important part is to give our clients the perception that it has all been created in-house – from soup to nuts as they say!

Despite our analogue past, we find ourselves increasingly standing toe to toe with digital agencies, pitching for the same kinds of work and now recruiting the same profile of people.  And whilst PR agencies face new resourcing challenges, the PR agencies that continue to invest in new talent with new skills and build strong relationship with specialist third party suppliers, will be in a position to capitalise on a new set of opportunities and compete with the new breed of competition.

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