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PRCA 2014 Digital Report: what does the future hold for PR agencies?

12 December, 2014

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This week, the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA) presented the findings of the PRCA 2014 Digital Report to an audience of PR and digital industry professionals at an event held at Leeds Beckett University.

I was delighted to have been invited to join the panel at the event for a debate on how PR agencies are responding to the digital world. The panel and Q&A were chaired by Danny Whatmough, Chairman of the PRCA Digital Group and Head of Digital at Weber Shandwick.

PRCA Danny Whatmough credit Stuart Bruce

Photo courtesy of Stuart Bruce @stuartbruce

I was joined on the panel by Steve Chu (Head of Strategy & Engagement at South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue) and Nathaniel Cassidy (Managing Director at full service agency, 3 Man Factory.

PRCA panel credit Nichola Reeder

Photo courtesy of Nichola Reeder @12th_Mans_Lady

Preview of the event here: How are PR agencies responding to the digital world?

We examined exclusive findings prepared for PRCA by YouGov on where the PR industry’s digital strengths lie, how organisations are responding to digital, and how they are calling on PR agencies and in-house teams to help them.

The report revealed that:

The report encompasses findings from a survey of 220 PR agencies and PR professionals. It’s results prompted some interesting debates yesterday about what PR agencies offer.

What services should PR agencies be offering?

This became a hot topic of debate. In response to client demands, many PR agencies are now offering services like website design and pay per click advertising (PPC). But is this a good thing or should agencies be focusing on traditional PR? By which I mean good strategic communications, knowing how to tell a strong story, having the right connections to put that story in front of – and knowing which channels through which to do so, from the Daily Mail to the FT through to Facebook or Twitter.

It concerns me that the PR industry thinks they should be resourcing in-house for website design and PPC etc. For me, a PR company should prioritise, value and highlight their traditional PR core offer – this is their specialism. I believe that specialism brings the highest quality campaigns for clients AND creates the most innovation: by working in partnership with specialists in key areas, you are much more likely to be working with the most up-to-date knowledge and expertise, and not spreading yourself too thin.

Nathaniel put forward a different point of view. His view was that a PR agency is a generalist and should offer clients a range of services. For example, if a client wanted an infographic to be quickly created and distributed, he said, we should be doing the research on that – which I can definitely see the argument for.

But a representative from an in-house team pointed out that he would always go to specialist companies for each area of work, insinuating that he wouldn’t (for example) buy website design services from a PR company.

My point was that a PR agency isn’t a design specialist, so (if timeframes allow) shouldn’t we get a designer in? I guess what it really comes down to is the size of agency, and the size of the clients. If size allows, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have an in-house designer in your PR agency. But even then, they wouldn’t be working among a team of designers (as they would in a design agency) and so they wouldn’t have the same opportunity to bounce ideas off design specialist colleagues and it would be much harder for a lone designer in a PR agency to keep on top of design industry technology, innovations and ideas.

Where I think there is perhaps a case for PR agencies focusing on design or digital, is when a well-designed digital campaign will help increase the reach of a story and increase chances of it being picked up by target media.

But… are we all just trying to become generic marketing companies?

I am concerned by the trend towards agencies becoming generalists offering as many services as possible in-house (as opposed to working in partnership with other specialist agencies). If everyone is trying to offer everything, will we not all become a homogenised group and lose the innovation edge?

I also have concerns about PR agencies taking on Google Adwords or PPC campaigns. Although I can understand why: changes to Facebook’s algorithms over the past 12 months (and particularly during the last six months) have increasingly favoured advertisers. This now means that its much harder to get your content seen, unless you pay. From just updating your Facebook page, only 5-7% of your audience will now see that updated content. I can therefore see why PR agencies with a good understanding of PPC advertising have the edge in terms of getting their content seen.

(Incidentally, Twitter is looking to push out a similar algorithm in the next few months so you’ll have to sponsor tweets to get them seen in particular feeds.)

But are PR agencies best placed to manage paid advertising? Or should they be focusing on getting the brand story and the organic networking side of things right, while working with PPC advertising specialists or web analysts to manage the tech side? PPC specialists have the time and resources to analyse and select the right campaigns and keep a close eye on the metrics to ensure best value for money is achieved for clients.

I work in partnership with a number of “traditional” PR agencies to deliver both organic SEO campaigns and paid advertising campaigns, eg Google Adwords, PPC. I highly value their media contacts and expertise in storytelling and networking (and wouldn’t have time to keep these contacts up to date myself) and they like having a “techie” on hand at all times to help them with the coding and metrics side of things. The digital industry changes so quickly, they tell me they wouldn’t have time to constantly keep on top of new industry developments and technologies, as I am able to do. This way of working together works best for both of us.

What should PR agencies be focusing on in the next six months?

For me the biggest thing we, as panellists, were asked was about what PR agencies should be focusing on in next 6 months: how should they be changing?

My view is that PR agencies really need to understand the value of what they are delivering and focus on their specialisms.

I have always been of the opinion that PR and SEO are essentially the same thing: it’s about reach and readership. Read my blog post on this: Is SEO now the same as PR?

courtesy of digitalthirdcoast.net

courtesy of digitalthirdcoast.net

To get high internet reach, what you really need is a good PR campaign. What PR agencies often don’t get credit for is the value and impact they add to organic search.

To have a great SEO campaign, you need a great PR campaign behind it. The story has to be good. The right influencers need to be on board. The targeting needs to be spot on – and this is where PR agencies add huge value. I often work in partnership with PR agencies to achieve this kind of campaign – and its great for SEO as well as PR.

Another major trend affecting PR agencies is around community management (what I call social media management) going in-house, leaving quite avoid for PR agencies.

However, I don’t believe in-house teams can deliver on the innovation required to keep communities engaged and refreshed over long periods of time. Agencies are working with so many different clients, they have much more exposure to new ideas. New ideas are much harder to generate from an in-house perspective as that role is (by its nature) more insular.

In summary…

I thoroughly enjoyed this event – really interesting discussions! It was great to see lots of students in the room – and nice to hear from senior lecturers at the university that students get lots of practical experience and experts are often brought in to do talks etc. Also nice to see Stuart Bruce, who was an active audience participant in the discussions (I went to see him on panel at CIPR event last year – he has some great ideas).

In a competitive market where brand budgets are shrinking and clients press ever harder for added value, it is tempting to try and be all things to all people.

But I would argue that it is at these times of increased competition where it is more important than ever to retain an individual identity in the market – for us all to be honing in and focusing on being the absolute best in our core specialisms, and working together to create the most innovative solutions bringing together the best skills and experience.

What do you think?

If you want to discuss working together on digital campaigns or projects, or you’d to plan some SEO, digital marketing or social media training for your team, please contact me.

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