Are we there yet?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The decade or so that I have worked in PR and watched the industry change and morph reminds me of the extreme metamorphosis that a butterfly goes through from egg -> caterpillar -> chrysalis -> butterfly. All extremely different beasts in their behaviour and modus operandi and that evolution is going on again if you read the news about Edelman acquiring Spook (recommended reading on the deal would be David Brain’s thoughtful big-picture post rather than Rick Murray‘s quite snarky version which conceals some of the business benefit detail of Edelman’s acquisition).

We bang on about being at the top table with brands and yet so often when it comes to it, our strategic skills are not backed up with the capability to make and deliver the content that foster and create conversations (and here I mean a little more than basic websites and Facebook applications). And in many aspects of the digital world having the technical and visually creative skills are fundamental. The new agencies like Cake and the 30 second-spot-besotted dinosaurs of the big groups still pick up too much of this work (even though the latter group patently do not understand how to work in an environment of conversation and relationship) and it’s often only because they have technical and production facilitates in-house. “The PR guys have some good ideas, but do we really trust them to make this stuff and integrate it with our marketing enterprise system? Ok, let’s throw them 10% of the budget and give the build and execution from here on in to the digital or the ad’ guys”? Familiar to you? Well it is to me and the problem is that you don’t get to do strategy long-term if you can’t deliver strategy (and nor should you – – – the clients are right on this).

This the section of David’s post that I think is the most interesting. In the US, my employer has a dedicated web build team with a great deal of depth that I can rely on to do the most complex digital work, in addition I have access to a large digital agency eco-system on the London-Brighton axis that I can partner with to deliver the kind of programmes David alludes to.

Capability is not the issue, the bigger question is does the PR industry have the brand permission to lead these kind of projects?

Whilst there are agencies out there that are doing some great work in this space as a whole I suspect the PR industry doesn’t have the brand permission to lead this kind of work for many major clients. Often when I am speaking to people about digital work I am not speaking to someone in the PR function of a business.

I was quite fortunate that my previous role inhouse with Yahoo! although it had PR in the job title involved driving integrated marketing communications campaigns including trade show activity, consumer events hijacking (including a late-night on Oxford Street during the Harry Potter 6 book launch), online and offline media buys; however this is the exception rather than the norm.

Part of the problem is the measurement of PR which engenders unease and distrust; influence is a very hard concept to give definitive values that are understandable to marketers peers in other business functions, it doesn’t translate into meaningful pivot tables with non-abstract (preferably fiscal-related) metrics. As an industry, we have only ourselves to blame, at the beginning of my agency career I remember going into a client meeting with a large mobile phone company with no coverage to speak of and seeing the client perfectly happy when the account manager opened up the meeting saying that we had been successful in ‘developing mindshare with key influencers and were confident that this would translate into positive coverage at some point in time, so long as we continued our relationship building activity with them‘. A decade later and that pithy speech would only be successful at getting you fired by a client. And rightly so.

A second element to this challenge is that many client organisations have specialist digital marketing decision makers who have an exceptionally analytical nature and a specialist lexicon that is very different to their PR peers. In addition, these digital marketers already have trusted suppliers that speak their language and represent a known quantity. They are less likely to take a chance on a PR agency that at first glance may not even speak the same language as them and represent a high risk purchase relative to other marketing agencies.

The lens through which PR people see their clients business problems doesn’t help things. Ok, PR people generally do a pile of desk research looking at what the media say, they may do some primary research by interviewing some journalists and then they use these outputs to influence their creativity. But where is the audience in all this? Also since 70-plus per cent of all media stories are influenced by PR people in some way shape or form you are into a quite bizarre pattern of recursion. How do you escape this recursion pattern to  derive the insight, the zeitgeist, the spark that will turn the good campaign into a great campaign?

And more importantly, where is the reassurance for the client that the ideas will deliver meaningful results?  Advertising agencies have comprehensive research departments that provide both insight and reassurance so that clients can spend their multi-million dollar budgets, how does PR do this in a cost-effective way? I am fortunate to work in an agency that has the critical mass to have a dedicated research team that we can do just that.

Trust in a team of nice smart people will only take you so far, cold hard audience insight data however allows the marketer to defend and justify themselves when they negotiate for budget or defend a programme that isn’t performing to expectations.

You can read Edelman’s social release on the Spook acquisition here.