PR eyes its place on the sidelines

Wednesday, 8 June 2011, 12:10 | Category : General
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Two recent pieces of news set me thinking. The first was PR Week’s publication of the first league table of the industry’s top 50 digital consultancies. The second was research from the Holmes Report that found that “the communications function remains excluded from the top table of senior management”.

For a long time now, we’ve been hearing how the rise of social media and connected online communities hands PR the initiative over ad men and other marketers – PR’s experience in managing reputations, crises and two-way dialogue is, goes the argument, inherently a more fitting skillset for the online age than the one-way broadcasting model of other marketing disciplines. The link between the two articles highlighted above is that this digital prowess could arguably be the gateway to PR taking what it sees as its rightful place at the top of the business hierarchy.

The PR Week digital league table would indicate that plenty of agencies are profiting from persuading budget holders of PR’s vital role in the online world. (Let’s for the moment leave aside the Economist’s dismantling of PR’s case).

For me though, the existence of the table also raises some questions about just how well the PR industry is geared up to capitalise on the rise of digital.

Any agency worth its salt will tell you that digital is now embedded in the very DNA of its work. The existence of agency blogs, Twitter feeds, etc. (all of which The PR Network has of course) are all there as proof of PRs walking the walk in this regard as well as talking the talk.

If digital is so integral a part of the work agencies are doing though, it begs the question of how the work, and its associated fee, can be separated out. To be fair, PR Week do make this point. The article also acknowledges that “digital is a channel not a specialism’ and yet goes on to say that the table is still relevant as “many PR agencies are showcasing real best practice.” By its own admission then, PR Week’s league table is incomplete and unrepresentative.

I’ll come back to the league table shortly but let’s turn for a moment to the second article I highlighted about the absence of PR industry representation at the highest levels of business. Many of us will have experienced working for brands where a complete lack of coordination between advertising, PR and other marketing functions means that the company frequently goes to market with three different sets of messages for any particular initiative.

The best and most successful campaigns I’ve been party to are those with a strong central idea capable of being executed across multiple platforms (media relations, advertising, direct marketing, events, customer relations, etc.). All elements of the marketing mix work in harmony to tell a consistent story and decisions on how to use channels are based on how effective they are in reaching a particular audience.

Any right thinking organisation wants people at the top that can pull together these various strands to build a coherent whole. Of course, there are many smart people working in UK agencies who are more than capable of this and who can hold their own at the most senior levels of business.

However, I can’t help wondering whether isolating digital as the PR Week league table and its featured agencies have done is counter-productive in showcasing PR’s capabilities. Singling out digital as if it were a practice seems to belie all the sensible things industry commentators have said about the role of online campaigns. It positions digital as an add-on rather than an integral part of a broader plan and PR as a tactical element rather than of broader strategic importance – PRs become managers of a Facebook page or producers of a YouTube clip (activities that can be separated out financially for the benefit of a league table) rather than guardians of reputations in the on- and offline world (which would be much more difficult to put a figure on).

Rather than opening the door for PRs to the boardroom, looking at digital in this way seems to place us on the sidelines as bit players in the bigger marketing story.

Lord Chadlington, chief executive of Huntsworth, said this year, no doubt in an attempt to brandish the group’s digital capabilities: “Assume everything is digital and only when you have failed try an analogue solution.” Surely, the question here should be why not both analogue and digital, budget permitting? More than that though, the comment seems to me to encapsulate the risk the industry faces in its rush to all things digital of placing itself on the margins as a bolt-on service – rather than taking its place at the centre of a business’s discussions about how best to engage with all of its audiences.

Marc Sparrow

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