The Digital Divide

Friday, 21 October 2011, 10:43 | Category : General
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I read Daryl Willcox’s Tuesday article on online PR mag “Behind the Spin” about the growing gap between PR firms’ digital capabilities with interest: http://bit.ly/pk5d8v

Daryl (with credit to digital specialist Andrew Smith), notes a growing polarisation in our sector. There are agencies in the ‘fast lane’, who might be classified as those embracing search, social media, online conversation analysis and digital content production. Then there are those increasingly being lapped who might pay lip service to digital but in reality are still focused on ‘traditional’ PR and specifically media relations. Daryl and Andrew note the risk to the latter of continuing on this route, speculating that it is already impacting on those agencies’ commercial realities and prospects.

From the outside looking in it’s hard to penetrate through propaganda, as all the agencies, large and small, claim to be ‘doing digital’. For companies embarking on a new agency search it must be hard to divine which partner to choose – especially if they themselves also only have a vague concept of what a digital campaign ought to look like.

I kind of assumed that by now most agencies had a robust digital proposition. They certainly all talk the talk. Of course some will be more advanced than others, based on how long they’ve been delivering campaigns with a digital element, the experience of individual staff and so on. However, as a resource partner to many agencies, large and small, I’ve been astonished lately at the real picture of digital competency across the board. Some of London’s most established firms still do not understand the relationship between PR and SEO, for example, or have the tools or team to deliver these services in-house. On the other end of the scale, some of the boutique agencies we talk to are not prioritising digital skills when hiring new recruits. Instead, they are still practising the trade pretty much as it was when I started in 1997 when PR was all about media relations and press coverage.

Daryl suggests this could be because the people still powerful in the industry and sitting on agency boards are naturally entrenched in the old, proven ways of PR consultancy. Yet in PR Week only a few months ago bosses from the major global marketing services firms all cited digital as the primary trend in our market. I also think it’s client-led – many clients would still rather see their name in ink than on a well read blog or search engine even if it has a direct impact on web traffic, click throughs or even sales – which impacts on the PR strategies agencies can deploy. This also comes down to measurement and assessing success based on business objectives and outcomes.

Agencies worried about being left behind have a few options. They can buy in the expertise through partnerships, or go down the acquisition route as Edelman did in February with s/w development agency Encore. They can set up spin off brands with a digital focus, like we’ve seen the N15 group do with Beyond. These options can be time and cost intensive, although ultimately give the agency real credibility and strong reference points. Otherwise, agencies can train up existing staff – sending them on industry training courses, bringing in freelance experts for knowledge transfer and letting their bright staff learn on the job. Or they can look to hire in people with strong digital CVs, who are commanding a premium in the market.

What they cannot do is talk about digital in meetings, about it “just being another channel” and deliver lacklustre digital elements to campaigns which are still dominated by press releases, media relationships and coverage. By truly assessing the digital capabilities within the agency, and making a clear plan to shore up their proposition, they will give themselves the best chance at competing in the future. Because they’ll actually be pretty unique. Symmetrel

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