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The Dissident Spin Doctor: The PR agency of the future sits with creative

Date posted: December 11, 2012

Emma King

by Emma King (@EmmainSA) Much has been said about what the ad agency of the future will look like. We all know that the old ways of creating adverts for each separate media channel, and pontificating for ages about this radio execution or that print layout is outdated. We know that integration of all disciplines – in whatever form – needs to be the primary aim; and we know that digital understanding and execution needs to run through everything.

But what about the PR agency of the future? Communications and engagement has to be more than simply farming out a press release to a bank Emma Kingof media names. PR practitioners need to embrace social media and work with online influencers – however we interpret that meaning. That much is a given.

Today PR agencies must make fundamental changes to the old way of working in order to be relevant. These changes need to happen within the agency structure as well as in the expertise and services that they offer. PR agencies need to move away from the constraints that have been set on them, often driven by client perceptions, that their role is simply about media relations, whether that be traditional or social.

When I started at my latest venture as part of a larger agency group, we had a lot of discussion about how the PR function would work – whether we would have a standalone and separately branded business unit or whether it should fall as a truly integrated part of the agency. We decided on the latter – much like the agency did with the digital function – because we felt that in the future we really needed to work in a way in which everything flowed together, and which was not constrained by the division of business units and billing structures.

In an ideal world I believe this is how PR agencies should work – if not within an actual integrated agency then as closely as possible with clients and their other agencies in what essentially becomes an integrated team.

PR experts really need to part of the creative team, not necessarily to lead them, but certainly to give input to the creative process.  It’s no use having an ‘advertising’ campaign which sticks digital or PR on as an afterthought. This inclusive approach means that there is the potential for a PR idea or digital execution to be the starting point, with ‘traditional’ ATL supporting this – an exciting thought.

The structure of the future, I believe, needs to be built around three core areas or competencies, all of which are interwoven and complement each other – you can’t, I believe, have one without the other. These are:

  • Reputation management: This has to be about much more than pure media relations. For me, this is working with a client and looking at all the drivers of reputation – whether that be driving innovation, employee communications, CSI programmes or a consistent corporate identity – and then working up a plan which starts to build up the weak areas. I strongly feel that a brand or corporate needs to build its reputation through demonstrable action – they cannot go around saying they are amazing, if they way that they act and behave is not. And likewise, exciting and innovative thinkers create their own news and reputation. Crisis and issue management is falls in here as well.
  • Community management: This replaces the traditional media relations component of PR. I feel we need to be community managers – whether that be a Facebook community, ‘real life’ community (e.g. shoppers around a certain outlet); a community of journalists and so on. Hand picking and building relationships with the influencers in those communities is key, managed by teams made up of ‘traditional’ PR talent, as well as social media community planners and managers.
  • Branded content creation: This replaces the traditional press release – and may be anything from creating ‘viral videos’, or funny memes, to managing blogs and portal content, which is then seeded within the identified communities. The watch-out is ensuring that the content is remarkable – not PR fluff or ad speak.

Agencies, of all disciplines, are moving in this direction and all bring their expertise to the party. Digital agencies have great technical expertise, and often create great content, but not all have the PR background of managing conversations and working with influencers. PR agencies know how to create messaging that is engaging, and manage reputation, but often have to outsource to create beautiful and designed content. Ad agencies know how to create beautiful content, but often not how to engage a communities in two-way conversations or manage relationships in times of issues.

I think all agencies will become a crazy mash up of PR people, ad creatives, strategists, social media community managers, digital content creators and developers, designers and writers. And about time.

Emma King is Head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). You can find her on Twitter at @EmmainSA

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