PR Agencies Have the Edge over Digital Marketers

An “analog” skill known as “communication” can give traditional PR agencies an edge when it comes to competing with digital marketing firms.

I think we all realize that the convergence of PR and marketing in the digital space is picking up speed. In the last month, I’ve delivered three proposals that included both traditional PR and online brand-building elements, and I expect most RFPs we receive in future to require at least one online solution.

Given the risk-averse nature of Japanese companies, it doesn’t surprise me that the RFPs seeking an online brand-building element were from non-Japanese organizations, but we shouldn’t confuse “willingness to take risks” with “digital savvy” since most companies, regardless of nationality, are still trying to understand what it means to succeed with online PR.

A successful online PR program requires three elements: an engagement platform, attractive content and an engaged community. Digital marketing agencies know how to design and implement engagement infrastructure – for example, widgets that tap into existing SNS platforms (Twitter, Facebook) or stand-alone elements (campaign websites, social gaming applications). These agencies are also adept at populating the platform with content, which they create themselves or subcontract from specialist content management firms. Where they fall short is the third element – an engaged community – because building and populating an online platform is not the same as managing the community that grows around that platform.

Digital marketing agencies are an outgrowth of the traditional advertising firm. These firms understand their audiences from a branding perspective – essentially, a one-way communication model under which the agency parses a client audience based on statistical feedback (age, sex, likes/dislikes, purchasing trends, etc.) and then “broadcasts” content that its hopes will appeal to target demographics.

The problem with this model is that corporate communication has moved away from one-way broadcasting to target audiences and toward two-way conversations between all stakeholders. Community management pioneer Jeremiah Owyang explains this shift, known as “edgeworks” and first introduced by Brian Oberkirch, as follows: corporate communication channels have been disrupted as new, easy-to-use web tools allow everyone to communicate; this disruption has caused communication to shift from a centralized team to many individuals at the “edge” of a corporation.

Owyang, again citing Oberkirch, stresses the fundamental difference between “branding” and “edgeworks”: branding is one-way, unauthentic broadcastsfrom corporate communications whereas edgeworks is two-way authentic conversationsbetween all groups. Authentic conversations, says Owyang, are free of marketing jargon and resemble conversations at the dinner table or a coffee shop. Because these conversations discuss both good and bad topics, and include personal opinion and experience, they build trust for both parties.

Why is this shift good for PR agencies?

The shift of corporate communications to the edges of the company has created the need for a community manager – an intermediary who thoroughly understands the company’s communication strategy and goals but who is simultaneously a servant of the community’s members entrusted with carrying their voices back to the company.

According to says Vanessa DiMauro, CEO of B2B community specialist Leader Networks, “A seasoned community manager typically grew up through the ranks of communication specialties, and has the unique and invaluable ability to facilitate ideas, grow thought leadership content and listen well. What they do, and the ways they have honed their methodologies and insights, constitute hard-to-find skills based on extensive hands-on experience.”

This is where PR agencies have an edge. Every day, every week and every month we watch, we monitor and we listen – we do this so that we can understand our clients’audiences and help our clients craft messages and stories that engage. The emergence of two-way conversations in the digital space has merely added a new dimension to our activities. You can create all the digital content you want, but at the end of the day the conversation comes back to two people talking to each other; without an engaged community, the delivery platform and the content are meaningless. (DF)

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