Beers & Innovation: Clients in the Wild
What is the role of PR agencies in the wild frontier of the social web? Do traditional PR agencies even have a future as digital agencies and marketing agencies jockey for position to take control of marketing and communications projects? PRs and digital media experts met on November 20 in the twelfth of our Beers and Innovation series of events to discuss the issues. Ian Delaney reports.
Chair Roger Warner of Squiz and Velocity Partners kicked off the discussion by remarking that in the four years since he’d left corporate PR, the landscape of the industry had become almost unrecognisable. Back then, working as PR Director for IBM Europe, uncertified employees talking about the company or its products was tantamount to a sackable offence, that communicating directly with non-press sources was unheard of. What exactly has happened?
What’s happened, Will McInnes responded, is disintermediation. This is quite an issue for PRs, since their business, for some time, has been ‘mediation’: placing themselves between the client and the world at large, feeding messages to the established channels. Nowadays, though, everyone’s got access to their own printing press, and - if they have the ability and/or the authority - an audience as influential as those of mainstream journalists. At the same time, companies have felt the pressure to start exhibiting a little more transparency. Dell, for example, has moved from a position where it churned out products from its secret R&D labs and refused to comment on complaints about customer service to a point where it’s a very different company. The Dell blog allows members of the public to hear from and talk to senior marketing and product managers, while the Ideastorm site takes suggestions from customers and turns them into product offerings.
Sarah Ogden of Midnight Communications acknowledged that social media have really shaken things up. The issue, she suggested, is that these forms of communication are so very new. PRs are mature people in an immature environment. Their experience in dealing with traditional environments won’t immediately do them any good in this new land, though they do have the communications ’smarts’ to adapt to the changing environment. They are still the people to employ to find the safest path through the minefield: but, yes, it is a minefield.
One approach, Drew Benvie (hardly a new media naysayer, if you read his blog) commented, is not to worry too much. Brands have news, PRs can craft these into narratives that will appeal. Done carefully and sensitively, influential bloggers might be enticed to write about those narratives. The other approach is client blogs, but he was less sanguine about this approach: few clients have the time, energy and inclination, and if they don’t, then they can’t be forced to drink the water - the result is ghost-written blogs that don’t accomplish anything. On the other hand, most clients want their stories to appear in blogs, so business as usual, albeit in a new channel.
McInnes took exception and characterised this as a Web 1.0 approach and that clients have to take part - launch their own blogs - to be players in the new media landscape.
A couple of interesting straw polls followed. How many of the PRs in the room believed they could accurately measure the impact of their PR interventions online? Out of 60 attendees, representing around 35 organisations, the answer was one or two. The methods used by those one or two were not divulged. How many believe these campaigns are effective? - almost everyone - but why? In some senses, this might be judged an abject failure of the PR industry. The movement online has allowed other spheres of marketing - advertising and DM, for example - to develop considerable accountability as the measurement of every click and view becomes available to everyone involved in the process.
How to answer this quandary? PR has grown up as a craft rather than as a profession, Benvie suggested, and it’s going to be really hard to impose a meaningful numerical metric on that. Later in the debate, Ogden described PR as a ‘parasite profession’ which feeds upon passing fancies, latches onto popular obsessions and transient mores in order to gain ground. So is there a possibility of a real PR metric?
Stephen Waddington of Rainier PR expressed his concern that clients are becoming used to the ability to measure the effectiveness of every pound in their marketing budgets, and its direct impact on the Profit and Loss sheet. If the PR industry as whole is not able to offer meaningful metrics for their activities then they will lose ground to advertising, digital and marketing agencies. [My personal comment - this is an issue that can’t be solved by individual companies developing their own proprietary metrics, since the credibility of the entire profession is at stake].
Benvie responded to the point, saying that the nature of PR can be very nebulous and thus the nature and definition of ’success’ in PR campaigns can be equally varied. The first meeting with a new client will determine the conditions of success. (McInnes later commented that the key value of PRs might be in their experience in listening, not talking). Benvie said that the aim might be more sales, but it might equally well be responding to incoming calls from press, monitoring, complete brand management or a multitude of points between. An industry-wide metric for online PR might well be impossible in such circumstances, since the nature of the activities PRs undertake is so variable compared to what an ad agency or DM house might do.
The issue of too many agencies was raised by McInnes. Clients have design, SEO, SEM, PR, advertising, digital, mailing, print etc. etc. agencies and managing all those agencies is incredibly painful for them. As a consequence, clients are likely to be inclined to hire a lead agency which will sub-contract all the rest. At the moment, it’s very often advertising agencies that often take this role, since the largest part of marketing budgets flows through them. What claim might PR agencies have to assume that role? What clients actually need, said McInnes, is a hybrid team that can cope with all eventualities. That might mean larger full-service agencies or smaller, versatile teams able to offer greater dedication. [I think this ‘too many agencies’ issue is crucial to the future of UK digital and other agencies and am working now towards events to explore this further].
On a similar note, Ogden talked about the impossibility of separating online/blogger campaigns from the rest of a client’s PR activity. An integrated campaign will operate in a virtuous circle whereby traditional activities will reinforce what happens online and vice-versa.
Simon Collister commented that he thought that society has changed and that PR hasn’t yet moved with it. He spoke about a lawyer colleague whose practice had completely changed over the last few years. While it had previously involved lots of briefs and learned papers and precedents, it’s now moved far more into the area of mediation. PR needs to change in the same way, he asserted: PRs need to reinvent themselves or die. Or perhaps the move isn’t so much into the future as back to the roots. When the concept of PR was invented it was about counsel about a client’s reputation and the likely implications of the client’s business decisions upon its reputation. PR ought to aim for board-level presence - its proper place, Collister suggested - to be able to continue to add value.
Ogden suggested that the company made a critical PR error in failing to answer criticisms and anxieties. Owing to the volume of queries in this ‘communications black hole’, the company’s website fell down under the pressure - people kept coming back or clicking ‘reload’ presumably in the absence of fresh information - and so it was left to other, negative sources to fill in the gap.
McInnes agreed - he suggested that a video blog from the bank’s chief executive during the crisis might have helped to allay customer’s fears. The point of doing video rather than text being that you know it’s genuinely ‘him’, not some press office monkey instructed to say ‘yes, everything is ok.’
Audience members cautioned that a video blog appearing from nowhere would not have worked, and that the Northern Rock customers pictured queuing in news reports weren’t likely to have access or faith in online sources. Again, an integrated online and offline approach would be needed. Another point was that a blog popping up out of nowhere would not have been remotely credible. Disaster prevention, which ought now to include a channel of communication such as a corporate blog, needs to be planned in immediately, years before any emergency scenario.
As usual, we had some great discussions at the bar following the formal part of the evening, but my notes appear to have petered out at this point. One I recall was with Alan Patrick of Broadsight. Its blog has proven the most effective marketing the company has done, accruing some
20K 200K impressions a month. Interestingly, though, the blog hasn’t directly gained them any clients: what it has done is (a) gain them recommendations from readers to people who have become clients and (b) created a showcase for their thinking that has enabled them to demonstrate to clients that they’re good thinkers and on top of their game.
Again, the complexities of reputation in the social media landscape baffle the sort of metrics that might be employed in other marketing disciplines.
I am planning for NMK to revisit these issues early in 2008, and hopefully tease out these disintermediation and multiple agencies issues a little further.
Reports elsewhere (in order of publication/found-ness - to be updated as new reports appear):
Alan Patrick - PR - in the wild or at a crossroads?
Tim Hoang - Event report: NMK – Clients in the wild
Simon Collister - Clients in the wild… PR agencies in the wild?
Lloyd Gofton - Social Media from a PR’s Perspective
Giles Shorthouse - http://prvert.blogspot.com/2007/11/does-facebook-work-for-pr.html (ah, Kylie)
Drew Benvie - Wrong elephant. Different room.
Tim Callington - Beers and Innovation…or orange juice in my case
Will McInnes - World has changed: PR agencies haven’t
Roger Warner - How many Agencies does it take to change a Lightbulb?
Laura Dinneen - Clients in the Wild