Has PR the stomach to steal a slice of the digital marketing pie? / The Sarah Hall column

June 23rd, 2015 .
Authored by Sarah Hall .
4 min read

PR is no longer what purists think it is. As the lines between advertising, digital and PR agencies continue to blur,  it’s often impossible to tell one from the other. Sarah Hall investigates.

Organisations no longer rely on newspapers, TV or radio to get their message out. Thanks to digital technology, they’ve become their own media.

Self-publishing via blogs and broadcasting via YouTube and Vimeo is today’s norm. Apps like Periscope (external link)are now bringing video streaming to the masses.

Email databases and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook provide a distribution mechanism.

As established brand storytellers, PR practitioners have reskilled to capitalise on these opportunities.

Meanwhile, those in advertising and digital have done the same with PR.

So while multi-disciplinary approaches offer opportunity, they also threaten the PR industry’s very core.

Blurred lines

PR is no longer what purists think it is.

As the lines between advertising, digital and PR agencies have blurred, practitioners have no choice but to embrace new technologies and an integrated approach to their communications.

Stephen Waddington (external link), chief engagement officer at Ketchum (external link), argues that in many instances the lines between the disciplines are blurring to the extent that it’s not possible to tell one from the other.

“If a County Council posts an editorial news update in its Facebook newsfeed and then pays to promote it to ensure that all its followers see the message, is that advertising?

“If a retail brand works with a network analysis tool to identify the key influencers in its niche and then pays the company to manage an influencer campaign on its behalf, is that public relations?

“One thing is for sure. The customer doesn’t care, and the C-suite is following her lead.”

Sell paid or sell out

PR practitioners’ reluctance to jump into what has traditionally been advertising territory is a risky business.

When PRs choose not to run paid campaigns because it doesn’t fit with their definition of PR, it leaves the door open for a competitor to fill that void. Ultimately there is just one choice: capitalise or capitulate.

Laura Sutherland runs Aura PR (external link) in Glasgow where there has been a shift in what the marketplace demands from PR agencies.

“We’re moving to a more integrated approach working across paid, earned, owned and shared media. We now have to look to engage with audiences in the most relevant way, and sometimes that means having to pay to reach them. Social media gives us a huge targeting opportunity.

“I’m lucky to have worked in integrated agencies and understand the more technical and ‘geeky’ elements of PR, including analytics and content management systems. This has benefited me hugely in quickly developing a more relevant offering to our clients across the UK. It’s what business owners and in-house marketers expect.”

Mirror the media’s model

It’s not just businesses that want a more rounded service from PRs either.

Helen Dalby, editor at ncjMedia, which publishes the Chronicle (external link), Journal and Sunday Sun in the North East of England, says that what journalists require from PR practitioners has also changed.

“How we work with PR practitioners has changed considerably since the introduction of our digital-first strategy. We are continually innovating, and we need people who will collaborate with us and work at a similar pace, and who can generate compelling content in different formats.

“For instance, we’ve recently worked with PRs on creating search-optimised content to accompany an advance editorial plan about a big North East event. Analytics inform our content decisions, and it’s essential when dealing with PR practitioners that they understand the needs of the digital audience.

“Whether a campaign is editorial or paid, we generally offer an approach that integrates content across all our platforms – mobile, desktop, social and print. We look for technical and content expertise and will work with whichever discipline can supply this.”

Progression required

Ultimately, the message is clear: PR practitioners need to be much more progressive, innovative and pacey when it comes to change. Expertise can be developed or hired, where the skillset is not a natural fit.

Agencies enjoying success are those that are service-oriented with looser, more adaptive structures that allow them to pair the appropriate expertise to a communications campaign – whichever discipline that has traditionally sat within.

As a practitioner, you might not like it, but the choice is to deal with the dissonance, or PR might just die.

Are you a PR progressing where others aren’t? Disagree with any of the above? Voice your opinion in the comments below.

Look out for our content series aimed at media professionals this week and next.

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Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall is a pioneer of best practice in the PR industry. Winner of the CIPR’s Sir Stephen Tallents medal in 2014 for exceptional achievement in PR practice, Hall was CIPR 2018 President and she continues to sit on the Institute’s Board and Council to lead its gender and diversity work. She is also a member of the Northern Power Women Power List, Athena40 Global Committee, and Founder of #FutureProof, a community and book series designed to support communication and PR managers. Sarah Hall Consulting is one of the top 10 PR-related blogs in the UK according to Vuelio.