The disruptive force of digital and social media has triggered a seismic shift in the communications landscape: declining circulations in most sectors of the printed media; sustained, rapid growth of the use, and influence, of social media; the proliferation of online communities. It all adds up to a fundamental change in how we seek and share information. The opinion former playing ground has levelled too; any voice can make itself heard, not just those in positions of power, and if those voices go viral, they can rapidly achieve global influence.
For the big London PR agencies this communications revolution has driven fundamental change. ‘Media relations’ is losing its supremacy; driving influence is the name of the game now, and that means being able to produce compelling stories in a range of media formats across multiple channels. To do this successfully the very structure of the agency has to change.
We spoke to two of the most successful PR agencies in the world to find out how they have adapted so successfully to the digital era, what’s changed, what skills they are looking for and where they think PR will be in ten years’ time.
Farewell media relations, hello influencers
Michael Frohlich, Ogilvy’s UK MD, explains how digital has changed client demands, “For many clients (though not all), media relations have become just one small part of what they need. Their requirements, and what we provide, are much more about influencer relations and igniting story-telling through the most effective channels, whatever they might be.”
Denise Kaufmann, CEO at Ketchum London agrees, “Digital has totally changed how people process and absorb information. We’ve been training our people in digital skills for the past five or six years, specifically about how to interact with influencers who are now predominantly online. PR is about seeking influence and there are more influencers in more places than ever before.”
But the proliferation of channels and influencers doesn’t mean more complex or nuanced messaging. The opposite is in fact true.
“Integrity and transparency are crucial,” says Kaufmann, “You have to have all your messaging totally aligned, completely transparent and absolutely consistent across all channels. Companies that get this wrong have got into a lot of trouble. There’s nowhere to hide.”
The nature of digital media has forced PR agencies to get better at producing visual assets to support, and in some cases drive, their stories. What it might surprise you to know is the extent to which visuals have changed the very structure of large PR agencies.
“We have in-house producers flying around the world directing short-form content for our clients,” says Frohlich. “We have become a real-time digital production house. We are producing work we would never have done five years ago.”
Denise Kaufmann thinks PR agencies still have work to do to compete with advertising and branding agencies. “Visualisation is a priority for us. You have to be ready with content, so we have in-house tv producers, photographers and a graphics studio. It’s a cost but you have to have immediate access to those skills.”
While ad agencies might still have the upper hand when it comes to visuals, Kaufmann believes the blurred lines between marketing disciplines is great news for PR. “We’re in a sweet spot,” she explains, “we’ve always had the upper hand when it comes to telling stories so this shift represents a great opportunity for us.
“Clients no longer think ‘I’ll approach an ad agency for that, a PR agency for this’. You can’t think of things separately now, it has to be a holistic approach that combines social and traditional media. This is driving a lot more collaboration between disciplines.”
A measure of success
In other good news, there has been a fundamental shift in KPIs and the way in which PR agencies prove ROI for their clients. The press clippings book is no more, which means the traditional apprenticeship for junior account handlers (12 months’ solid photocopying) has been abandoned in favour of more sophisticated methods of measurement.
“We and many of our clients now focus on outcomes rather than outputs,” says Frohlich. “Gone are the days when the number of press releases or clippings is a feasible KPI. We are more interested in consumer or stakeholder engagement and sentiment, so we’ve invested in things like a research and development team and a behavioural science unit.”
It’s a similar picture at Ketchum. “Proving ROI for our clients is now a table stake. It’s in everyone’s interest to give clients the ammunition they want to prove their investment is worth it, and the data we can provide from digital activity is an important part of that.”
What you know, not who you know
While PR may still be about engagement and storytelling, the skills required are changing. A hot contact book still has some value, but if you know how to make a story fly across multiple media channels then you are so totally hired.
“You have to understand the digital ecosystem and how all the pieces fit together,” says Kaufmann. “You also have to understand business and how it operates, the commercial realities, as well as understanding the strategic insights and how they manifest themselves creatively.”
“The strength of an agency is no longer its relationships with media but its ability to ignite stories across a very wide range of outlets,” explains Frohlich. “The skills needed today are around flexibility and the ability to understand the strategic and creative fundamentals of telling resonating stories for clients.”
Ten years from now…
“Mobile technology will take over the world. There will always be a new platform. The speed at which things develop is breathtaking so we need to be super-agile and even faster. That said, PR agencies will remain true to their roots, storytelling will only get stronger and we’ll always need to be telling stories people relate to.”
“For agencies I think it will be a completely different landscape. They will need to disregard their old internal structures and become relevant to the needs of their clients. A ‘one size fits all’ won’t work anymore for large agencies. That said, there will always be a need for specialist services; smaller agencies focused on specific service offerings will continue to thrive.”
So there you have it. The future of PR. If you want to be a part of it, get digitally savvy, brilliant at producing visuals, excellent at social media with a solid understanding of business, strategy and creativity. No pressure.