Can “traditional” PR agencies survive in the digital age?

Some years ago when SEO and then social media engagement began to develop into more mainstream marketing activities, there were many seasoned PR professionals and agencies that ignored, or even derided them as channels or tactics. At best, these disciplines tended to be paid lip service. Online exposure was, for a long time, seen by some practitioners as a near irrelevant by-product of their core media relations activities. It was assumed, in most cases correctly, that their principal client contacts – the PR buyers – had little interest in the “web”. For most, the client remit remained firmly focussed on generating positive, high quality, media coverage for the organisation. There were “techies” and “geeks” who looked after “IT and web stuff”, and although some may have had more forward thinking colleagues within the marketing department, the two tended not to mix or collaborate in the online comms space.

After all, ever since Ivy Lee issued the very first press release in 1906, PR has principally been focussed on media relations. Whilst other audiences became more relevant targets for PR agencies (analyst houses, independent influencers, industry bodies etc.), “online” as a channel was late to the party. There were signs in the late 90s and early 2000s that things may be changing when BusinessWire and PRNewswire began introducing digital features to their press release services. However, the majority of PR agencies remained focussed on getting client messages and opinions into high quality news channels and audience, sector or market specific publications. Generally speaking, client online activity and performance just did not fall into the PR agency area of influence, or concern.

Of course there were exceptions to the broad statements I am making – however, in my experience a lot of the early forays into SEO, for example, by PR agencies that I dealt with a number of years ago, were primarily pushed upon the agency and the PR buyer by a more forward thinking CMO at the client side. Unfortunately, these early attempts at SEO tended to include developing a set of meta tags for a page or two, perhaps some keyword research and possibly some keyword insertion in the on-page content. When it came to social media, “set up a Facebook page, lock it down and push all our marketing collateral onto it” seemed to be the preferred approach.

Over recent years the situation has changed dramatically. At first, some agencies started mentioning SEO and social media in their own marketing collateral and on their websites. They set up digital divisions, poaching experienced digital marketing professionals from specialist companies, poured money into offices, software and hardware, and positioned themselves as digital gurus.

The irony there is that a lot of the best social media, SEO and digital marketing experts operated with nothing more than a laptop, a few software tools perhaps, and a bucketful of experience and nous. Some of the best still do.

If we look at the market today, things continue to develop at breakneck speed – SEO and social media have become a standard inclusion in most PR toolkits. Some may still pay them lip service but a significant percentage now understand that these channels are critical components of a “modern” PR campaign – clients and prospects now expect their campaigns to include comprehensive digital outreach as a matter of course.

One stat that has been talked about recently in both PR and SEO circles in the UK is that 72% of PR agencies now offer SEO as a service, up from only 19% five years ago [1].

PRCA Digital PR Report 2013

PRCA Digital PR Report 2013

This statistic should not come as a surprise – effective SEO, social media and digital campaigns can command significant budgets – PR as a discipline has had to evolve along with the ever changing world around it, and embracing SEO and social media means that PR budget allocations are not challenged by third party digital comms specialists.

However, the level of digital expertise and ability between different PR agencies is extremely varied, with some outsourcing the more technical aspects to third parties; some white labelling the entire digital component, and others hiring and developing their own in-house teams of specialists.

Personally, I feel that most PR agencies “get” social media more than they “get” SEO. After all, social media is a close relative of PR – it involves content creation and dissemination, building brand and product engagement, and encouraging two-way conversations. SEO is by its very nature a much more technical beast and requires specialised knowledge based on hands on experience. In much the same way that anyone can write a press release and fire it over the wire to no effect, anyone can search for “SEO” on Google, find a random set of guidelines on approach, and then merrily destroy their website’s search rankings in a matter of weeks.

Experience and intelligent application is the name of the game in all of these disciplines, from PR to SEO to social media. High quality, unique content remains critical, and it comes as no surprise that the majority of PR agencies now understand that the content they are creating daily can be utilised effectively by an experienced SEO or social media specialist to support the client’s communications objectives.

Multi-channel communication is now the norm for a high percentage of organisations, who understand that in order to fully engage with their existing and potential customers, they need to be communicating with them wherever they are, and on whichever platform they may be using, be that Facebook or Twitter; searching for information on Google; reading a favourite blog; picking up a printed copy of the Times, or checking their inbox on a Monday morning.

So can “traditional” PR agencies survive in the digital age?

I think most agencies have now embraced digital as a channel, with varying degrees of success and effectiveness. SEO, social media and PR are merging, and input from dedicated specialists in each area is required to really develop successful and effective multi-channel communication campaigns.

As illustrated by the PRCA survey, most already offer SEO and social media as services (in-house or outsourced) – the real question is which ones can actually deliver digital solutions that bring results? These are the ones that will flourish. The others will wither and die – there is no hiding place when it comes to digital – everything can be tracked and ROI measurement is second nature to most digital specialists.

It will be interesting to see how things develop over the next few years – the mass media is still undergoing a major upheaval as a result of digital and the ongoing collapse of printed content; PR as a discipline is in the middle of the digital revolution; social media has matured into a tangible and measurable marketing and outreach channel, and SEO is a standard inclusion in any campaign than goes near the web, and a lot that don’t. I think the convergence we are seeing now will quicken, and whilst there will always be dedicated specialists in these fields, I would expect a new breed of organisation to start developing – “Social Relations Optimisation Agency” anyone?

[1] http://www.slideshare.net/Mattcartmell/digital-pr-report-2013 Survey for the PRCA

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