There's no doubt that PR agencies were slow on the uptake when the digital revolution took off.
This allowed more savvy tech agencies to lead the digital and social media race. But all hope is not lost as PR companies play catch-up to reclaim the domain of expert communicators and reputation builders aka the PR industry.
If one traces the history of when social media and digital marketing raised its head, there was a clear gap in knowledge and understanding of how to bring social media into the mix. Bigger global agencies that were in South Africa had a head start as they already had the knowledge from teams that led the space globally and so were more prepared.
In addition, at the centre of digital marketing and social media lies the heartbeat - technology. This enables technology savvy companies with web, gaming, SMS and social media development expertise experience to easily and quickly launch themselves as experts in the space. Many have done great social media marketing campaigns which have come at a premium.
This brings us to the next phase - measurement. As in the PR industry, better measurement of digital spend versus ROI is being demanded by marketing directors. While digital platforms allow a level of measurability that's far more tangible than other marketing tactics, this issue has moved beyond clicks, impressions and likes to consideration, trial and sales.
A mutually beneficial partnership
What does this mean in the greater scheme of the debate about who leads the digital strategy? I believe that instead of claiming the space for ourselves, we need to understand clearly that there is a level of partnering required, because most PR agencies don't have the development and technical skills required to succeed in the digital space. We both need each other. As an industry, we have a clear understanding of the reputational risks, and we know how to create messages that will resonate and how to build strong relationships and connections with all stakeholders. We are experienced in communicating and engaging with our client's audiences and we know what to say and how to say it. We also know how to handle a crisis because we have been trained to do so.
So let's leave behind the infighting and find a way to coexist. The bigger agencies are doing so but with in-house teams and companies, other agencies will need to find partners, set up joint ventures or buy smaller boutique agencies. But they all still face the fact that very soon clients will no longer be willing to fork out high budgets for something that cannot be measured on the bottom line.
How we as an industry can add real value is by:
- understanding audiences and the best practices required to communicate with them as they journey with our clients along the customer lifecycle;
- understanding and building a communications and reputation management strategy around the broader business objectives and challenges;
- implementing communications campaigns that have a long-term impact on all audiences for the client and doing this through both traditional and digital channels;
- determining the true impact that digital marketing and social media (as communications channels) are having on the client's brands or businesses, from a business objectives and bottom line perspective;
- providing original content. Our skills and experience with content origination (written, pictorial and video) finding engaging stories and providing this in a way that resonates with audiences, is something we have always been very good at;
- coming up with creative ideas that we know will gain the attention of audiences (media included) and make the digital campaign have greater impact;
- and integrating digital into the traditional domain, which still has a huge role to play in the South African environment.