Digital Communications & the PR Agency – Learn to be a Unicorn

I hope that one day, we will no longer be distinguishing between communications and digital communications because we are far beyond the point where there is a distinction to make.

There is no PR and digital PR. What makes all communications digital is that people consume information in print, on TV, online via all kinds of devices. Brands, organizations and corporations are now telling their stories through all these channels. The big challenge is how to do so effectively, efficiently and cohesively.

So what does this mean from the perspective of the PR agency?

During my time in a PR agency, I was part of a digital communications group. Unlike other groups in the agency that were focused on health care or public affairs or specific disciplines, our work crossed all those areas. If there was a client served from the public affairs group, they might have a “digital need” like a website or an online press release. When that need came up, the public affairs group would call us in and ask us our advice. The conversation usually went something like this:

 “We are developing a campaign with so and so. We need an online press release with PRWeb, a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter channel. Can you build that for the launch next week?”

“Hmmm. Well, can you back up for a moment and give us a background on the client, the goals and objectives of the campaign?”

This happened over and over again. Things have since changed where I was, but you get it. Digital was an after thought. This prevailed throughout not just our agency, but the industry.

There was a constant tug o’ war between digital and the rest of the agency. In my opinion, both sides were at fault. The rest of the agency for not understanding that it was a different realm, one that didn’t have the same timelines (you can’t always build a website in a day the same way you can write a press release), was ever-changing and was different to measure than what had existed to date AND digital for being reticent to teach the PR world about the new technologies. We, and I was at fault of this too, were very proprietary about our Facebook or blogging knowledge when these technologies were new. As if it was a secret that only the cool kids could know. Enough of the Mean Girls back and forth. It was killing our business one tweet at a time. A blog is a blog is a blog. A professional can learn what it is and understand with  proper training around its benefits and risks.

Can digital work in a PR agency?

Cultural & Business

Yes, it can but only when digital is not considered separate from everything else. I saw things begin to change once education initiatives were put into place across the agency to teach employees about the new technologies (Facebook, Twitter etc.). Did everyone become a digital expert? No. But they began to learn enough to start to bring in the right people earlier on in the process.

Examining this from the business perspective presents a different answer to the question though. In the agency model  services are billed by the hour. Depending on how your agency does it, your rate will defer by your role. So, what do you do as an agency now that roles are changing?

For example, what is one going to do with a technical developer who writes code all day long or a junior professional who monitors online communities all day. They aren’t really an account executive or an account manager. And yet, in my experience, those were the titles they were forcibly given and the rates that they were billed at. However, coding for 9 hours a day at said rate was often not logical. It’s not that their work was any more or less valuable than other agency professionals, but the time distribution for them was different.

My evaluation of this – and I am not a business expert – is that if agencies want to have resources with very technical skills, you need to set up a different fee structure. Not doing so will eventually cause you to price yourself out of that specific piece of the market (in this particular example). While they are at it, they should get rid of the stodgy titles too. They don’t fit the current landscape and job descriptions.

As an agency, you can either change your fee structure,  hope that your clients don’t care that you are billing them at 3 times the rate they could get some where else for the same work (hint: they will figure it out) or you can choose to not have those resources in house and  create some valuable partnerships with external vendors.

It’s the choice of the agency. One that seems quite obvious from an external perspective, but one that I have seen a lot of agencies fail at figuring out because they are too set in their ways and fees to be flexible.

How does the agency professional succeed in this environment?

Be nimble. It’s a word I use a lot, but one that is important. Communications will never stop evolving. If you are a professional or agency that is stuck in its ways, you are already behind. This can cost you a lot more than a few lost hits. It can cost you your entire business.

At Visceral we have a saying that we all need to be Unicorns.

It means that while it is good to be an expert in one thing and know it well, it’s important to have a strong understanding of a lot of areas – the full rainbow. Unicorns are known as symbols of strength and agility. It’s the interdisciplinary approach that is taken in academics and applying it across your career in any industry is essential. It allows you to be resourceful in the way you approach your projects and also in the way that you answer that question when you know you don’t know.

As a communications professional, you should be well versed in all areas of communications. This means having multi-disciplinary skill sets that allow you to understand public relations, advertising, multi-media (video, radio). Know these elements and how they can help solve your clients business problems, not just their communications problems. I can tell you, that while I have minimal experience with the most traditional of PR, I have written a press release (a handful of times and probably only because of JHU) and pitched media (thanks to my internship at FH). Do I like it? No. Have I done it? Yes. BE A UNICORN.

I’d be curious to hear of your experiences with digital and PR or other communications areas? What are some of your challenges, successes, failures?

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