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How PR Lost Its Seat At The Digital Table (And How It Can Get it Back)

Omar Akhtar
Meeting TAble

Out of all the customer-facing teams, PR seems least poised to have an impact on the digital customer experience. While sales, service and marketing departments are all investing in ways to share data, produce personalized content and leverage a common technology stack, we're not seeing the same evolution in PR,  and it’s now at risk of being omitted from organizations' digital transformation story.

It wasn’t always like this. For a brief while between 2012 and 2013, PR was poised to be the leader of the digital engagement revolution. It owned social media, as well as the then-new practice of content marketing through blogs and other owned channels. Both these practices seemed tailor-made for the skills of the PR department, since they required writing skills, creativity and the ability to personally engage with an audience. The top social media and content marketing strategists of the time were coming from the PR/comms departments and agencies, and were winning the kind of accolades at Cannes typically reserved for ad agencies.

But since then, things have cooled. While marketing and digital budgets continue to grow, PR budgets are declining. And what’s worse, organizations have shifted both social media and content shift away from the PR department and placed them either under a broad digital/marketing team, or assigned dedicated teams to each practice. According to Content Marketing Institute’s 2015 Benchmark Study, only 15% of B2B companies said PR/Comms was responsible for content marketing, well after Owner/C-Level (23%), Product Marketing (19%) and Demand Gen Marketing (18%). When it comes to content strategy, only 19% of B2B companies say PR is responsible for setting it, behind Corporate Marketing (54%); Product Marketing (25%) and CEO/President/Owner (21%) (LinkedIn Technology Marketing Community).

As a result, PR is back to doing...PR. And while media relations continues to be an important function for organizations, its basic mechanisms have essentially stayed the same, even in the digital era. The comms department still crafts and delivers messages on behalf of the brand to the public, the only thing that’s changed is the medium on which it is delivered (e.g. blogs and social media instead of press releases.) In terms of digital innovation, there’s scant development in the PR tech sector, with most software either designed to serve as a CRM to manage media contacts, or some form of social media listening coupled with sentiment analysis. And even then, the latter software is more likely to be managed by the marketing or digital department.

As a result, PR’s increasingly looking like the wallflower at the digital party. How did this come to be? In some ways, PR was a victim of its own success. It’s practitioners were usually the first in their organization to realize the value of social media engagement and producing branded content. They experimented, learned and eventually trained everyone else on the new tools, helping overcome apprehensions that top executives might have had in embracing the new technology. But once the gains from social and content became apparent, all the other departments wanted in on the action. What’s more, leaders started demanding real, trackable ROI on the new digital activities. Instead of simply promoting brand health and creating brand awareness, social media was a way to provide customer support, prospect leads for sales, and drive e-commerce. In the same way, branded content was expected to do more than entertain audiences and actually drive sales in some way. These are all activities that drive commerce and hard ROI, something PR has historically never been tasked with doing.

Another big blow to PR’s influence came from the social media platforms it operated on. Facebook changed its news feed algorithm to downgrade brand content, so that brands would have to pay ad dollars to get their posts seen. Almost overnight, PR departments saw the followings they had worked so hard to build become essentially useless, as Facebook displayed less than 1% of the brand’s posts to its page followers. Over at LinkedIn, its very successful Influencer program convinced executives everywhere that they needed to write “thought leadership” and PR was the natural team to help them do that. However, once LinkedIn opened up its blogging platform to all its users, everyone became an “influencer” and the value of having an executive who blogs wasn’t what it used to be.

Ultimately, the only real way to play in social media anymore is either through advertising, driving direct sales or providing customer service. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t any value in the traditional brand health/brand awareness metrics that PR can deliver on. But in order to stay relevant in the digital customer experience, here’s how PR can contribute:

Reclaim Content

Along with journalists, PR pros are natural players in the content field. They’re skilled at telling stories, crafting messages and communicating on a personal level. If PR can rebrand itself internally as the best producers (or advisers) on content for more than just marketing, it can regain its former authority on content. To do that, it has to take the lead in crafting a content strategy for the entire organization, and empowering other departments to produce content on their own, while following a central set of guidelines.

Feed the Data

PR can buy its way back to the digital table by contributing data that’s relevant to the customer experience. To do that, comms departments need to invest in ways to track actionable customer engagement data that goes beyond simple sentiment analysts. What content formats get the most engagement? What brand messages resonate the most? Through what media do customer discover the brand? The more data PR can contribute to an actual customer journey, the more likely it is to stay relevant, not to mention get a bigger piece of the digital budget. This requires a serious investment in the right intelligence software, tools that go far beyond listening and publishing. More importantly, it means hiring people with skills to make sense of customer behavioral data.

Go Big or Go Home

When it comes to agencies, the best strategy is to either be big enough to devise, implement and scale social media and content strategies, or be small and focused purely on media relations. The big agencies like Omnicom and Publicis have the resources to offer a full scale of digital content solutions, including advertising, data analysis and web/mobile experience management. Smaller guys can excel at the core media relations function. But occupying the middle ground doesn’t pay off, because these companies either cost too much to just do media relations, or don’t have the resources, tools or people who can scale a digital content strategy.