Digital acumen becoming company-wide skill

When Jennifer Quermann entered consumer PR 15 years ago, pitching new business involved plans for paper press kits, press conferences, and lots of phoning.

THE AGENCY BUSINESS
When Jennifer Quermann entered consumer PR 15 years ago, pitching new business involved plans for paper press kits, press conferences, and lots of phoning.

Even as late as 1998, as Web sites creeped into the mainstream, she and colleagues would mention them in meetings, then pass the digital buck on to the firm's new media division, keeping things church and state.

Today, during client meetings, Quermann, an SVP in Fleishman-Hillard's consumer marketing group, talks podcasts, blog outreach, and virtual press rooms, strategizing with clients on how to improve their online presence, with nary a computer geek in sight.

"It was a more foreign world to someone on the accounts side like me for 10-plus years," she says. "These days, I can't imagine not laying out some online component when talking with clients."

As the Web continues to dominate media and digital practices become inundated with work, firms like Fleishman are driving all employees to take a more active role in planning - and executing - clients' online campaigns.

While digital practices still handle most of the online nuts and bolts, traditional PR pros are now engaging in such things as search engine marketing and online editorial outreach, when in Bill Clinton's first term, many found the fax machine blast the most advanced way to reach journalists.

"When I started in PR, we were writing releases on typewriters," said Tom Barritt, a senior strategic counselor with Ketchum Interactive. "But digital has become critical to what we do, and we give our people grounding in it."

To do that, agencies have given their digital practices both practical and educational roles. Along with day-to-day duties like uploading webcasts or adding Flash, many online gurus have been commissioned to teach press kit-wedded PR pros the beauty of the blog.

"Our CEO, Marcia Silverman still defends traditional PR, saying the digital will not replace it," says John Bell, MD of Ogilvy's 360 Degree Digital Influence. "I see it as, now we have all kinds of ways to get the word out; Time, TMZ."

Digital firms have used varied techniques to bring old-school pros into the 21st century. Teams from 360 Degree Digital scour the globe, conducting seminars on strategies for top executives, while focusing on execution and roll-out training for junior staffers, who likely had Facebook profiles years ago. Ogilvy set up a wiki aggregating the best practices, research, and Web tools, to provide all of its employees with a quick refresher.

Ketchum has taken a similar path through its "Digital Immersion Days," which it launched last September and which ran through December. Held at each of the firm's North American offices, the half-day workshops have staffers setting up RSS readers, blogs, and other new media devices through laptop "computer labs," created by different account teams.

Fleishman has gone more radical. "We bring people to [FH] Digital for a few months of hands-on learning, then we spit them back into their regular practices to give others exposure," says David Bradfield, SVP and manager of FH Digital, adding that, in the classes it offers, online culture and ethics play a key role.

"We want relevance and timeliness," he adds, "but we need to emphasize transparency, authenticity, and accountability with everything we do online."

Key points:
-As more clients turn to cyberspace, agencies are integrating digital into traditional practices

-New digital tactics involve things like blogging, targeting social networking sites, and webcasting

-Firms train employees in a number of ways, including online classes and digital immersion days

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