The world has moved on since the days when a campaign was measured by the numbers it reached across ‘traditional’ media, where the bigger those numbers the greater the campaign success. With the rise of digital platforms, those who are not willing to think again face an uncertain future.
The changed media landscape means that while a mention in The Times will always be a big PR win for almost any brand, there is now a host of digital media (and no, we are not talking about Facebook and Twitter) that can offer highly targeted audiences.
A flick through your TV’s digi-box offers an array of specialist channels – from health and wellness to equestrian and pub landlords. Digital radio and television allow for both specialist and hyperlocal programming – for instance, London Live, the London Evening Standard’s digital TV offer that will be launched in March – while hitting the red button on your remote allows you to access content that would not otherwise see the light of day.
PR stories that might be of limited interest to mass-circulation media can be honed for specialist audiences, while brands that want to make national campaigns ‘local’ can do so too.
Hotwire deputy MD Matt Cross says: "At the end of last year, communications minister Ed Vaizey announced a £21m investment in digital radio. Digital media platforms are perfect for narrowcasting, whereby you can target niche audiences at scale. This coincides with a trend towards niche social networks that we have identified for 2014.
"For marketers and comms professionals, this means having a highly targeted audience that, while smaller, is more relevant. The better the information we have about the audience such as demographic, interests and the challenges that they face, the better placed we are to engage them."
However, Howard Kosky, CEO at broadcast specialist Markettiers4DC, contends that many PR agencies are missing out by not factoring digital TV and radio channels into campaigns alongside traditional and social media.
"Some PRs are not keeping up with changing trends in how people are consuming media and digital is not registering on their radars," he says, using Polish Radio London as an example. "If you are trying to reach the growing Polish community it’s got 250,000 listeners, yet many PRs are not even aware of it."
Kosky can reel off a list of digital TV and radio stations, but says agencies not so familiar with the names and numbers of digital radio in particular should look at Radio Joint Audience Research (Rajar) data to get a grip on who is listening to what. Similarly, Kosky says corporate comms teams might be missing a trick if they do not use the digital channels run by the biggest names in media.
Keeping local in the mix
Chris Wermann, director of corporate affairs at Home Retail Group, the company behind Argos and Homebase, is a keen advocate of digital media – particularly local radio: "Regional PR has always been a priority for me. If I have a campaign, from a launch point of view part of the mix will be local. Find the relevant digital channel as it pretty much guarantees coverage, especially if you put an expert forward in that field.
"It is using what I deem to be old-fashioned PR; no matter what we are trying to say to whom, they will find the right route to market. The fantastic thing about digital is that there’s no wastage – it is possible to quickly identify the key influential digital platforms and connect with their audiences. It is where mass-marketing can be amplified with specific targeting but done in a PR way," he says.
Argos and Homebase have 1,100 outlets between them, so to give them more of a local and – as Wermann calls it – "human touch", a number of store employees have been given media training to allow them to front local PR. "Using a local accent on a broadcast, combined with Facebook and Twitter feeds, is an incredibly powerful and cost-effective platform for engaging with our customers," says Wermann.
But not all PR agencies are on the back foot. Simon Whittam, director of Devon-based comms agency Onshore, has used digital since long before even the internet was a day-to-day part of PR life.
"Back in 1996 when I did the PR launch for [singer] Anthony Newley’s return to the West End in Scrooge the Musical, digital was in its infancy so it was groundbreaking when we struck a deal with London cable network Channel One to do a series of reality-style documentary reports on the making of a musical," he says.
"Due to the nature of cable TV at the time, programmes were broadcast on a rotation basis so your message could often be shown a dozen times a day then repackaged for use as a ‘special’ and shown again. The growth of satellite and YouTube has taken this to a new level and it is extraordinary to see these early digital forays turning up on these media now."
More recently, Onshore has used digital media to promote wheelchair rugby. It worked with Channel 4, which streamed extra footage from the Paralympics, to create film reports on the players, interviews with team members and ‘live’ forum sessions after matches. "Channel 4 even streamed the whole 2011 GB Cup [involving Australia, Sweden, Japan, Belgium and the UK] across its website with a full TV production crew and presenters. There was no place in the schedules for such intensive coverage but online TV had no limitations. Digital media allow people to dip into information when it suits them and allow PR firms to create new opportunities for coverage."
Whittam adds: "The benefits to us as a PR firm are immense. It is another platform for coverage but it is also one that is not time sensitive, so the audience and awareness builds. A photocall or an interview running in a newspaper could be forgotten in a day; now with digital it remains accessible."
North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) demonstrated how digital media can work for a local organisation needing to inform the community it serves. NWAS wanted to raise awareness among the public that not all 999 calls required an ambulance or resulted in a trip to hospital. Manchester-based Tangerine PR was appointed to run a six-month integrated PR and digital campaign. The agency used fly-on-the-wall video content of NWAS workers doing their jobs along with interviews and team profiles run in partnership with digital media across the North West.
Reaching new audiences
Anna Wilson, Tangerine’s head of digital, says: "The #Team999 campaign aims were to generate mass awareness of when the public should call 999 and increase understanding of the roles within NWAS by using unique and shareable content. These videos played a key role in engaging the public alongside social media content, roadshows and traditional PR activity."
Sarah Smith, assistant director of comms for NWAS, said: "While traditional media still play an integral role, Tangerine’s approach focused on developing engaging digital content to profile each of the #Team999, which enabled us to reach new audiences online."
The digital coverage contributed to a five per cent reduction in 999 calls and a drop of four per cent in incidents attended over the Christmas period compared with 2012.
More agencies are now realising the value of digital beyond social networks. Aziz Musa, head of digital at Pegasus PR, joined a year ago to set up the agency’s digital division. He previously worked client-side for companies such as PhotoBox and Moonpig, and came to realise that PR and digital were intertwined, but saw PR as an industry that did not understand its potential; particularly in an area where PR has struggled in the past: measurability.
Musa thinks digital will help PR professionals sell the value of low but targeted audiences to sceptical clients: "Certain clients do not understand the value of micro-targeting, or have to manage their own internal PR and need to demonstrate the kudos of the brand appearing in what they consider to be mainstream media. To convince them I will discuss their objectives and the engagement metrics of their campaign. Google Analytics will tell the story. But if PRs cannot understand and interpret the data from digital assets they cannot prove their success."
It is this lack of understanding of and, more importantly, lack of investment in data that Kosky finds so frustrating.
He says: "How many PRs invest in data? I question how much time PRs spend in understanding the media landscape."