Phil Szomszor, Citigate Dewe Rogerson - Skills will decide online battle

The path to success lies in mastering a whole new set of skills to add to the traditional ones.

Right now the online PR landscape rather resembles a game of Hungry Hippos, with multiple agencies all trying to gobble up a piece of the action (and, of course, budgets). Four main agency groups - PR, advertising, search marketing and design - all claim to be perfectly placed to carry out online work, so the PR industry is under greater pressure than ever.

In the battle for budgets, the PR industry needs to look carefully at the skills it needs for the future.

At Citigate, we divide online PR into four main categories: listening, engaging, enhancing and creating. Listening: using buzz monitoring tools to get a perspective on how a brand is perceived across blogs, forums, news media, social networks and video. Engaging: having two-way conversations with people on the web to influence their perception of the brand. Enhancing: boosting a company's position on search engines and keeping the bad stuff out of sight. And creating: developing new content - video, viral games, blogs, Twitter feeds - to develop the personality of the brand and encourage further engagement.

It is clear the PR industry is well placed to dominate the listening and engaging areas (although other disciplines are trying to get into this space too), but the key battlegrounds are enhancing and creating content.

Search marketing agencies will always be able to offer more advanced SEO services, but by developing our skills and understanding of this space, we can certainly play a role. If you have ever read an article written by the average search marketing agency, you will understand why. One answer is for PR agencies to poach SEO consultants to build in-house specialist teams so that the content created by PROs can be better exploited for natural search.

Content creation is the natural environment for advertising and design agencies, which arguably have far greater experience producing content - particularly video and microsites - than the average PR agency. But this certainly does not have to be so. Apart from the massive budgets ad agencies demand, PR agencies have the advantage of being able to create content that directly relates to the news agenda.

Our recent Sex Degrees campaign for Lloydspharmacy, for example, involved creating a news story about sexual health risks. This was tied to an online calculator that allowed users to find out their 'sex degrees of separation' (number of indirect sexual partners). The result was coverage in national newspapers, blogs and social networks, and more than a million views on the Lloydspharmacy website. This campaign shows how closely related online buzz and the news agenda are - and it is the type of activity that other types of agencies find hard to replicate.

Skills are central to enabling the PR industry to dominate the online PR landscape. Look at how our skills sets are evolving already: old skills such as writing a press release/case study, briefing a photographer or analysing press cuttings are being matched by new skills such as producing a social media release/video case study, briefing a game developer or monitoring online buzz.

Blogger relations, social bookmarking, web analytics and moderating blog comments have been added to distributing press releases, analysing AVE and dealing with media enquiries. And we create a blog or microsite rather than produce a customer newsletter.

I'm not advocating throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The old skills will still be important, but we need to learn additional skills. There's more to online PR than YouTube, Facebook and Twitter - the existing tools are already far more expansive. In the future, they will continue to evolve. The challenge is to understand them and constantly refresh our skills to stay one step ahead.

- Phil Szomszor is head of digital at Citigate Dewe Rogerson.

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