Meredith Bradshaw, Fleishman-Hillard - Dare to relinquish control

We must do more to define what digital means for PR - and embrace its challenges head on.

While many people still relegate PR to the narrow confines of media relations, we all know differently. Indeed, our work extends into a wide range of communications strategies. Likewise, in the digital context, some believe social media and online PR equate solely to blogger relations. As director of the digital practice at Fleishman-Hillard London, I can state categorically that these myths simply do not reflect the reality of our business.

The evidence is in the type of people we are hiring, the types of campaigns we are executing for clients and the myriad tools we are using to do so. But above all, it can be seen in the way we are marrying new digital tools and technologies with design, development and content strategy to create leading-edge communications campaigns.

For instance, we recently completed a campaign for Papa John's in the US. Stemming from the company's advertising concept, we took the campaign offline, with a cross-country road tour, and captured the stories and excitement online, sharing it via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and a blog on the papasroadtrip.com website. None of this work would have been possible without the multifaceted team of Flash developers, search engine specialists and online editorial outreach experts - all job titles not seen in PR just a few years ago.

Despite the fact that Fleishman-Hillard and other agencies are creating such campaigns, misperceptions still persist. As an industry, we must do more to define what digital means in the PR world. It is tricky because many clients and practitioners are hesitant to move into the digital world. Often clients prefer to limit their digital exposure to areas that can be controlled - websites, ads and carefully scripted campaigns.

But in today's user-generated, highly interactive world, a new mindset is required - one that is willing to relinquish a certain amount of control. And that is frightening for many brands. However, the landscape is changing. Companies are beginning to embrace digital media and, indeed, leverage the advantages it has to offer.

At Fleishman-Hillard, we are doing a vast amount of work that extends beyond online editorial outreach. In the past few months alone, we have worked on global intranets, multifaceted online crisis and issues management campaigns, interactive consumer programmes and b2b online influencer initiatives. It is all about conversations, influence and connections - and this work sits firmly in the realm of PR.

Yet challenges exist for PR agencies in the digital world. First, there is tremendous competition. Social media practitioners hail from agencies specialising in search engine optimisation/marketing, email marketing, web design and build, direct marketing and advertising. This creates further fragmentation for clients - who do they turn to for digital communications?

In its 2008 annual report, Omnicom (F-H's holding company) points out that organisations are consolidating their varied marketing needs with fewer agencies. It reports: 'In an effort to gain greater efficiency and effectiveness from their total marketing budgets, clients are increasingly requiring greater co-ordination of marketing activities and concentrating these activities with a smaller number of service providers.'

As the strategic comms partner to brands, PR agencies are best positioned to take the lead in digital. After all, the interactive nature of web 2.0 and the coming semantic qualities of web 3.0 provide the perfect platform for PR's role in engaging conversations and shifting debate among stakeholders.

The way forward is to accelerate what we do best: create integrated comms programmes that combine strategy and creativity to deliver lasting results.

- Meredith Bradshaw is director of the digital practice at Fleishman-Hillard London.

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