Chris McCafferty, Shine Communications - Don't get lost in definitions

The tools of the trade are continually changing. But the basics of strategy and outcomes are not.

I was recently asked: 'What is digital PR and where does it start and finish?'

Good question. But by looking to define and confine it, are we not getting off on the wrong foot?

Forget Facebook, Twitter et al, the biggest social network on the web is the web itself, a complex, ever-changing ecosystem of content and links, people and platforms.

So, if digital PR is all about good communications on the internet, then the possibilities are endless. For example, I was recently sent VW's thefuntheory.com and its lovely Piano Stairs too. Is that digital PR? Yes. Is it a viral? Some say it's digital advertising.

By trying to define it and box it into existing marketing and comms structures, we lose sight of its power to amuse and entertain. The bottom line is people are choosing to watch it; they are talking about it and passing it on to their friends. That's great PR.

So why be constrained by a definition? Let's just ask how to make digital comms better, how to get more from it and how to do more great work.

I am sure we all agree the simple days of 'take brief, write release, talk to journalist, send coverage to client' are well and truly over.

Today's digital technology and social platforms offer the opportunity for far broader, richer, more creative and longer-lasting campaigns. Put simply, they allow us to create social currency and, fundamentally, make the brands with which we work more interesting.

But in the midst of this opportunity, is there a new complacency that is eroding the basics?

When did you last hear 'Let's build an iPhone app'; 'We can make a viral'; 'We will seed that content for you'; Let's set up a Twitter feed'? And when did you last find yourself asking 'Why, what for, who to?'

For us, there is way too much box- ticking as people fall to the temptation of the latest shiny thing. Any of those tactics can be wasted money without first having a sound digital strategy that is integrated into your broader communications strategy, not to mention business strategy.

As ever, there is no substitute for a strategic approach. First, identify the opportunity you want to address and gain true insight into that challenge.

With the increasing power of influence mapping and buzz monitoring through technologists such as www.marketsentinel.com, we can all gain easy access to detailed insights into our brands and what people are saying about them. On a more organic level, check out www.brandtags.net for 'a collective experiment in brand perception'. This is what people think of your brand and how they are talking around it. No arguments - it is there in black and white.

These kinds of insights can give rise to a far more informed brief that, in turn, enables us to make not only good communications decisions, but decisions that are good for business.

From an insightful brief comes an informed creative idea. And from creative idea, born out of sound insight, we move to digital platform and then on to the assets you need to engage people on that platform. By jumping straight to 'viral', in common web parlance, you jump straight to 'fail'.

So while the tools of the trade might be changing and becoming ever broader, the basics of sound strategy and focusing on outcome are not. For one of the best introductions, go to www.socialbysocial.com - a thoughtfully written, practical guide made available under Creative Commons.

Let us finish by returning to the opening question: 'What is digital PR?' It is still new, it is evolving as the internet evolves and it has endless possibilities. It is whatever you want it to be. So, instead of being hemmed in by a definition, let us focus on doing great, strategically sound work.

- Chris McCafferty is a director at Shine Communications.

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