Today's PR business finds itself on a digital battleground.
At first glance, it would appear we are rising to the challenge. Social media have been the big drivers and it is clear to most clients that this is PR's home turf.
Over the past few years, we have invested in the knowledge, skills and training we need to prepare ourselves for the new market. We have invested in tools and service development. We are getting better at attracting new digital talent and selling ourselves to clients.
But it is just not enough. We are no longer simply competing with other PR agencies; other disciplines have seen what the PR industry is up to and how well placed we are to do it. Everyone -from traditional TV ad agencies and media buying houses to digital agencies - is retooling and restaffing to do more PR-like work, with a special focus on social media and online PR.
Small surprise: in the middle of the worst economy for years, social media are still a gold rush.
Other agencies represent a threat we cannot ignore, whether it is the well-funded advertising and media agencies or the well-placed digital specialists. When a client is looking for a social media agency, why should it choose PR? What is our USP?
We think PR is the only discipline that can weave together the three big places where people can share experiences (online, media and the real world) to deliver a campaign greater than the sum of its parts. We are ideally placed to use the relative strengths of each component to compensate for the weaknesses of the others.
We need to get better at using traditional media (where we can still find the largest audiences) to lead people online. We need to use our digital touch points to give people more information, to collect information about them and to seek permission to re-contact.
We need to use our 'permission databases' to recruit people into real-world activities, such as leading them to trial and purchase products or inviting them to events. Numbers on the web are strangely inflated and meaningless, so driving a thousand people to a campaign site will not make anyone happy. On the other hand, getting a few dozen people into a room can be a photo opportunity. The single most important thing to think about in terms of integration is that only in exceptional circumstances is a website a story.
People are stories; events are stories. Let's turn our campaigns into virtuous circles that generate content, audience, customers and relationships in turn.
Paradoxically, as we move towards a digital future, it is the real-world experience that becomes the valuable commodity. As PR agencies become more competent at digital, we must not let go of our roots. Digital is exciting and new, but as we become more adept, we need to acknowledge that it is only a part of the whole picture.
Sometimes less is more. When Porter Novelli took part in PR Week's recent Big Idea challenge, pitching for the NSPCC in a line-up that included a digital agency, a media agency and a direct mail agency, it was our ability to understand the audience and therefore know that we should downplay the digital side of things that helped us win the business.
We recognised that the C2DE mums we identified - 'Karen' and 'Jackie' - had a limited technology profile beyond mobile phones. We created a campaign that focused on them and not on the technology.
On that particular battlefield we won, but the victory was not about us. It was a confirmation that PR agencies have a great advantage when it comes to communications planning. We have always been about people and stories. Here's hoping that we continue to be so.
- Mat Morrison is digital planning director at Porter Novelli.