New-media approach should focus on all facets of the firm

As this column went to press, we were reporting on the story about Edelman's hire of blogger Steve Rubel, formerly of CooperKatz.

As this column went to press, we were reporting on the story about Edelman's hire of blogger Steve Rubel, formerly of CooperKatz.

This will be the second high-profile PR blogger to score a job at a top agency in the past few weeks, following Jeremy Pepper's move from self-employment to Weber Shandwick.

There's nothing surprising in the fact that major agencies would be keen to hire experienced names in the new-media scene, particularly those of note within the PR community. It's smart, consistent with the strategy of cultivating sophisticated pockets of specialization. In the turf battle for post-advertising marketing strategy, PR needs to assert its dominance every way it can.

However, it would not do to get too distracted by the personalities that have popped up in the new-media sphere. Even as innovative minds are needed to move organizations forward, institutions need to embrace the changing environment organically to deliver programs that are unilaterally effective.

Certainly, Edelman and WS are doing more than employing big names. But I was struck recently by the tone of an internal memo from Mark Penn, new CEO of Burson-Marsteller, to the staff, regarding what he has observed about the firm to date and what he has planned.

Not unlike other firms, Penn is launching a digital-media task force to assess the firm's capabilities along the new-media spectrum and to create new products.

But a big part of his plan also includes the wiring of employees, particularly in the area of technology. To that end, Penn's memo includes a commitment to "enhance the mobility of our employees and with clients to enhance their reach."

"Technology is not a cost center, but a profit center," he continues. "We should aim for sophisticated technology that empowers our people." He affirms that the agency is already moving toward distributing communications devices more widely among staffers.

Hopefully this means more than just issuing everyone a Treo and a selection of free ringtone downloads. Agencies need to instill not only awareness of technology, but also provide the kind of access to it that fosters real understanding.

On paper, Penn's plan signals an understanding that the kind of expertise required to initiate truly cutting-edge campaigns will come from all facets of the agency, not just from the so-called geeks in the corner. Familiarity and friendliness with how technologies actually work, how they change the way people retrieve and disseminate information, is key.

Sure, it's not rocket science. But what is sometimes missing from the big plans of agencies to conquer the new-media world is a clear perspective of how the agencies, too, must fundamentally change over time. Hiring is one important way of bringing new thinking into an organization. But the most sustainable approach will be to help communities within PR firms, and also within corporations, change along with the times.

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