PR firms still seek creative edge in social media efforts

Social media has been a shot in the arm for PR, but it has also fundamentally changed the way client marketing and communications departments work.

Social media has been a shot in the arm for PR, but it has also fundamentally changed the way client marketing and communications departments work.

Chad Latz, president and global digital practice leader for Cohn & Wolfe, says that about a year ago most of his client conversations about social media were with the head of corporate communications. Today, those conversations are with the CMO.

"Increasingly, the social media mandate is being directed by the CMO," he says. "Social media has given PR firms the opportunity to engage a different type of client than we've historically dealt with. And that client is looking for the best idea - no matter what marketing discipline brings it forth."

Learning to measure
Yet recent evidence - including PRWeek's Social Media Survey and non-PR firms' domination of the Cannes Lions PR category - suggests PR is not seizing the opportunity fully.

Not only that, PR agencies may be losing ground to other marcomms providers, particularly in the consumer goods sector. "We need to step up substantially on things the other marketing services firms are offering," says Paul Taaffe, chairman and CEO at Hill & Knowlton.

"The biggest thing PR agencies must do is show some kind of planning and measurement capability. Once marketers get comfortable with social media, they look to apply the normal rigor they put all their marketing programs through," says Taaffe. "But most PR firms don't have the same rigor as media shops relative to planning. And they don't have the same rigor as ad agencies relative to testing and measurement."

Jennifer Houston, president and global account lead of Studio D for Waggener Edstrom, says, "PR agencies have always gotten away with being artists and not scientists," which is why WE has invested millions of dollars to develop specific social media measurement tools.

Taaffe says another significant gap is in visual capabilities, underscored by the recent Old Spice campaign (see sidebar).

"In terms of social media, PR does well in b-to-b where it is text-based and about having multiple conversations," he notes. "When it is about a single proposition, it requires a different level of activation. Quite often, that activation is visual and not that many PR firms have those kinds of creative capabilities."

Targeting decisions
Tom Biro, VP at Allison & Partners, says it is not inconceivable that every sizeable PR firm could have a "video" specialist on staff a year or two from now. But he says agencies have to make decisions based on what's best for their business and client base - not just because they want more social media work.

"Agencies of all types are getting good at specific things, whether it's outreach or multimedia development," he says. "And the agencies that are picking those spots are making a name for themselves." Latz agrees PR firms need to offer a more full-service offering - to a point. "Claiming to be better at creative development than an interactive agency is likely a losing proposition," he cautions.

Cohn & Wolfe has positioned itself as the agency that can take the lead in terms of driving an overarching social media strategy. It can then tap its WPP network and bring on digital agencies to execute social media builds and other visual elements.

For PR to truly take a leading role, however, H&K's Taaffe believes it needs to promote itself that way - starting at Cannes. While there was a noted increase in entries to the Lions PR category, the number of entries from PR firms was actually down.

"There were more clients at Cannes than in previous years; they're looking to see who is producing good ideas that work across all platforms," says Taaffe. "So if you're not playing at Cannes, you're not relevant to a community that is prepared to move more ad dollars to PR if it is the right solution."

PR's missed opportunities. You'd think a PR agency would have been behind these two campaigns. Guess again.

The Man Your Man Could Smell Like
Though PainePR helped promote it, this Old Spice campaign was created by Wieden + Kennedy. It features 186 customized video responses of Isaiah Mustafa and became the most-viewed sponsor channel on YouTube

Snowmen Against Global Warming
To drive awareness of climate change, energy provider Entega used social media channels to encourage the public to build as many snowmen as possible in a single day. The agency behind this: DDB

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