Matt McKenna, McKenna Townsend: Where the word is still king

Comms professionals should use copywriting skills to engage with an online audience.

There was a seismic shift in the modus operandi of PR agencies across the country in 2009, driven mainly by the change in the way consumers consume their media. The online universe has changed the way individuals and businesses seek out information, products and services. PR agencies may retain their specialist knowledge of traditional regional media, but the web means that regional boundaries no longer exist.

Print media are struggling to compete with the immediacy of online channels and there is a power shift in favour of online. Online channels are influencing purchasing decisions far more than traditional media. In a poll by the Society for New Communications Research, 74 per cent of consumers agreed or strongly agreed that they chose brands based on customer care experiences they read online. There are also significant implications for reputation management - criticism of a brand online could rapidly start a negative conversation about the organisation, visible to a global audience.

For PR agencies, this poses two main challenges: who are the key influencers and how do we engage with them given our current skill set?

Audiences are spending more time on the web and PR professionals must come up with creative ways to engage them. However, the internet has blurred the boundaries of what comms professionals traditionally perceive as target audiences and media. Bloggers and social networking sites are fast outgrowing journalists as key influencers.

It is no longer about going out to the masses and achieving the highest number of viewers for your website or blog, it's about creating something that is engaging enough for it to be passed between friends, colleagues and peers. Smart organisations and individuals are building their brands by gathering audiences and encouraging dialogue. Great ideas spread through all the web's platforms and are remixed, discussed, shared, debated, referenced and expanded upon. The web has evolved to a place that quickly and efficiently spreads ideas through society. But the mover of these ideas is not technology, it is people.

In a poacher-turned-gamekeeper twist, companies in the PR and communications industry are blogging to build and maintain their online presence. Everyone is now a journalist and a potential influencer of audiences.

This means the copywriting skills PR professionals have honed over the years are more important than ever. Never before has writing mattered more. We were once heading towards a society dominated by video, but the web has revitalised the written word. Text reigns supreme once again, and media such as video blogging have not taken off as expected. Search engines reward sites with text-rich content. PR agencies are now focusing on content that is relevant and timely enough to become part of a user's news feed.

Consumer consumption of media may have changed, and agencies must understand who they are and how to find them, but essentially the same principles apply. It's still about building brand advocates and supporters. Agencies must continue to set clear measurable objectives at the start of online campaigns so they can demonstrate return on investment.

It's a challenging time for clients, but agencies must get their houses in order before they can consult with any credibility and authority. Businesses are being challenged to ensure their online presence is accessible to potential customers - and this applies equally to PR agencies.

The online universe is now all powerful - it has torn down regional boundaries and they won't be back in a hurry.


- Which regional players have raised their profile in the past year?

Dorset Cereals implemented a successful integrated traditional and social media programme that has engaged its target audience beautifully.

- Tell us about one good thing the recession has caused in your region

Clients and agencies have to be more results-driven and accountable.

- What is the best example of campaigning journalism in your area?

The Southern Daily Echo ran a Christmas calendar of unsolved crimes in the region. The campaign was both engaging and thought-provoking, plus it had a strong CSR element.

- Matt McKenna is joint managing director at McKenna Townsend

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