Are PRs Really Up To The Social Media Task?

It’s no secret that digital media is changing the face of the communications industry. Nor, therefore, is it a surprise that the skill set of PRs is evolving. Yes, we need to know the media, be able to pitch a story and be creative. But nowadays there are a whole new set of proficiencies for any budding account director to get to grips with. And I’m not sure a lot of PRs are currently up to it.

When I started out in marketing communications way back when, email was hardly used, dial up was positively progressive and mobiles were actually used as phones. Press releases were sent out by post and we actually used to call journalists. (Mind you, Tony Blair was the great hope for the nation and The Spice Girls were the biggest band on the planet when I started out.) But as we move into 2010, not only does a PR need core communications skills, they also need to think like a businessman and have some of the knowledge of a web developer.

 The Spice Girls: they’ll tell you what they want, what they really, really want…
So knowing journalists and being able to write is no longer enough for any progressive PR. They need to understand who the influencers are in their clients’ fields and to know where the conversations are taking place. And this only comes from following online news trends, RSS feeds, Twitter streams and reading blogs. PRs need to know about and understand how to use crowdsourcing, and they need to be able to instigate and facilitate debate on social networks. They have to live and breathe the media in all its many forms.

Then there’s the technological angle. Developments such as Sidewiki, real-time search and Google Wave need to be part of a PR’s arsenal. They need to not only understand the rise of the smartphone but also the differences between the iPhone, Android and Blackberry devices. They must gain an understanding of SEO and the benefits of online content working in conjunction with search algorithms; learn what makes good content for blogs and social media channels; be able to blog and to tweet; understand and use RSS, file sharing and popular web applications effectively; and be able to process and understand website analytics.

It’s a hell of a lot to take on. And now recruitment consultants are complaining that there is a shortfall of those with even a general understanding of social media; those who understand blogging or who use Twitter, for example. So where does this leave us?

I read a blog post this week that questions whether PR agencies are stuck in their Dickensian ways and, though I may not like the accusation, I can’t help but feel that the writer has a very good point. There’s been much debate recently about whether digital agencies or PR agencies are best placed to provide online communications – it strikes me that if PR is to emerge victorious, as I believe it should, then PRs need to start taking individual responsibility for their own learning and development. Fast. 

Everyone from the CEO to the cleaner should know about this stuff. And they all need to take an interest. There’s no longer any excuse for the MD to delegate the learning and knowledge to someone else without having much of a clue themselves, or for the account assistant to think that it’s the digital guy’s responsibility. PR agencies need to start taking a holistic approach to digital media. And the sooner, the better.

What do you think? Please leave a comment…

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15 comments on “Are PRs Really Up To The Social Media Task?

  1. This is a really interesting read – and I share your concerns. I made the move from journalism just over a year ago – I was naive to think that all you needed was to have a good relationship with journos and be able to churn out releases – which is certainly NOT the case. For a long time Social Media in its most basic form seemed like something better avoided . .a real can of worms! But, I can't afford to bury my head, so I'm doing my best to embrace Social Media – I've become more "techie" than I thought possible! As far as I can see, this is only going to become a larger element of the job and the expectation. While I embrace the future, I do miss the good ol' Dickensian days . . .

  2. Thanks for your comment. Interesting that you use the phrase 'bury my head' – dare I say it, in my experience it's almost ignorance rather than hiding away. I feel extremely passionately that every PR out there should be doing exactly what you've said: embracing social media and trying it out themselves (and kudos to you for diving in and trying it).You don't understand Twitter until you start using it. And even then it can take a long while! I just fear that the natural champions of social media – PR agencies – will lose out to digital agencies unless PRs start taking individual responsibility.

  3. Spot on post Paul. And in fact I just posted a video of me speaking about the challenges of helping people catch up. http://euansemple.com/theobvious/2010/2/5/reboot-2009-presentation.htmlThere are a lot of them and they need a lot of help!

  4. Totally agree. For too long the PR industry has been playing catch up…and not with much success. The cracks are starting to show. For those clients who 'don't get' digital then it's up to PR folk to hold their hand and show them the way. And for those who do? Well, we need to be there with them, dare I say it, on the same homepage.

  5. You make some good points Paul. I agree that as an industry, we've come to need a whole separate skills, which I think is the way of the world in many industries. I actually gave a talk about whether traditional pr/marketing agencies are equipped and qualified to handle social media as part of Social Media Week. I don't think they are. I think we're seeing the evolution of PR as an industry. Almost nothing (other than the ability to write) I learned at university is relevant to the job I do in tech/geek PR today. All the skills I use, I've learned on the job, or by interacting with people in the same boat. We need to teach the skills in school, and also teach them on the job. Even press releases have become mostly irrelevant. The industry is changing rapidly, and new agencies, composed of people with social media and digital skills are moving to the forefront. I'd be surprised is traditional PR agencies exist in 10 years.

  6. Paul, this is probably one the issue that has wound me up more than anything else in 2010 (as far as professional life goes).Where to start…1. I was incredibly disappointed by the research Major Players released a couple weeks back eluding to UK PR talent as being 'knowledge-less' (not a word, I know, but apt) – as a service provider to the industry surely their remit must be to make the industry more attractive not just 'their cause' and bottom line – incredibly short-sighted and selfish in my opinion…no matter what the research said (which was wasn't very robust BTW).2. I don't buy that tech argument tiotally – it's really not that hard to get tooled up these days – platforms like Blogger virtually do the work for you…all you need is compelling content / something to say…and a desire…which anyone can have if they so choose and this does lead me on to point 3, and your very good point…3. Taking responsibility – absolutely – either get amongst it and actually grow / become more rounded as a consultant (which should be your aim anyway) or don't. I know many consultants (like you Paul) who have a massive thirst and hunger in this area and I think it's brilliant. What annoys me is people working in other disciplines, or who maybe got on board earlier than most who (quite cowardly) attempt to make more traditional PR people out to be 'frauds' – it really winds me up – no-one owns social media, it is an inclusive medium, and I applaud anyone who wants to challenge themselves by learning more about it.And, for me, there is no right or wrong – sure. like any form of communication (just like traditional PR) there are processes and tools to deliver messages in the right way – the same goes for Social Media but don't take the personality out of it – as Kevin Anderson from The Guardian said to me late last year when I decided I want to make a real go of it, he simply said: "Be passionate and be real"Great advice from a really great guy – and that's leads me on to point 4…and slightly off topic, but important if we, as an industry, do want to raise our game to the standard it needs to be…4. Don't let negative people get in the way – associate yourself with like-minded folk, who like you, want to share and learn.Not only can Social Media be rewarding for all Comms professionals as far as our careers go, it can also be just as personally rewarding.Great post and great Blog Paul, I think you are a great example.Adam

  7. Great post Paul… I guess this leaves me feeling a little better with the route of social media I chose when I couldn't get a PR gig back when I graduated college. I definitely see a lot of talk/writing regarding social media from PR professionals and it seems like they're digging their heels into the traditions of PR, rather than taking an honest look at how things can and will eventually change. I don't know how much integration is going to happen and how quickly, if at all it will… all I know is that people who are well versed in social media and communications principals are going to make quite a bit of money filling that niche.

  8. Yes, yes and yes. I plan a similar post later this week in my #fixPR series.But we do need to get realistic. In traditional PR agencies you have specialist knowledge across individuals. That's the benefit of working with an agency – they create your "dream team".In this fragmented media landscape, it's even less likely to find an expert social media all-rounder. And, perhaps unfair to expect so?

  9. Some great points made here. I’m actually surprised by how much agreement and support I’ve had on this issue, both here and on Twitter. I expected a little resistance, but maybe that isn’t there because those who have read this post are already clued up and involved in digital media.The PR industry is definitely evolving, which is essentially due to the way that the way we communicate is changing very fast. @EvilPRGuy’s question as to whether traditional PR agencies will exist in ten years is very pertinent, and when you look at the range of skills that a new PR needs, it’s hard to argue against it.I also totally agree with Adam’s sentiments about being wound up by this issue. It’s not difficult at all to ‘get tooled up’. Learning about Twitter should be mandatory, Blogger makes things dead simple, Google Reader makes RSS child’s play. And yet too many PRs aren’t willing to dive in, or simply don’t see the need. It’s so short-sighted. Adam’s final point about associating with like-minded individuals is key to the whole issue as well – do PRs not WANT to learn?James Moreau’s comment about all the talk about social media from PR professionals and yet the digging in of heels with conventional PR is spot on. Come on people, wake up! Communications are evolving and PR should be leading that evolution, not trailing in its wake.

  10. It's true that the 'dream team' environment within PR agencies is beneficial, Darika. Although I believe that every single individual in an agency needs at least basic social media skills. There is definitely a role for a digital expert to lead the team, as maybe it is unfair to expect everyone to know all about SEO and web analytics on top of social media and conventional PR. But I don't subscribe to PR agencies having a 'digital division' as such.

  11. Really interesting post, and couldn't agree more… Any good PR person needs an understanding of business, and how to meet set objectives using various communication tools, using a strategy that spans both off and online. The learning curve is never ending and I'm only really starting to get to grips with SEO but as a PR, I'm going to need to if I want to protect my business from the onslaught of digital agencies.

  12. Thanks Sue – it's good to hear that there are people such as yourself out there who are being proactive about this issue. You're certainly right that the learning curve is never ending, and the longer people leave it, the steeper it's getting. Google Buzz is a prime example – just when you think you've got a grip of things, out comes a tool that is totally shaking things up and dividing opinion. As far as SEO goes, you might be interested in this post: SEO for PR – Understanding Keywords and Backlinks http://bit.ly/9W2aGA

  13. Learning the ins and outs of digital communications is nothing compared to trying to make clients social, organized and disciplined. I think "PRs" understand that they need to adopt new technical skills, but top of that list should be how to manage massive cultural change. Moving clients to integrated marketing communications and convincing them to stop relying on reporters to tell their stories and showcase their intellectual capital will take unprecedented change from the top down and bottom up. One of the key changes that needs to be made is providing incentives for employees to create and share compelling content consistently. This will take an organization working as a team like never before. Otherwise fits of stops and starts will dampen spirits and efforts will fail.

  14. Your point about cultural change is an important one, Amy. The shift that is currently taking place between different cultural groups (gen X & gen Y, specifically) is huge, and both groups need to come to terms with that fast. As you rightly say, organisations working as teams is becoming key, and this is going to take understanding and give from all sides.

  15. I for one don't think either an agency or a PR/marcom department can handle it. It's much more holistic than churning out press releases that nobody reads. It should probably be run by the VP of Marketing, but the whole organization needs to join. Charlene Li, coauthor of Groundswell, recently came out with her new book called Open Leadership. In her opinion (which I concur) the highest levels of management need to learn to "open up" if social media is to be best utilized.

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