Blurred lines

Blurred lines

The lines between what constitutes a PR agency as opposed to a creative, digital, media or experiential agency are becoming less defined by the day. Lucy Clark takes a look at how the PR industry is adapting to stay relevant.

B&T Magazine
Posted by B&T Magazine

PR in 2013 is a blurry business. No longer are PR agencies simply pumping out press releases and frantically calling journalists.

Today, thanks to social media and technology, a PR pro is a storyteller, a creative, digitally savvy and a cross-channel operator.

PR has forever been evolving with the times, moving on from the “Felicity from publicity” days (in the words of Ogilvy PR’s Kieran Moore) to crafting and telling the stories themselves.

But this change has picked up pace in the last 12 months. PR agencies are now taking part in strategic discussions and pitches alongside creative and digital agencies. They are recruiting across a much wider skill set. They are talking direct to consumers. They are all over social media. And they are examining metrics and insights with a fine-tooth comb.

The lines between what constitutes a PR agency as opposed to a creative agency or a digital agency are becoming ever more blurry.

PR’s evolution

The change that PR has undergone in recent months and years is described as an “evolution” by those at the heart of the business in Australia.

Claire Salvetti, managing director at Mango, explains: “We used to spend all our time working out what journalists want and working out what would be news. Now we need to be just as good storytellers as journalists.

“Journalists are still telling stories but, because the sphere of influence has grown because of social media, we need to be able to talk directly to the consumer as well. It’s definitely an evolution.”

This evolution is seeing PR agencies increasingly taking on strategic duties.

“We are not only in pitches, but we are involved at the beginning of the strategic discussion with the clients too,” explains Andrea Kerekes, CEO at Access PR. “It started to change a few years ago, but it’s really become quite prevalent now.”

Kerekes says another big change has been around social media management on behalf of busy company executives.

“In the last 12 months, we have found we are doing more and more executive social media management,” she says.

“We look after the personal Twitter and LinkedIn accounts of CEOs and MDs, and we are holding social media training workshops for executives than we have ever done before. There are very few senior managing directors and CEOs that have the time to be as active on Twitter as they know they should be.”

And today’s buzzword in PR? It’s ‘metrics’.

Michelle Hutton, CEO of Edelman in Australia, explains: “Gone are the days when you blasted out media releases and you hoped that the story would stick. It’s far more metrics-driven now. That’s changed the whole way that PR agencies think and that PR clients think.”

But, despite this multi-faceted evolution, the traditional ways of reaching your target audience can’t be overlooked.

“Everyone is talking about creating content and dealing with citizen journalism, but at the end of the day clients still want to be able to say they reached a certain amount of people through media,” argues Kerekes. “Earned media is still crucial. I’m surprised that more media agencies haven’t cottoned on to this and brought in PR people to launch an internal PR function, given the way that media is working now.”

Come together

To cope with this evolution in the way it works, PR has had to forge much closer relationships with other types of agencies. Integration and collaboration is key.

Terri-Helen Gaynor, president of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, says: “It is now vital that PR works closer with media, creative, advertising, marketing and digital. As the platforms change, so do the requirements. A more holistic solution is now required.”

Kieran Moore, CEO of Ogilvy PR, regularly sees collaboration in action.

She outlines: “There is so much more integration with big campaigns than there ever was before. Often now, we will sit down with media and creative and work on solutions together. Those companies that are not doing that are missing the point.”

Mat Jones, managing director of Ogilvy PR’s Parker & Partners, adds: “To be successful, a PR agency needs to understand how to work with other disciplines in a seamless way, because the client needs to be able to engage their audiences in a way that’s seamless and gets the most bang for their buck.”

That means that it’s PR’s time to shine.

Jones continues: “Because of the focus on the above the line element in the past, it might have been that the campaign was driven by above the line creative.

“That’s not so true anymore. We are finding, in many cases, that we are driving the campaign.”

Mango’s Salvetti believes that blurring is positive and should be encouraged.

“We want to create the best ideas and the most socially creative ideas, so what we need are people from all areas of the marketing functions in order to make that happen,” she says.

“We are the masters of understanding earned media. What we need are planners who can produce an insight to work with, and someone creative who can help us create the ideas, and channel planners to understand where our target audience is. Brands that encourage that blurring are the ones that are making headway.”

But any change brings with it challenges. Kerekes (left) believes that collaboration raises two critical issues.

She says: “Firstly, creative agencies often don’t understand how editorial works in the brave new world. I have seen ad agencies come up with ideas that they think would be fantastic for editorial, but there is no way it’s going to work.

“Secondly, the turf war over social media is an issue. Everyone says they can do it, but where does the client put it?

“I believe it should rest in a couple of places. Strategically, in terms of content and communities, I believe that it should rest with the communications agency, but I think community management should be handled in-house, in collaboration with an agency.

“The blurring of content creates a turf war. Ad agencies need people with editorial experience, or traditional PR agencies need digital specialists.” 

So, when it comes to collaboration, does it help or hinder to be part of a network?

Salvetti, whose agency Mango is part of the DDB network, says: “Whether you are part of a network or not, you need to integrate with other specialties. Even the smaller boutique shops need to have that network externally so they can bring integration to the table.

“If Mango was not within the DDB Group, I would have a strategist, and a creative team.

Edelman’s Hutton believes her agency’s independence is crucial to its success: “One of the challenges for an agency owned by a holding company the new areas of opportunity for PR are no-go zones for these companies because their other companies are doing it. But at Edelman no-one is telling us we can’t do it.”

A different make-up

The skill sets found in a PR agency are also, inevitably, blurring to become much more diverse.

Salvetti (right) says: “The lines are also blurring in terms of the types of people we are employing. We now have analytics and data people, and digital people. That has changed a lot.”

Moore agrees: “We have hired different people and are pitching for different things. In the last 12 months, we’ve taken on digital designers and creative people.

“From a professional development perspective, it’s broadening what we need to be building in terms of our capabilities.

“It’s not ‘Felicity from publicity’ anymore. Of course there are a lot of PR companies that do that, but our industry is so much broader now.”

And Hutton has also faced the same situation: “We now have a completely different skill set. We have got people who never dreamed they would be working for a PR company. We have videographers, people from digital backgrounds, people from script-writing backgrounds, and researchers.

“When you bring together people with a really diverse skill set, that’s when the storytelling becomes really powerful.”

Parker & Partners deals with government relations and public affairs. Jones says: “In the past, where media was the focus, most of the people who came into PR would have a media or journalism or PR background. Now they don’t.

“They might come from a government or corporate role and never have done communications as it used to be. But they are ideally suited, given their knowledge of other sectors to meeting our clients’ needs.

“We have hired former bureaucrats, for example. While they probably haven’t ever written a press release, they know how to communicate with government stakeholders at a political and policy level, and they understand how corporations make decisions.”

Access PR’s Kerekes says PR agencies are having to become a lot more creative. To handle this, Access PR has recently partnered with two overseas PR agencies to create an international network. The Australian business has joined forces with Eulogy in the UK and DiGennaro Communications in the US.

“They are both more established than us but have identical backgrounds, with similar client experience and philosophies to us,” explains Kerekes. “They are both independently owned and have already been working together in an alliance for five years.

“I have clients that need help in each of these markets, and it’s fantastic to have strategic support and advice. Plus, these two agencies are where we want to be in five years’ time in terms of their digital offering and the breadth of services they offer.”

The unspoken side

The ironic thing about a huge portion of PR agencies’ work is that, the less the general public ever hears about it, the better.

Issues and crisis management is just as – if not, more – important as getting those good messages out there.

It means that comparing one PR agency to another is nigh on impossible.

Kerekes explains: “40% of our work goes under the radar. It’s strategic work and issues management. We have had deaths and paedophiles in court and someone charged as a triad drug kingpin – a lot of what we do is fascinating, but completely confidential.

“That’s why, with PR agencies, it’s always comparing apples with oranges. Some PR agencies do things that we don’t specialise in and vice versa, but we’re all called ‘PR agencies’.”

Planning for every possible eventuation is crucial, according to Salvetti: “Big organisations have lots of work going on behind the scenes – issues management and so on. For every launch, we do a risk analysis – what if they run out of products? What if someone makes a video? We scenario plan for every major project we work on.”

Newly-formed PR agency Newgate Communications is focused on strategic communications. The general rule for Newgate is that the less heard, the better.

The company has been involved in working with Southern Cross Austereo following the scandal involving the suicide of a British nurse following a prank call by 2DayFM DJs Mel Grieg and Michael Christian while the Duchess of Cambridge was in hospital during her pregnancy.

Newgate’s Tyson says: “It’s important not to over-react and create a story where there isn’t one.

“The value we have is understanding when things are serious and when we need to respond, as sometimes if you react, you create the story. We have to react on objective data, not just gut instinct – is it having an impact on the brand?

“The secret to good management reputation is to ensure that your stakeholders are informed in as direct a manner as possible. You tell them the story, tell them straight, and don’t let media distil the story.”

The old AVE debate

It’s impossible to discuss the state of PR without mentioning those three letters: AVE.

The industry, it seems, is still split on the issue. While nobody loves the Advertising Value Equivalent measurement, some have banned it outright while others are still being asked to use it.

At Ogilvy, it’s simple: it’s banned. Moore says: “We banned AVE here two years ago. It was a nonsense and we had to take a stand. In Asia they use them, but they are dying a quick death.”

Access PR doesn’t use AVE either. Kerekes says: “The only time we will put a dollar against anything is if the client insists, and then we will do it through a third party, so it’s not our evaluation.

“Our measurement is based on qualitative, which is major operations and stories or social media reach.

“We look at whether key messages were contained, and was it positive, was there third party endorsement, and was it fair.”

But Mango and Edelman still use the AVE measurement in some instances.

Mango’s Salvetti says: “People love to be dismissive of AVE, but you need consistency with measurement. If we have been using AVE for five years, it makes sense to continue using it. Until we have an industry standard measurement, we measure things in as many ways as we can.

“AVE probably should be dead, but it’s not.”

And Hutton says Edelman still uses AVE if the client ask them to do so.

“Everyone agrees AVE is an outdated form of measurement,” she explains. “The more we can educate clients to move to the alternatives, the better. Some clients still want it, but those that do are now also including other forms of measurement alongside it.”

Meanwhile, industry body PRIA does not advocate the use of AVEs.

PRIA’s Gaynor says: “We advocate for outcomes and have found that AVE doesn’t do this, it just provides a potential ROI justification to some people. Measurement and evaluation techniques that are widely understood, accepted and implemented are critical to the growth of public relations and PRIA does not support the use of AVEs in measuring PR.”

The future

So what does the future hold for PR? Is the blurring going to continue? Will we soon have an all-skills-encompassing agency model? And how will PR agencies fight to survive?

Becoming better at storytelling and at dissecting data are two immediate challenges.

Salvetti outlines: “The one thing the PR industry needs is to become better at storytelling. Traditionally, we have given people the ingredients to tell the story, but now we are creating content and telling the stories ourselves.

“It’s about understanding how people consume and snack on content, and creating content that people play with and pass on.”

Technology and data is the immediate concern for Hutton. She says: “I think the challenge we have as an industry is to upskill everybody to understand real time. Everybody is online.

“As an industry, we don’t inherently always understand data. That’s both a risk and an opportunity. All PR agencies need to employ people who get data.”

And Tyson concludes: “Everyone is a journalist now. Organisations have to be on top of social media so they can pick up trends and issues.

“The change is enormous. The next 10 years will be fascinating to see where it all ends up.”