The fight for social media control

The fight for social media control

As I understand it, marketing in the ‘80s and ‘90s was pretty straightforward.

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If you worked for an advertising agency, you made advertising. If you worked for a public relations firm, you were in PR. The ad agencies competed for the advertising briefs. The PR agencies didn’t. And vice versa. In fact, if an ad agency ever found itself in competition with a PR firm, it could only have been for the last available lunch booking at Catalina’s.

Today, things couldn’t be more different.

The lines that divide an ad agency and a PR agency are becoming increasingly fuzzy. Nowhere is this more evident than social media.

Stephen Waddington, author of Brand Anarchy, puts it in strident terms. In the area of social media, he states, ‘there’s a turf war taking place between advertising and public relations. And it is a war. The battle lines are being drawn by media change and audience consumption and the positions that advertising, public relations and digital assert.’

Like me, you may now be re-imagining the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, with hordes of advertising hipsters storming the beaches to engage in to-the-death combat with the immaculately-attired forces of PR. Severed limbs in skinny jeans litter the battlefield. Projectile iPads and lethally hot lattes whoosh through the air.

But, lets return to Waddington’s point, and ask the pertinent question. If there really is a battle for control of social media, who deserves to win?

The PR argument is a strong one. Social media is part of the ongoing daily dialogue between a business or brand and its customers. It requires the sort of message control PR agencies understand and excel at, as well as the need for damage control in the inevitable emergency. It makes total sense.

PR agencies should manage social media.

Except… social media is evolving to help sell and inform messaging. Many people ‘like’ and ‘follow’ companies to stay connected to products, promotions and developments. Promotions drive a great deal of the activation. Increased business investment in social media is coming in conjunction with new capabilities that allow for tracking through conversion.

Hang on, that’s clearly an area for advertising. Damn.

Truthfully, when I consider the arguments, I find both sides pretty convincing. Which perhaps suggests the whole war metaphor may be misguided, and the answer lies in collaboration rather than competition.

My experience on campaigns from Walkers ‘Sandwich’ to the more recent Durex ‘Fundawear’ suggests PR and advertising agencies naturally work well together. And that both are equally capable of controlling social media.

In fact, it really doesn’t matter who is in the driving seat, so long as it is clearly defined by the client up front.

Perhaps you have a stronger opinion. Or maybe the whole debate makes you want to jump into a DeLorean and head back to simpler times.

Steve Coll is executive creative director at Havas Worldwide Sydney.