You Think You Want a Digital Campaign? You’re Wrong.

How clients can navigate as digital communication changes PR and marketing

Some of the many social media tools at our disposal

Some of the many social media tools at our disposal

When a client says, “I’m looking for a digital or social media campaign,” how should you respond?

“No, you’re not!” is the answer public relations industry analyst Paul Holmes recommended to a room full of agency leaders in Toronto last week. The respected British trade journalist, who has chronicled the growth of the global PR industry for a generation, made the simple but too-often forgotten point that the right starting point is not the media channel, but rather the business or communication goal.

This idea of being clear on the goal, but agnostic about the channel, has quietly transformed Canada’s major public relations firms from organizations whose core business is earned media to agencies with a diversified suite of services that leverage PR’s true core competency: earning attention and engagement in order to build relationships, reputations and brands – at a time when such skills have never been in greater demand.

If your goal requires any of the above – building relationships, reputations or brands – here are a few principles to consider in your planning.

Traditional or social media? Yes.

Please: let’s all stop using the term ‘traditional media.’ There’s no longer any such thing. Media brands and professional journalists are freely blending content creation and curation with audience engagement to inform and spread their coverage. Yet in too many boardrooms, we still hear the false dichotomy between so-called ‘traditional’ and ‘social’ media, as though it’s a choice to be made.

When everyone is creating, curating and analyzing content, a smart strategy will engage not only the most trusted sources, but also the stakeholder, consumer or citizen who will have credibility with their peers. When professional journalists, bloggers, influencers and other citizens are engaged with intelligence and impact, the results can be transformative for brands.

No matter who’s in charge of social media, they need PR skills.

Social media is just the newest way of doing what PR firms have done for decades: building and growing relationships, creating mutual understanding between organizations and those they seek to engage. While there are many who are skilled at developing cool creative and inventing “brand experiences,” the ability to earn attention rather than paying for it, and to manage a relationship or an issue effectively, requires education and/or experience in public relations. The brand landscape is littered with faded or brands that failed to manage social media risk, and irrelevant brands that failed to seize social media opportunity.

The skills you need are clear; the service providers may not be.

Specialty digital agencies seem to open and close faster than trendy downtown restaurants. As the gold rush gives way to a more mature environment, the idea that any one agency can be good at all things digital seems increasingly strange; these firms are also vulnerable to agencies that play higher up in the value chain – where the brand and reputation strategies are built. With integration as the new mantra, we are seeing an unprecedented blurring of the boundaries, and a growing hybridity among providers of public relations, communications, branding and marketing services. This is no bad thing, but it makes evaluating agencies challenging for clients.

How can clients navigate? Three suggestions.

Clients can navigate this environment in three ways. First, they need a clear conception of the skills they need to build their brands, earn attention through compelling content and experiences, manage relationships and reputation, and create brand advocates. Second, they need to ask agencies hard questions, and evaluate them accordingly. Finally, because it’s unlikely that any one agency will have all the skills and all the answers, clients need to incent the selected firms to build strong partnerships and multi-disciplinary strategy teams.

Those who do so will not only have cooler digital campaigns; they are also more likely to meet their ultimate goals.