Are PR Companies Equipped to Handle Social Media?

A much debated topic, aint it! PR & Social Media – two strong communities that fiercely guard their respective professional territories. The former emphasizes on the vitality of age old mediums like TV, Print & Newspaper while the latter focuses on what’s known today as a NEW MEDIUM of communication. Sadly, there’s no one formula to decide whether an in-house social media team or an external consultant or agency would best suit a particular business’s need.

Over the little time I’ve spent in this industry, there’s been constant discussion concerning the avenue brands should be considering for their ideal marketing mix. PR factors in as an obvious choice in this mix but online presence still remains a prime choice for a few brands. PR agencies that’ve had long associations with brands on board have extended their in-house social media services to them as well. But can these agencies competently play the role of a social media consultant along with execution? Or the point here is should they even divulge into offering such services. In recent cases, the famous Café Coffee Day incident where #ccdsucks trended on Twitter pointed out that PR alone couldn’t handle this crisis. Gone were days where brands or companies could prevail on a few newspapers or magazines from publishing negative news about them or hamper their image.

Those unwilling to change will undoubtedly fail while new leaders and innovators will conquer

Indian PR firms were in the midst of an upcoming change which they soon had to adopt without a choice. A decade & a half back, PR too was considered as a nascent mode of communication but soon it was commoditized; just like the way Social Media began a few years back & is now progressing towards a similar direction. Regarding the transition from tradition PR strategies to those involving Social Media,  Rohan Kanchan, VP & Head, Strategy & Planning at Perfect Relations says:

“Simply put, standing on the edge is no longer an option; you better take the plunge before you get pushed over. And the plunge you refer to is merely a transition from my perspective and every agency big or small will at some point move in that direction. The early adopters have the advantage of early learnings and un-learnings to adapt to the market faster and we believe that is a significant advantage that Perfect Relations has today.”

Prefect Relations is an agency that stayed ahead of the curve by starting their digital practice six years ago by involving an international specialist. He believes larger agencies like them that are well tuned to manage all aspects have the ability to integrate their offline capability with the online arena.

Trends speak:

Taking India as an example, I always wondered if clients preferred sticking to their PR agencies for their brand’s online presence or is the trend leaning more towards outsourcing it to social media boutiques/agencies.

“With a social media agency on board, one can be assured of collective learning to take place. Social Media isn’t campaign based – it’s a continuous process which means that ideally, there’s no break from this. One has to keep the brand’s presence alive therefore consistency is essential” says Sandhya Sadananda, Director & Co-founder of Windchimes Communications – a three & a half year old social media agency based in Mumbai. Hailing from a traditional PR background, she opines that compared to TV/Print advertising, no mode of communication has ever seen such a quantum leap of growth. At the same time, she interestingly points out that social media is like any another form of communication

From the experience Rohan has, he says

“I don’t think it is a question of loyalty; it’s really a matter of perceived capability. The first choice for companies is most often the PR agency as they see the online medium as a natural extension of their communication efforts. PR agencies will always have an advantage being the custodians of the brand/corporate’s content and communication.”

Clutter or Free Space!

Lets not talk about the sheer size of the PR industry; its a six billion dollar industry and  is currently growing at an annual rate of 32% (according to Assocham report on “PR & Its Future Prospects”). The Indian PR industry comprises of 1,000-2,000 agency with their manpower strength ranging between 30,000 to 40,000. While various small scale/independent social media agencies or boutiques have opened up recently, the average age of these agencies wouldn’t be more than 4 years. There’s a long way to go before we delve into statistics & data on whether this space is cluttered or how bright their future is.

Publics or Media!

We were taught that PR is all about reputation management & that it meant to change public opinions. Sadly, PR is so much more about being for the MEDIA while social media played the role for the PUBLICS. It arose as a medium where people could freely voice their views & in today’s time, we see brands paying keen attention to what happens online (especially on twitter) when their products/services are not up to the advertising message or differ from their salient features. Consumers have realized their power & have also taken to it in a positive manner. Vodafone, Tata DoCoMo, Pantene India, Tata Tea – Jaago Re, etc are a few brands that are utilizing twitter beautifully & are engaging with their target audience too. PR no more is restricted to play a role while crisis or risks occur. They’re no more asked to comply to media relations only. This post is certainly not about how one medium is over-shadowing the other but more on understanding the current state of these two communities.

Think about the crisis around BP oil leak that highlighted their PR as a disaster where even the best communication efforts failed. In a time & age of Internet that exposed the gap between what companies say & what they actually do, there was a need to be ready with quick responses, apologies, empathy, dealing with expectations, etc.

In-house or external – is there a way out?

Social media isn’t about making introductions, its about on the go learning! True, isn’t it? Every brand’s readiness to take up online as an additional mode of communication can be seen in these 4 stages it passes –

Infancy – strengthening internal communications before heading to external influencers
Toddlers – auditing guidelines for their online presence & structuring their digital assets
Walk – implementation & monitoring
Coursing ahead – engage, listen, promote, channelize

During my conversation with Sandhya, she emphasized on how social media was another way to achieve business objectives of clients. Hearing their expectations from this medium is critical as implementing it with the agency’s guidance is beneficial for both. It so thoroughly depends on the brand on whether social media should be handled in house or by any one agency. While the specialist can help the brand set up & get started with training & adequate support, it is ultimately the brand objective that will conquer the need of how they should function. But working in silos is a disaster!

Rohan says: “I am convinced that there is no replacement by online media; there is only absorption and adoption. I do agree that certain forms of brand activation are far more effective online rather than offline but that depends on the outcomes and objectives of a specific campaign. The way I see it, the fundamentals remain the same though the surround effect may vary. To give you a quick example: if a company was to be hit by an unfortunate crisis situation, the traditional approach is relevant and highly recommended: Analyze the situation; adopt the right messages, draw up a POA to mitigate the situation, etc: this will pretty much form the basis of online communication too except that speed of redressal (engagement) and customization (around broad messages) will become imperative. The multiplier effect of online is tremendous and therefore drawing up the right perimeters and boundaries to prevent adverse snowballing is the real challenge. Which is the reason I believe over the long term online and offline will be collaborative and integrated rather than combative to each other.”

Measurement

An integral aspect of every campaign is the ROI it generates for the brand – be it monetarily, top of the mind recall, awareness, etc. There is still a dire need of PR agencies of moving away from impressions (size of articles that appear in daily newspapers!) & learn how to report beyond exposure to engagement & measure influence on views/opinions.

More often in many cases, brands take up to social media as a ‘trial & testing’ period. Though Sandhya throws light on how times have changed & that the case is tad bit different today.

“Two & half years back, there was very little awareness & clients were not that prudent about social media too. They’re much more open about it now & are well read too! Their expectations from the agency are crystal clear”

From what I see, this is a more of a transition & that it will be dependent on a brands final objective to where they see their communication heading & the direction these agencies give them – whether by amalgamating or individually. In conclusion, Rohan positively adds

“I think there is enough scope and space for everybody. As the market matures, client experiences will redefine social media needs and that to me will be an interesting time for the industry. No medium before has evolved as quickly or has been as volatile as the online medium. It’s really a function of how well geared the PR firm/SM agency is to manage this dynamism. My take on the online media environment – Social media agencies with integrated online offerings and Traditional PR firms with online integrated into their communication offerings will survive and thrive.”

Feel free to utilize the comment box below if there are any more examples that can be added to either of the kitty.

Featured Image Courtesy Lisah and Jerry Silfwer

 

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