Are PR Agencies a Strategic Fit for Social Businesses?

John Kerr, Director, Edelman Digital APAC

An argument has been doing the rounds in social media-land, and I haven’t been sure where I stand. The argument is what type of agency delivering a marketing discipline is the best partner for social media – and where do PR agencies fit into the debate, if at all? As an ex PR person, I was curious, so I decided to weigh in on the debate by interviewing an old colleague, and someone who is very experienced in the transition PR companies have made with the advent of a social world.

Meet John Kerr, a director for Edelman, who responsible for running its digital media marketing team in the AP region. Edelman Digital APAC clients include: RIM (a top 10 global social company;) Marina Bay Sands; XBoxHP; Levis, amongst others. Edelman’s Asia Pacific team is 65 strong – overseeing online communities on behalf of brands, which numbers over five million in the region. With 600 people worldwide, Edelman Digital is probably the largest social media marketing agency in the world.

A PR person I respect greatly, I thought John could offer some insight into this debate, from his perspective.

What is the core issue of this debate?

It’s always the same – which part of the marketing services agency universe should “own” social media – and to be honest, I find it one of the most pointless and self-serving questions doing the rounds. As with appointing any agency, it’s a matter of finding the right people – people who demonstrate they understand the nexus of:

  • Overcoming business challenges/goals
  • The needs of critical stakeholders
  • Relevant connection models
  • Creativity

Find the right people, the results will come.

Unfortunately from a PR perspective, this ’pointless question’ has become a bit of an “us” versus “them” inter-industry debate – one that I worry PR agencies are losing. “Them” are the other marketing services agency disciplines and what they offer versus what we (PR) offer. When I say marketing services agencies, I include advertising, media, interactive, and direct marketing, amongst others. If you want to look at relative heritages, I’d generalise and simplify it by saying; advertising is a broadcast heritage, so it’s about reach and awareness. Media companies focus on connection models, so they grew up planning and booking media. The core of many interactive agencies is technology. And direct marketing agencies evolved from a perspective signal-to-response. They are terrible generalisations, but you get the picture.

Since we’re playing the generalisation game – the heritage of PR (unless you’ve been watching “Perfect Spin” on ChannelNewsAsia) has always has been about building relationships between institutions and critical stakeholders by engaging people through trusted channels and content. The consistent element for PR is that success is never guaranteed – which is why measuring success has always been so tough for our industry. Traditionally, when you present an event, concept or story to a government official, journalist, NGO or blogger, you can’t guarantee that they will be interested. You should have done the hard work to know them as people, what interests them, their point-of-view, etc – but when dealing with free-thinking people – the outcome is never pre-assumed and as predictable as brands would like. However, that’s what PR people do – we engage in order to build relationships. I see this core skill and heritage as having massive value in the evolving world of social media.

PR companies often work with clients for years, understanding the businesses inside and out, working at the highest levels, and training c-level executives in areas like crisis management. Many marketing services agencies, by comparison, are project or campaign driven and work with a specific ‘function’ department – like marketing. Nothing wrong with that, but it means your frame of reference, when it comes to clients and industries, can be very different.

Where do you think the issues are coming from then?

The debate isn’t straight forward. Edelman is a privately owned PR firm, and that means we have a lot more flexibility in how we grow to harness the opportunities social media delivers. However, many of the global PR agencies are owned by big, diversified holding companies. As such, when PR firms within a conglomerate ask for budget to say, acquire technical and interactive expertise, they might be told to work with a partner agency within their group – something that doesn’t always work. It’s a real example.

I’m currently in the process of trying to acquire smart, local interactive companies to integrate into our four key APAC markets. I know most of our traditional PR agency competitors would never be able to do this. Everybody who has the ability to produce creative and compelling content fast has become key. Trying to outsource limits flexibility, but I doubt many holding company PR firms are looking to acquire this capability in Asia Pacific today.

With that said, while PR firms are being told ‘no’ to technology investment, I’m seeing ‘interaction practices’ pop up all over the place in interactive firms to provide social media guidance. Often these new practices are staffed by people from the PR/comms industry?? These kinds of investments are easier to get sign off for because of the discrepancy between PR and marketing budgets – and therefore relative investment percentages. It’s a shame, but it’s a reality and should be seen as a real concern for the PR industry as a whole.

We’re at a hype point. Do you believe that social is here to stay?

While social media hype is slowing – there’s no doubt it’s still there. You’ve only got to look at a market like Singapore – 77% of people are online, there is high broadband penetration, and five percent of marketing spend is focused on digital. Further, I’d put the amount of marketing investment for social media at probably under 0.5%. Yet given the amount of heat-and-light and information, people say social media is passé? Go figure that one out?

But we’re moving through the hype. A lot of companies have experimented and learnt over the past 18 months and I’d go as far to say that many clients already know more about how to be successful with social media than agency practitioners. This is all part of the maturing process and it’s a good thing.

It’s good because it means companies in Asia will focus more on what really matters – well all that really matters – driving a business outcome or changing a behaviour. Nothing is hidden anymore. Even lobbyists (another PR arm) are in the public domain. Everyone gets a say and that means businesses need to put more skin in the game if they want the right outcome. Evolving to a social business as we call it at Edelman, is not about building one million or 100 million followers – it’s about building sustainable relationships by keeping  people connected and engaged with your brand. Unilever calls this ‘Always On’ – it’s a nice way to think about it, as opposed to purely being focused on campaigns. Being ‘Always On’ means consistently producing and sharing high-value, high-relevance content that is both entertaining and educational.

I believe PR agencies have an important role to play, but fundamentally it’s about our ability to prove that to people who are transforming companies across Asia. Come back to me in two years on that.

You say “Social Business?” Can you elaborate?

One of my colleagues, Michael Brito in the US, just released a book – “Smart Business, Social Business.” Michael is an extremely clever guy and I certainly recommend this book for any company that is trying to get their heads around the broader impact of digital developments on organization stance, structure and culture – because that is the future. It’s a cultural change from the top down. Michael’s book provides great context around being a social business. No time to read? There’s also a SlideShare presentation for easy digestion.

Any final thoughts?

I’m not going to blanket argue that the PR industry is the right place to start for companies travelling down the path of social media marketing or social business. I’m not going to argue it’s the wrong start point either. All I hope is that the people making the hiring decisions at least evaluate the relative merits of different industry experiences, but most importantly, evaluate the quality of the people. I’m fortunate to be with a company that works hard to prove the clear synergy between PR and delivering value to our clients – offline, online, or both. Despite coming from a marketing background, I really believe in the value of the PR industry and mindset. But like everyone else, we are going to have to think really big and hustle hard to prove our value – no one gets anything worthwhile for doing northing – and that’s the way it should always be.

Thanks John. I think this makes a terrific amount of sense, but as always, for PR agencies, there are many hurdles in the way. John’s in a lucky position not to have to fight the internal battle to succeed.

In the meantime, as being a social business is about creating conversations between businesses and customers, do you think it can be outsourced? And if you were choosing a partner, what would you look for?

Andrea Edwards

Managing Director


PS if you like what you read, please do share it. Alternatively, if you know someone who’d enjoy it, pass it on. You can sign up here to get our blogs directly in your inbox, you can like us on Facebook and get them in your feed, or follow us on Twitter @SAJEIdeas

5 thoughts on “Are PR Agencies a Strategic Fit for Social Businesses?”

  1. Some good points from John here, thanks for the interview as ever Andrea!

    Not sure I agree with the slant of some of the opinions though.

    Yes it is true that in a good relationship a PR agency will have multiple C-level relationships, developed over a long period of time. But that is equally true of a good traditional agency, digital agency, systems integration or management consulting firm.

    Conversely, a bad PR agency relationship can get hung up in the corporate communications department, and can end up consisting of little more than the press release and media event treadmill.

    Multiple parties have valid claims to social media guruship. That includes great PR companies who are master communicators, but it also includes digital agencies who have been running online relationships for 10-15 years for their clients, it includes strategic management consultancies, it includes direct marketers, and it includes traditional agencies who are the brand guardians.

    But more importantly, I think the debate is moot.

    The clients and agencies of the future are not PR firms, they are not traditional agencies, they are not digital agencies, they are not strategic consultants and they are not technology companies.

    They will be new types of organisations and partnerships that bring these capabilities together.

    Now THAT is a debate worth having 🙂

    1. Hey Keith, this is great and I especially like the idea that the company of the future servicing this new world is going to be something different again. Nice one. Perhaps we can have that debate for the next SAJE interview? You, John, a few others? Cheers

  2. Hey Keith – your point about the debate being moot is spot on. My first point is – as it should always be – is about finding the right people who have the most value against the business challenge.

    However, Andrea reached out to me because the PR industry is being marginalized, which it is – often by interactive, media and advertising agencies – about the role the can play in social media. When I see terms like ‘Superman of Search’ or ‘Asian Young Gun’ bandied about as experience creds, makes me shiver. 🙂

    Happy to discuss further anytime. Cheers, J

  3. Pingback: IBM is a Social Business | SAJE… Communications to the Core

  4. Pingback: Are PR Firms a Strategic Fit for Social Businesses? | Edelman Australia Blog

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *