One of the hardest aspects of running a PR business or team is finding the right people. Another pressure is finding those who are not just good at communicating, but who understand digital too. This means recruiting new talent, or investing in the talent you have: “There is no doubt that agencies have had to rapidly upskill in order to take advantage of the opportunities presented by digital,” says James Kelliher, CEO at PR firm Whiteoaks Consultancy. “Where once social media was just another channel through which to shout, clients are starting to see its value as a lead-generation tool.”
PR teams are constantly expected to do a wider range of tasks. Emma Streets, PR and social media director at integrated agency Turn Key, explains: "It is essential to have a level of digital knowledge in PR – but digital is a huge term that gets broader every day. Due to the speed that social media channels, online behaviours and tech is evolving, it is really impossible for one individual to possess all of this knowledge, so building a team of specialists in certain areas – whether that's SEO/PPC knowledge, social media advertising or analytics, is vital now.”
Keeping up to speed with digital is obviously an additional expense for agencies and PR departments, but is one that Kelliher says is necessary: “We have invested heavily in our digital consultants who drive our social campaigns forward.” It is important that digital experts are not seen as ‘outsiders’ but share their knowledge with the whole team. As Kelliher points out: “It is important that PR professionals of all levels understand the opportunities presented by digital and communicate this effectively to clients. Rather than referring to them as ‘geeks’, we see our digital consultants as crucial to integrating traditional PR and social media.”
‘Geek is the new normal’
Kelliher is not alone in thinking the term “geek” is evolving in PR. Josh Vaulters, account manager at PR agency Four Broadgate, points out that in a way, all PROs are geeks these days: “The idea that digital understanding is the realm of geeks just isn’t relevant any more. Ignoring for a moment that we’re all, to various degrees, attached to our digital devices, all junior hires are now digital natives who have grown up with broadband and smartphones. The industry is modernising from the ground up, and there’s nothing we can do to fight it. Geek is the new normal.
“That is a good thing. It can be tempting to class digital and traditional public relations as distinct, but the reality is that they are simply different tools to accomplish the same job. The new, and potentially extremely effective, ways of addressing our audiences should be fully embraced. This doesn’t mean that ‘traditional PR is dead’, it just means that it has evolved.”
PR first, digital second
As PR involves combing the new with the old, is it better to hire traditional comms people and teach them digital skills, or find digital experts and teach them creative skills? Vaulters says the first approach is better: “Effective PR is nuanced and requires experience and sector knowledge: we find those skills are harder to learn than the basics of SEO, social media and so on – for that reason, where necessary, we prioritise teaching our PR practitioners the digital basics rather than hiring specialists and trying to teach them PR.”
Emma Streets agrees: “In my experience, it is easier to add digital skills to a PR professional's knowledge than turning a digital expert into a PR professional – and this is a challenge that the more specialist digital agencies are now facing.”
Ultimately, digital, PR and social media boundaries are all blurring, and Streets concludes that the focus should still be on the age-old heart of communications theory: “who and where is your audience? How do they behave? And how can you best reach them?”
Why PROs need IT support (and vice versa)
Ian McVey, UK director at software firm Qualtrics, appreciates that PR people understand digital these days, but believes they also need IT support: “Whilst PROs might be thought of as more at home with the humanities than the sciences, they already excel in understanding tech. The reason is that they understand, and value, data, the gold dust of the digital economy and the DNA of their interaction with their audiences.
“PROs bring data to life. It gives them the scientific evidence with which to present their clients’/employers’ strategy and prove that it is married to customer insight, not guesswork. Furthermore, PROs understand how to frame data with meaningful context.
“An excellent way to improve the familiarity of PR professionals with technology is to give them access to the software that gathers customer, market and employee insight. Another is for PROs to work more closely with in-house and client-side tech teams. They need each other. At a time when every company is a tech company, PROs need chief information officers (CIOs) to help them articulate a robust digital vision. CIOs need PROs’ help to express their opinions externally in the media. They also need PR guidance to win the confidence of their colleagues, helping them to understand and welcome the ways technology will change the workplace, for instance with the introduction of artificial intelligence.”
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