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When it comes to digital marketing, what comes first, the medium, or the message?

As the digital element of campaigns increases, digital and PR experts are fighting to claim this part of the marketing mix for themselves. PRmoment, as a voice of the PR industry, obviously has an interest to declare. However, this article takes as an objective view as possible about who is best placed to advise brands about online and digital communication strategies. We also invite experts from various disciplines to debate their case.

Many agree that as digital work is so varied, no single marketing specialist can steal all the work. Kate Hartley, partner at PR agency Carrot Communications, believes that all marketing strategies should start with an “audience strategy”, and that it is up to clients to identify key audiences first before working out the best way to reach them. Hartley says that as PR has always owned reputation management, PR consultants are the leaders when it comes to using digital space to converse with consumers and listen to their opinions: “For the first time, we can track conversations as well as coverage (audience response as well as output) and understand what's driving an organisation's reputation, both good and bad. ”But this doesn’t mean that PR agencies are the only people to turn to, as Hartley repeats the importance of using specialists to target each element of the campaign: “All marketing disciplines need to work together in a decent
marketing campaign: search, PR, advertising, social media and customer service.” 

Alan Parker, head of dialogue at GolinHarris UK, agrees with Hartley that PROs are the experts to turn to when having dialogues with consumers online, and also agrees that other marketing specialists have their role to play in online marketing. Parker says, “Digital is the channel, the means by which we engage with the audience, but it isn’t a tactic, strategy or discipline in its own right. As such I think that there’s a role to play by the entire marketing mix.” However, Parker has found that PR is increasingly taking the lead in digital work. He says that this is because PR is in a much better position to help start and manage a conversation around a brand, explaining: “It isn’t about simply putting something out there, it’s what you do when somebody responds.”

The debate

Experts argue about who should take the lead in the digital space

PR experts
“PR agencies are best placed to own the social media space. At a fundamental level, what PR agencies are about is creating word of mouth, whether that's through talking to the press, stakeholders, or the public directly. That hasn't changed, it's just the medium by which that happens that has evolved. It is essential that internal client teams increase their understanding of the potential of social media, and the different uses of it. All too often, confusion starts with clients not knowing why they want to do social media. As greater understanding takes place across the industry throughout 2010 I think we will see this far less, and the pressure is on PR agencies to be the educators.“

James Poulter, digital director at PR agency Biss Lancaster

Digital experts
"The lead best comes from the digital specialists. Clients seem to understand it more from this perspective. But most digital specialists haven't the long-established skills in engagement that PROs have. Therefore, the best mix is to lead with digital as the implementors, but have PR positioned as the social strategy experts. Yes I'm saying for implementation to be the lead and strategy to follow. This is the way clients are approaching this market."

Julia Ruane, head of PR at digital agency DigForFireDMG

Digital/PR experts

“It's a fact that people are losing business because they don't integrate or understand digital, cannot sell it to their clients and don't have the confidence to talk like an expert. Everybody should be able to understand it and so should first turn to specialist digital PR experts to keep them up to date on new trends, train them and their clients and execute their projects.”

Pamela Lyddon, founder of digital PR agency Bright Star Digital

It depends …
“The communications industry as a whole needs to stop viewing marketing in old siloed terms. Customers don't distinguish between PR, marketing and digital. Why should we as an industry continue to do so? It's a failed model that leads to waste and ineffectiveness. My advice to clients: Talk to everyone about digital and social media. The folks who respond with jargon and creative solutions that rely on TV ads rebadged as 'short form film' will lead you down the wrong path. You're after the folks who understand communities and the nuance of the digital space because they're part of those communities and because they've got real experience engaging audiences for other clients.”

Marshall Manson, director of digital strategy at PR consultancy Edelman

"PR professionals are best placed to respond to the needs of digital content. However if it goes beyond a requirement for audio, video or text for digital engagement then you need a web coder to obviously help out. For the bigger projects – an iPhone application, interactive site and so on, you obviously need more than people who can engage/create text. "It depends on the needs. You can get a specialist agency to set things up and then hand it over to a PR firm, but if the PR firm knows nothing about either digital engagement or measurement, then it's a waste of time and money."

Craig McGill, MD and creative head of PR agency Contently Managed 

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