It's probably the most obvious statement that can be made in public relations at the moment: media change is continuing to force us to change. Techniques are evolving at a frightening pace - and they need to. But as we try to grapple with all of that, across agencies and communications teams, it strikes me that our ability to really understand this change is being subjected to two conflicting forces.
One the one hand, progressive media convergence is driving us to try to gain an overarching perspective, with teams working to gain even knowledge across all media types, with individuals having some select specialism too. On the other hand, it seems we're sometimes becoming further fragmented, with niches being coveted too deeply without due consideration to how storytelling all fits together.
The crux of it in my view is that too often to remain snowblinded by social media, dazzled by its existence to the detriment of pursuing PR's evolution and the more potent commercial value we're chasing. We can't do everything in one go of course, as these things take time. But if we don't acknowledge whereas how we can be dazzled, the future will only be tougher. In many ways the situation was inevitable. Here's why I think we are where we are:
Why did a preoccupation with social media occur in the first place?
Because the rise of social media shook up the PR industry and took many people by surprise. It happened so fast compared to previous changes in the agency business that many were forced to respond with new services and skills – a lot of people were on the back foot. For a few years, agencies felt they couldn’t afford not to keep social media capabilities prominently in their shop windows, even if in many cases teams were scrambling to gets their heads around what the rise of social media really meant for them and whether it would all just be a passing phase in media evolution.
But it became a fixation that was too often kept on the side of the ‘normal’ PR business. It became a specialism so that often two tracks emerged - the people who understood and could apply embryonic public relations techniques using social platforms and the people who largely still did media relations and looked on with curiosity.
Integration makes complete sense but can individuals or teams really be expected to be expert in all forms of media?
No – in time, the expectation is likely to be a cohesive understanding of all forms of media, with each individual having deeper expertise in several media areas. There also needs to be an integrated mindset applied to how audiences are understood, and how content is developed to tell sustained stories. The challenge at the moment isn’t so much how best to engineer integration as how to avoid further fragmentation.
Ultimately as we gain more of an understanding of how media is changing and how it can best fit together to reach audiences, so will clients start to drive demand for greater integration in the role that agencies perform for them. At the moment integration is part-hampered by agencies needing to take a more cohesive approach to audience understanding and planning, and partly by the routine way that clients have long allocated their budgets. In time, I think that both will change.
Why is storytelling across multiple media more powerful when social allows brands to communicate directly?
Because different types of media can serve different purposes, and the net effect of using several types in harmony can make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Planning public relations across direct and indirect communications channels is about more than just exploring all options and creating pull from one platform to another though: it’s how influence and conversation now happen in the real word. Very few people exist in a bubble and only ever get information from social media channels, unless they deliberately want to live exceptionally boring lives.
The credibility, validity and perceived impartiality of conventional media can accelerate or corroborate social conversations when it cuts across or amplifies them. Similarly the strength and magnitude of social conversations can fuel conventional publicity. We know this, yet too often we look at them as separate planning streams or have separate people working on social media and what’s still perceived as ‘regular’ PR.
If we approach storytelling by assuming that only social media can drive engagement while conventional media relations continues along a rarely connected path then we’ll continue to be snowblinded by social media and not really moved on from those early days of excitement over the coming of Facebook. When we hear ‘digital media’, we shouldn’t just default to thinking social media – as all media digitises, so must we work across that whole landscape to understand how influence can shift and build.
Not everyone will agree with this, but it's my viewpoint gained from nearly 10 years of seeing social media evolve. We can still be snowblinded too often, and it's time to snap out of it.
Steve Earl is managing director of the Zeno Group in Europe.