Study: Digital Skills Gap Poses Challenge For UK PR Firms
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Study: Digital Skills Gap Poses Challenge For UK PR Firms

New research points to rising digital budgets but concerns over investment.

Arun Sudhaman

Digital budgets remain a source of growth for UK PR firms but a majority of agency executives are raising concerns about the level of training they receive, according to the 2014 edition of the PRCA Digital Report.

The Report, which was launched last night, again provides a useful barometer of the pace of digital development in the UK's PR industry. The survey, which saw YouGov poll 228 agency and in-house professionals, is led by PRCA Digital Group chairman Danny Whatmough.

Whatmough flagged up a number of key findings, not least that 70% of agency people describe their digital training as 'small to moderate'. Around the same proportion rely on expert blogs for social media education.

Those results could suggest a potential skills gap, given both the growth of digital revenues for PR firms, and their continued desire to diversify into new areas. 62% of respondents reported rising digital/social media budgets, but digital accounts for between 11-20% of overall revenues at almost a third of agencies.

A quarter, however, believe that this proportion will rise to 21-30% within the next 12 months. Meanwhile, the digital services required of PR firms appear to be changing fast. There is 12% growth in investment in online advertising and PPC, with 72% expecting growth in paid media over the next five years. 47% cite Facebook's algorithm changes as the key driver in this trend. Paid media is clearly an opportunity but, as Whatmough pointed out, agencies still need to "prove themselves."

That comment was brought into sharp relief when a panel of industry leaders discussed the findings from the Report. Bite head of consumer Jon Silk, for example, noted his worry that many of his clients do not buy paid digital services from their PR firms.

Vikki Chowney, who heads hybrid PR/digital firm Things With Wings, took this observation one step further, pointing out that media agencies are leading when it comes to partnerships, collaboration and co-creation — all areas that clients are increasingly classing as "paid."

The temptation, said Whatmough, is that PR agencies try to offer too many services, rather than focusing on the areas they are good at. In particular, that would appear to involve storytelling, content creation and realtime marketing, rather than community management — which the Report reveals is increasingly migrating in-house. 

As Hill+Knowlton Strategies chief creative officer Simon Shaw noted, "we shouldn't forget what we're great at, that's storytelling." Ultimately, though, much will depend on investment levels in digital and analytics. That goes for both smaller firms that may not have the resources to innovate ahead of client need, and the bigger agencies that have to retrofit thousands of employees.

These are not new issues for the PR industry, but the Report does a useful job of highlighting the specific digital challenges that persist. One method of addressing that skills gap, of course, is to partner with a specialist digital agency. Things With Wings is an example of that, one that appears to be progressing well thanks to good planning and a clear understanding of client needs.

Not every story is as happy, though; Silk explained that Bite's merger with digital sibling Bourne failed because clients simply didn't need such a wide supply of services across so many disciplines. "It forced us to strip back and return to what we're really good at," said Silk. "Understand what you're really good at as an agency and focus on that."

Increasingly, that is going to involve less traditional areas such as paid media, content marketing and digital analytics, particularly as social commerce rises in importance. But the panel's conclusion is good advice for any PR firm that is grappling with the digital investment challenge, amid the temptations of rushing into too many areas all at once.

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