Arun Sudhaman 20 Oct 2011 // 9:11PM GMT
I recently sat down with the head of a successful American word-of-mouth agency. In the course of our conversation he pointed out that he didn’t consider word-of-mouth marketing, or in fact social media communication in general, analagous to - or even part of - the public relations discipline. Instead, he saw public relations as equating, broadly, to traditional media outreach. That will sound like a controversial view, but should not be shied away from. I am fairly certain that there is enough evidence to prove that this is not the case, particularly if you take a look at many of the SABRE Award-winning campaigns that catch the eye for their digital thinking or creative content. And if PR firms do continue to insist on characterising themselves as media relations shops, then I wish them all the best with that. However, it made me wonder why so many social media firms I speak to are keen to distance themselves from the PR industry. Most often, they cite ‘disciplinary’ reasons: what they do is just more advanced and remarkably different from the humdrum output of their PR peers. There is some truth to this, particularly when you start to consider more technically-focused areas like search, analytics and design/build. It strikes me, though, that these arguments are cover for another, rather more old-fashioned issue: competition. I can think of many PR firms, particularly at the bigger end of the scale, that have yet to truly get to grips with the social media opportunity. And that, as we have seen in recent years, has created a favourable business climate for the many social media specialists that have emerged, often from PR backgrounds, to fill the vacuum. There are numerous reasons why some PR agencies have been unable to crack the social media equation, and one is that they do not have relationships with the clients that matter. The CCO, for example, may be less relevant when the CMO, the brand manager, or even the CIO is in charge of the budget in question. Social media firms have adeptly built their offerings with this in mind, presenting themselves as new specialists that have little in common with those hidebound PR firms. It makes plenty of sense, in that scenario, for social media firms to increase the daylight between themselves and PR agencies that are stuck talking to a marginalised CCO. Rather ironically for the PR industry, it is not just what they do, but who they are selling to, that will play a big role in determining their evolution.