Will social media drive Public Relations professionals in-house? If so, will it scale?

Marketer, angel investor, entreprenuer, former Apple evangelist and sometime BMBY commenter Guy Kawasaki had a couple of interesting posts – The Top Ten Reasons PR Doesn’t Work written by agency-client connecter Margie Zable Fisher (it’s the client’s fault)and DIY PR by Glenn Felman, CEO of Redfin (PR people are dumbasses).

Margie’s post was an interesting analysis of diverging expectations from the client and agency and was a nice read, even if she mistook PR for publicity on a few occassions. I don’t think too many people from either side will disagree on many things she said (one does though) but I do think we should add point 11 – the PR agency doesn’t understand how the client environment works and what the client needs to get internal buy in.

However, Glenn’s post really struck a chord with some of the thoughts I’ve been having around the whole “ghost blogging” issue and where social media will take the PR industry.

Core concept

On the Internet, an organization needs to own its own words. This means that the organization needs to produce its own content; this is not an action that can be left to the PR or interactive agency.

Put simply, an external agency, no matter how deeply entrenched with the client, will never have the depth of knowledge nor the passion for the issues that the client needs to write about in order to produce compelling, authoritative and authentic content. Mark Evans made this point far better than I could last night.

The rub

Plenty of you will be mentally calling me an idiot right now – after all, there are so many smart people in our industry, the law of averages suggests there must be a load of people who can, indeed, write with passion and authority on client issues. I ask you, so why hasn’t the client hired that person yet?!

Which is why I think a lot of people will be going in house. And this movement has already started – Tim Dyson, CEO of PR agency holding company Next Fifteen, recently announced that Google is hiring 70 internal PR people.

70!

That’s the size of a very large, multi-practice firm in Toronto with revenues of around…hmm…$12m (CDN) – this could be as much as $20m (U.S.) in the States where budgets are larger and VCs push start-ups to burn through cash so they can get into another round of funding.

Will it scale?

Now, not every company is trading at x10 revenue with a market cap of a Brazilian dollars and can afford such a huge buy – I think PR companies go for a fairly small multiple of annual revenue but I’ll have to confirm that with some more research. Whatever the amounts, they’d be large in PR terms, in Google terms they’d still be pretty small. So let’s look at a slightly smaller company.

Let’s say you’re a small organisation with a successful product base that wants to get into this whole social media thing. Your marketing department consists of a VP, a director of communications, a marketing manager and that summer student who started last summer but who steadfastly refuses to leave.

The department’s resources are being taken up with internal issues but you all come up with a plan to engage the community with outreach, to write a Stuart MacDonald sanctioned (TM) group blog and to do a few video demos of your products in action.

Creating a monster

You’re successful. Of course you are, you’re talented people writing about stuff you know a lot about and are passionate about. Even that summer student stops IMing her boyfriend long enough to start a Facebook profile and customer service page for the company – she’s now “community manager”.

But success breeds this unstoppable need for more content. The videos go down even better than expected and the CEO loves them – so more of them! You can see a definitive correlation between your blogging and sales leads. You’re being asked to present at conferences and now your resources are really screwed. What do you do?

Catch 22

Do you hire an agency to help with the blocking and tackling? Basic stuff like video/audio production, managing the communities you’ve created, approving comments? What about suggesting about things to write about – sending links, populating a del.icio.us account?

But what happens when that account is linked to the blog and del.icio.us type link posts are automatically generated? What happens when that agency starts to respond to comments on your behalf?

The very thing that was central to your success – the passion, the commitment, the deep knowledge, the authenticity and the authority of the writing – has now been diluted to such a point where you’re paying an agency money to sully your reputation.

But what can you do? The VP is an EVP now, the director is VP, the manager got hired away and the summer student is pushing for a VP position – all on the back of the success of the social media engagement.

To get your mojo back, you have to hire internally. You can’t push such a mission critical project onto an outside firm.

Agency value

However, here’s what, as an agency guy, I would do for a client and what clients should be asking of their agency:

  • To act as a catalyst to your marketing plan. I’ll bring you cool new ideas that you can implement and even cooler ideas that you can’t.
  • To guide you through the windy unsignposted roads that social media offers you. Especially crisis situations – and they happen a lot more than you think.
  • To offer perspective on strategy and to help you craft your own internal strategies and proceedures.
  • To provide guidance on tone and direction of your content – what’s hot; what’s not. This will be based on a combination of media intelligence and…
  • Report on analytics and trends – when is best to post, how long is too long etc.
  • Recommend influencers to be included on the blogroll, who you should reach out to about your content.
  • Build any and all technical requirements – does your blog need a snazy design, does it need a hacked WordPress template or does it need to be bilingual?

So there is a piece of the pie for agencies, and from the above quite a significant piece, but the majority of the glamourous, fun, meaty work will go to those working in-house.

In answer to my own rather rhetorical question: Yes, social media will drive PR pros in-house but yes, it will scale. Good news for recruiters every where.

As always, your thoughts, input and criticism are welcome in the comments section.

7 Responses to Will social media drive Public Relations professionals in-house? If so, will it scale?

  1. Kyle says:

    As you can see on my blog I’ve been struggling with the same debate…it’s a tough call. As someone who has spent the majority of my career as an internal communications person but is now an agency guy…I’m torn. Ultimately, I do see social media helping to automate much of the tactical work done by agencies, helping to diminish their effectiveness.

    However, agencies will remain very relevant during the beginning stages (next 5+ years), particularly the agencies who can provide the PR and technical aspects of building a social media program. As this stage ends I’m interested to see how we make agencies relevant, particularly for larger companies. My initial thoughts are that PR agencies must focus more on interactive services, digital communication creation and strategic messaging.

    One thing I’m sure of; we’ll be talking about this and formulating opinions for many years to come.

    /kff

  2. Prue R says:

    Great post Ed!

    As a newbie agency person this is a trend I’ve noticed. I love all things social media but in Australia it’s in relatively early days and not a lot of our clients are actively pursuing social media strategies just yet.

    I think the wheels of change will stem from in-house Marcomms as people become more involved and aware of social media and its possibilities – whether that’s Facebook, Second Life, blogging, del.icio.us, etc. But I definitely believe it’s up to us agency people to stay on top of new trends and know of successful social media case studies etc so when our clients come looking they know who to turn to. We may not be doing the meaty work as Ed said but we should be able to point them in the right direction and offer innovative ideas to maximise the impact of their social media tactics.

  3. Engage in PR says:

    […] Lee has a really informed post last night around the eventual impact social media might have on the future of PR agencies. As you […]

  4. Ed Lee says:

    Don’t get me wrong, agencies still have a very important role to play in both the short and medium term.

    agencies will still have to work the traditional media and do some level of monitoring/outreach within the blogging community. however strategic communications, external perspective and tactical execution won’t go away – too many smart people who want the diversity agency life offers for that to happen.

    Ed

  5. Engage in PR says:

    […] you read my posting on May 31st you read: “Ed Lee has a really informed post last night around the eventual impact social media might have on the future of PR […]

  6. […] Me Blogging You Will social media drive Public Relations professionals in-house? If so, will it scale? — Ed Lee weighs the pros and cons of outsourcing your PR work in the age of social […]

  7. […] PR person Ed Lee has an interesting post about whether or not social media will drive agency PR people in-house. He thinks so… a lot of […]

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