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The wood from the trees: on PR, advertising & the new roles in communications

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16 September 2009

This week a flurry of interesting bits of news flashed across my screen. Like this tweet:

US study of PR hiring – knowledge of social media, blogs SEO, now as important as traditional skills http://bit.ly/En6rF

…and this one

@MajorPlayerJobs: RT @DanGoldgeier PR agencies poaching creatives? ;- Interesting trend, see my take here http://tinyurl.com/lm5pq4

…and this one today…

@TessNeale: Is it time for companies to hire a Social Media Administrator? http://is.gd/3kOTl | by @dmscott – we have, and highly recommended it.

The holy grail: Creative technologist Aaron Koblin

The holy grail: Creative technologist Aaron Koblin

Media guru Jeff Jarvis predicted a short while ago that the upheaval that has beset journalism will also hit advertising and public relations. That process now seems well on its way.

“Advertising is failure” he says.

I myself produced a presentation, now a year old, which asked – Will PR inherit the social media earth? (Included at the end of this post)

Because if PR is about public relations (and not press releases as Brian Solis puts it so eloquently) then it should be the part of the industry geared to make most of these social technologies that lie at the heart of digital media.

But this outcome – the paramountcy of PR – has been all but certain. Simply because of inertia. Many organisations never change until they have to. And then it’s too late to change.

The problem is part generational. I have been asked to speak at large PR firms on social media and PR (what I thought was a detailed analysis and compelling argument why PR must embrace social media), only to hear the head of brand PR state: “We can’t believe what we read on the internet!”, and “We Brits will never give up on newspapers, we love them!” Ahem! I had to take two steps back and start again.

But it’s clear, underlined by the tweets above, studies and blog posts doing the rounds now, that some are asking the questions about the best way to staff the agencies, businesses, and organisations of the future.

The agency model in itself is coming under pressure, as the internet does not like middlemen. In the one link above David Meerman Scott elaborates on Jim Stewart’s idea and explains the need inside companies for the role of the social media administrator.

…there is a need for this new role, much like in the late 1980s we developed the need for a System Administrator (Information Technology department people responsible for computer networks) and the 1990s brought Webmasters (responsible for company websites).

I see the Social Media Administrator not as someone who develops content and participates in discussions on social media (although they could certainly have a business related personal blog or twitter stream).

This is not the senior leadership role for social media in an organization but rather the coordination point for company activities. The role would be someone who manages and provides consistency with an organization’s social media presence. Of course, to be done well, the skill set of a Social Media Administrator would need to include deep knowledge of tools like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

I think this is wrong. The social media person inside needs to be senior. How else could they get things done?

But I digress. I will deal with the slow decay of the agency model in another post. (We, by the way, don’t call ourselves an agency, we plug-in to you.)

There will still be a need for advice and cutting edge development and production skills. There is a role for PR and Ad people if they embrace the change brought on by digital media.

But why are PR firms hiring creatives from ad agencies – as one tweet alludes to – you may ask? Should they not be looking for a spotty programmer, or even better – the glamorous spotty programmer 2.0, aka: the social media expert? (We’ve also come across the term creative technologist recently. Presumably a ruby-on-rails genius that moonlights in an electro band and directs music videos when he has a spare moment. Aaron Koblin springs to mind).

Lorraine Barker, Head of PR at Major Players – a big marketing recruitment firm in London – claims that PR is looking for the ad creatives:

In the last 18 months we’ve seen a substantial increase (200%) in client requirements for Planners and Creative Directors (At PR agencies)…

To keep from being drowned out in an increasingly crowded media space, PR agencies are evolving. Creative Directors are being drafted in to inject fresh thinking and bring a new dimension to campaigns, while Planners are delivering consumer insights and developing rigorous strategic frameworks to underpin the big idea. The result is a focused PR offering that stays on brand, on tone and most importantly – makes people stand up and take notice.

So they are looking for archetypal coke snorting ideas factory & story geniuses with a certain je ne sais quoi?  Turns out no.

The newer roles are different from the traditional planner or creative you might find in an advertising agency and while some PR agencies are happy to consider above the line candidates, many don’t want the chin-stroking musings of the storyboard creative.

We’ve found that the most successful among those we’ve placed are candidates who have had a high level of involvement in the creative or strategic planning process – not only candidates from account planning, but account handling, research & insight and new business. However, it’s equally about the candidate’s hunger and passion for all things media and the latest comms channels, trends and cultures.

Mmm… ok. It seems the PR agencies are looking for content producers, experts, researchers and social media fundis?

Brian Solis – who has written extensively about the need for change in PR – defines his future roles for a new media team:

There is no doubt in my mind that eventually all PR agencies and consultants will follow suit and transform from publicity firms into New Media marketing and communications firms rich with in house and contracted content producers, digital sociologists, research librarians, community managers, digital architects, connectors, and industry experts or strategists.

Brian goes on to define what each of these roles would entail, it’s worth a read.

The reason why researchers, trend watchers and industry experts feature in both Brain Solis and Loraine’s list is easy to explain. Digital is bullshit allergic. You have to know your client’s business inside out. You have to keep up with the medium.

You can’t tweet for a client if you don’t tweet yourself.

PR ranks social networking, blogging skills highly

PR ranks social networking, blogging skills highly

But of course the other categories Brian mentions will be key as well, including the content producers and what he calls digital architects (creative technologists).

Now research – also mentioned in an above Tweet “Study: New PR Hires Must Blog, Tweet & Use SocNets” confirms what he said:

In what marks a dramatic shift away from a mainstream-media approach to public relations, PR hiring managers in the US now say it is nearly as important for prospective hires to have social media savvy as it is for them to have traditional media-relations skills, according to a survey by iPressroom.

All very exciting, all very scary.

What we can be sure of is that come September 2010 neither PR nor advertising will look the same as now.

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  • September 16, 2009 at 9:07 pm | Permalink


    Excellent article that brings together a lot of things going on today. Biggist thing I am sealing is fear…

  • Posted by Nicole DeRuiter
    September 16, 2009 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the well-thought out post covering why PR needs social media! At the beginning, you noted that social media needs PR, and I didn’t see you provide as much content on that area, however. It’s an interesting argument, and one I strongly agree with, that social media will (and should) ‘belong’ to the PR practitioner. Thanks for moving the idea forward!

  • September 17, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Hi David, I don’t work in PR myself. The UK is still a few months behind the US in this I think. I think people are just now realising the problem. We still have to get to the fear phase.

    Hi Nicole. I don’t think social media needs PR. Social media will do fine without journalists, advertising peeps and PR. It is media for and by everybody.

    But I do think PR should – in theory at least – be best placed to be social media practitioners. Few organisations would not have to engage with it in the future and they need the good people to help them with it. If advertising is shouting – as Li and Bernoff say in their Groundswell book, then PR is more akin to talking. A well crafted press release is also closer to the idea of using good content as a way to get your message out?

    I think my slide show shows a little bit of that. I’d recommend Brian Solis’s blog for an even more detailed discussion on these issues.

  • Posted by Marian
    February 10, 2010 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed reading your post.

    I’ve been watching the ad and pr industries for a while to see how each would react to the shift from a “push the message out” approach to a “two-way dialogue with consumers” approach. From what I’ve seen, pr agencies have been more successful to adapting to this new environment. As they do so though it feels like they are morphing into more of a marketing communications firm.

    I talk more about this in my first blog post – 2010: Ad Industry Transformation?

  • Posted by Marian
    February 10, 2010 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    Sorry. It appears the link to my post was stripped. Here it is. http://bit.ly/b0qIuh

  • February 10, 2010 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment Marian, I agree with you. One thing though, not all good ‘social’ media is conversational. Fred Durst (rockstar) has one and a half followers on Twitter. He is a broadcaster.

3 Trackbacks

  • By JWoodsPR (Jim Woods) on September 16, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    Will Public Relations inherit the social media earth? http://tinyurl.com/qeshpy

  • By wwwtopmodelio (WWW.TOPMODEL.IO) on September 21, 2009 at 9:55 am

    The wood from the trees: On PR, advertising the new roles in communications | RAAK http://tinyurl.com/qeshpy STRISCIANOTIZIA.COM

  • By is the traditional agency dead? « on February 9, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    [...] The wood from the trees: On PR, advertising & the new roles in communications The agency model in itself is coming under pressure, as the internet does not like middlemen. [...]

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