Two interconnected changes underway present PR firms with an unprecedented opportunity to gain a much-desired key “seat at the table” with the CMO.
First, technology adoption continues to fuel dramatic changes in how consumers expect to interact with companies and make purchases. The evolution of mobile and social media platforms are throwing the distinctions between paid, owned and earned media for a loop. What is emerging is a cacophony of marketing buzzwords: content marketing, native advertising, brand journalism, influencer outreach, advocacy evangelism and more. The PR firm’s toolbox—with some fine tuning—possesses the right makings to excel in each of these areas, as depicted in the infographic above.
In addition—and heavily influenced by the marketplace turmoil—the agency landscape continues to morph with agencies of all stripes increasingly overlapping with one another. PR firms can take advantage of this flux by demonstrating that they can build on their inherent instincts and core skills to master this changing world.
Some PR firms have made significant strides on this front, but even leaders like Edelman and Fleishman-Hillard have yet to realize their true potential. Why? Because a PR firm—whether a global major player or even a mid-sized shop—needs to do three things to excel in this new environment:
First, a strategic-yet-tactical mindset. Many PR firms will need to adjust some of their approaches and thinking so as to more convincingly convey that they grasp long-term brand positioning rather than serve merely as a tactical implementer. This means becoming truly strategic in orientation while not losing PR’s ability and instinct to act fast since speed to market is something most other agency types fail at miserably but is needed in this world where consumers increasingly expect immediacy, authenticity and transparency.
Becoming more strategic also means adding connected thinking—of thinking through the individual and collective implications each marketing activity can have on other marketing activities as well as on business operations, the ways employees see the company, and the brand. This is where agencies of all types often fail.
As a CMO of a retailer told me, “all of my agencies tell me that they are strategic, but the reality is that none are strategic enough to be my true partner. To be a strategic leader, you need to realize that if you want one plus one to equal three, then you need to understand the interconnectedness between each of those ones. Otherwise you will miss your opportunity and only produce two.”
Second—agency plus client symbiosis. Just as PR firms need to think more strategically, PR firms will need to educate their PR clients also to think bigger and in more interconnected ways. If the PR firm brings the clients along on this path, the PR clients will become heroes in the new marketing organization as they champion their PR firms taking on expanded roles.
Third—skill expansion. PR firms will need to invest in new skill sets—primarily in more sophisticated analytical staff plus creatives versed in video and online advertising production. Many PR firms have been bringing on social media monitoring analysts, which is great, but a related set of analytical skills will be needed to successfully navigate the placement and optimization of ads and marketing content. While a PR firm definitely needs to have robust creative leadership within its ranks, much of the creative production can be outsourced if you develop a carefully vetted set of vendors to tap as needs arise.
While the inherent strengths of PR firms are many, several are especially valuable in today’s environment. They include:
Nuanced messaging. PR firms are experts at delivering messaging in a nuanced manner so as to appeal to different audiences. Think of how a PR pro pitches to one reporter and then slightly differently to another while keeping the fundamental positioning constant. Admittedly, there are less sophisticated PR firms out there—the ones susceptible to being described as flacks or tin-eared shills—but fortunately, they are a dying breed. More sophisticated PR professionals fully grasp the value of nuanced, two-way dialogue with the target audience, and it is this deft hand at messaging that can be leveraged to take a leadership role developing content marketing, leading influencer outreach, handling real-time marketing and managing online communities.
Opportunistic speed. PR firms are accustomed to moving quickly, whether to protect a client’s reputation in a crisis situation or to adjust to changing circumstances in promotional situations. What is critical is for PR firms to retain this bias for quick action even as the production and analytical complexities increase so the PR firms will have an advantage in producing and distributing content marketing videos and native advertising.
Editorial sensibility. More than any other agency type, PR firms understand the newsroom and the role of the editorial calendar. As a result, they are perfectly equipped to capitalize on the desire for brand journalism—of helping brands become “publishers” contributing to the latest events taking place in the world around us, and to forge content meeting the needs of a dynamic editorial calendar.
So can today’s PR firm gain a key seat at the CMO’s inner-circle table? Definitely yes, but it will require most PR firms to make some adjustments to what they do and how they do it. And it will require a lot of chutzpah. But chutzpah is something almost every PR firm that I have encountered has in spades.