An argument has been doing the rounds in social media-land, and I haven’t been sure where I stand. The argument is what type of agency delivering a marketing discipline is the best partner for social media – and where do PR agencies fit into the debate, if at all? As an ex PR person, I was curious, so I decided to weigh in on the debate by interviewing an old colleague, and someone who is very experienced in the transition PR companies have made with the advent of a social world.
Meet John Kerr, a director for Edelman, who responsible for running its digital media marketing team in the AP region. Edelman Digital APAC clients include: RIM (a top 10 global social company;) Marina Bay Sands; XBox; HP; Levis, amongst others. Edelman’s Asia Pacific team is 65 strong – overseeing online communities on behalf of brands, which numbers over five million in the region. With 600 people worldwide, Edelman Digital is probably the largest social media marketing agency in the world.
A PR person I respect greatly, I thought John could offer some insight into this debate, from his perspective.
What is the core issue of this debate?
It’s always the same – which part of the marketing services agency universe should “own” social media – and to be honest, I find it one of the most pointless and self-serving questions doing the rounds. As with appointing any agency, it’s a matter of finding the right people – people who demonstrate they understand the nexus of:
- Overcoming business challenges/goals
- The needs of critical stakeholders
- Relevant connection models
Find the right people, the results will come.
Unfortunately from a PR perspective, this ’pointless question’ has become a bit of an “us” versus “them” inter-industry debate – one that I worry PR agencies are losing. “Them” are the other marketing services agency disciplines and what they offer versus what we (PR) offer. When I say marketing services agencies, I include advertising, media, interactive, and direct marketing, amongst others. If you want to look at relative heritages, I’d generalise and simplify it by saying; advertising is a broadcast heritage, so it’s about reach and awareness. Media companies focus on connection models, so they grew up planning and booking media. The core of many interactive agencies is technology. And direct marketing agencies evolved from a perspective signal-to-response. They are terrible generalisations, but you get the picture.
Since we’re playing the generalisation game – the heritage of PR (unless you’ve been watching “Perfect Spin” on ChannelNewsAsia) has always has been about building relationships between institutions and critical stakeholders by engaging people through trusted channels and content. The consistent element for PR is that success is never guaranteed – which is why measuring success has always been so tough for our industry. Traditionally, when you present an event, concept or story to a government official, journalist, NGO or blogger, you can’t guarantee that they will be interested. You should have done the hard work to know them as people, what interests them, their point-of-view, etc – but when dealing with free-thinking people – the outcome is never pre-assumed and as predictable as brands would like. However, that’s what PR people do – we engage in order to build relationships. I see this core skill and heritage as having massive value in the evolving world of social media.
PR companies often work with clients for years, understanding the businesses inside and out, working at the highest levels, and training c-level executives in areas like crisis management. Many marketing services agencies, by comparison, are project or campaign driven and work with a specific ‘function’ department – like marketing. Nothing wrong with that, but it means your frame of reference, when it comes to clients and industries, can be very different.
Where do you think the issues are coming from then?
The debate isn’t straight forward. Edelman is a privately owned PR firm, and that means we have a lot more flexibility in how we grow to harness the opportunities social media delivers. However, many of the global PR agencies are owned by big, diversified holding companies. As such, when PR firms within a conglomerate ask for budget to say, acquire technical and interactive expertise, they might be told to work with a partner agency within their group – something that doesn’t always work. It’s a real example.
I’m currently in the process of trying to acquire smart, local interactive companies to integrate into our four key APAC markets. I know most of our traditional PR agency competitors would never be able to do this. Everybody who has the ability to produce creative and compelling content fast has become key. Trying to outsource limits flexibility, but I doubt many holding company PR firms are looking to acquire this capability in Asia Pacific today.
With that said, while PR firms are being told ‘no’ to technology investment, I’m seeing ‘interaction practices’ pop up all over the place in interactive firms to provide social media guidance. Often these new practices are staffed by people from the PR/comms industry?? These kinds of investments are easier to get sign off for because of the discrepancy between PR and marketing budgets – and therefore relative investment percentages. It’s a shame, but it’s a reality and should be seen as a real concern for the PR industry as a whole.
We’re at a hype point. Do you believe that social is here to stay?
While social media hype is slowing – there’s no doubt it’s still there. You’ve only got to look at a market like Singapore – 77% of people are online, there is high broadband penetration, and five percent of marketing spend is focused on digital. Further, I’d put the amount of marketing investment for social media at probably under 0.5%. Yet given the amount of heat-and-light and information, people say social media is passé? Go figure that one out?
But we’re moving through the hype. A lot of companies have experimented and learnt over the past 18 months and I’d go as far to say that many clients already know more about how to be successful with social media than agency practitioners. This is all part of the maturing process and it’s a good thing.
It’s good because it means companies in Asia will focus more on what really matters – well all that really matters – driving a business outcome or changing a behaviour. Nothing is hidden anymore. Even lobbyists (another PR arm) are in the public domain. Everyone gets a say and that means businesses need to put more skin in the game if they want the right outcome. Evolving to a social business as we call it at Edelman, is not about building one million or 100 million followers – it’s about building sustainable relationships by keeping people connected and engaged with your brand. Unilever calls this ‘Always On’ – it’s a nice way to think about it, as opposed to purely being focused on campaigns. Being ‘Always On’ means consistently producing and sharing high-value, high-relevance content that is both entertaining and educational.
I believe PR agencies have an important role to play, but fundamentally it’s about our ability to prove that to people who are transforming companies across Asia. Come back to me in two years on that.
You say “Social Business?” Can you elaborate?
One of my colleagues, Michael Brito in the US, just released a book – “Smart Business, Social Business.” Michael is an extremely clever guy and I certainly recommend this book for any company that is trying to get their heads around the broader impact of digital developments on organization stance, structure and culture – because that is the future. It’s a cultural change from the top down. Michael’s book provides great context around being a social business. No time to read? There’s also a SlideShare presentation for easy digestion.
Any final thoughts?
I’m not going to blanket argue that the PR industry is the right place to start for companies travelling down the path of social media marketing or social business. I’m not going to argue it’s the wrong start point either. All I hope is that the people making the hiring decisions at least evaluate the relative merits of different industry experiences, but most importantly, evaluate the quality of the people. I’m fortunate to be with a company that works hard to prove the clear synergy between PR and delivering value to our clients – offline, online, or both. Despite coming from a marketing background, I really believe in the value of the PR industry and mindset. But like everyone else, we are going to have to think really big and hustle hard to prove our value – no one gets anything worthwhile for doing northing – and that’s the way it should always be.
Thanks John. I think this makes a terrific amount of sense, but as always, for PR agencies, there are many hurdles in the way. John’s in a lucky position not to have to fight the internal battle to succeed.
In the meantime, as being a social business is about creating conversations between businesses and customers, do you think it can be outsourced? And if you were choosing a partner, what would you look for?
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Andrea is an award winning B2B communications professional with more than 23 years’ experience from around the globe, including 12 years exclusively in Asia Pacific. Focused principally in the ICT industry, Andrea has grown with the industry, and she has a proven talent to communicate with customers, prospects, stakeholders and influencers in a way that deeply resonates and gets results.
In her current role at Novus Asia, Andrea relishes sharing her passion for content marketing and its’ ability to fundamentally transform how businesses market to their customers. To be at the heart of this revolution in Asia, where every day she partners with inspired business leaders on their journey into a new era of business storytelling, is what drives her to achieve greater success. Additionally, Andrea understands that to succeed in content, professionals must be motivated and trained to build their personal brands to truly harness the amazing content being created for brands today.
Andrea was an early-adopter of blogging, authoring five very different blogs today, she’s a social media evangelist (a Top 100 Social Seller on LinkedIn in Singapore) and has had the great privilege to work around the world - EMEA, the US, ANZ and Asia.
Andrea’s core skill-set is communication excellence - she listens to and understands her customers, and is considered by many a positive disruptor in her field. She is constantly seeking to motivate colleagues, coaching and mentoring them to be more effective with their personal digital branding, as well as defining and executing communication strategies, content strategy, content creation, senior executive digital coaching, messaging and positioning, as well as a world-class business writer and story teller.
While Andrea’s career has been principally focused on ICT, she has also gained experience in other major industries, including defence, aerospace, government, travel & tourism, HR, environment, professional services, health, marketing services, financial services, and even the brewing industry. Andrea has been: Analyst Relations Lead for Microsoft Asia; Managing Director, SAJE, her own communications, content marketing & messaging agency; Director, Marketing Services for IDC Asia Pacific, Singaapore; Group Communications Manager for Baycorp Advantage, Sydney; Marketing Communications Consultant, ClearForest, NYC; Account Director with Text 100 International, Boston & London; a PR Consultant for various firms, London; Communications Co-ordinator, AeroSpace Technologies of Australia (now Boeing); and a Musician in the Australian Army, followed by PR representative for the Australian Defence Force PR Unit.
Andrea left Australia in 1995 to pursue her deep love of travel and archaeology, and she has a Bachelor of Arts from Monash University, majoring in music and archaeology.
You can follow Andrea on Twitter @AndreaTEdwards, her professional communications blog can be found at www.communicatingasiapacific.com, where she writes about global trends in content, content marketing, communications, social media and social business, translating global trends for Asian relevancy. And of course, you can find her on LinkedIn andreaedwardsasia.