PR: agencies suffer digital jet lag

Tourism Queensland
Tourism Queensland

London - Internet marketing agencies are breaking new ground by using edgy, social media-led campaigns. But are PR agencies as well-equipped to push brands online?

Tempted to apply for the 'Best Job in the World'? Unfortunately, the position - caretaker for a para­dise island off Australia - has now been filled by ostrich-riding charity worker Ben Southall.

The campaign, by Brisbane company Nitro on behalf of Tourism Queensland, is one of the best recent examples of the power of PR. It has also done an outstanding job in showcasing how offline PR can reach another dimension in the online space.

Its audience engaged with the campaign in droves through MySpace, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as well as via blogs and user-generated content. In 56 days, the website attracted more than 47.5m page views and generated media coverage estimated to be worth $100m (£61m).

Until recently, online PR was simply about creating buzz using the internet as a medium. Now, with brands ever more keen to get involved in social media to engage in conversations with their consumers, PR agencies are struggling to provide content and strategic communications via social media, as well as brand reputation monitoring.

However, despite its potential, the question is whether PR agencies are really up to the task of addressing the needs of brands online, or if it is best left to specialist digital firms. A study of Britain's 100 leading PR agencies, carried out last year by internet marketing agency Bigmouthmedia, suggests not.

It revealed that 79% of those surveyed had yet to develop online and social media services, while only 21% included online PR as part of their service. Moreover, the flurry of PR agencies seeking to appoint social media experts suggests that many are ill-equipped for the task.

However, marketers need to be aware that, while many PR agencies claim to offer a digital service, the reality of what they provide is often somewhat different.

'If a client is not adept in the digital arena, it is quite easy for them to get carried away by people selling them a digital service that is essentially pretty basic,' says Mat Sears, head of PR at Orange. 'Because of the digital buzz, a lot, if not all, agencies claim or pretend that they can offer this, but there are only a few that genuinely can.'

Nonetheless, some PR agencies argue that they are better placed than digital agencies to excel in the online PR space because they have always been focused on generating conversations.

'As PR specialists, we have spent our careers coming up with ways of communicating, and trying to influence journalists,' says Graham Goodkind, chairman and founder of Frank PR, which has generated social media activity for brands such as Kit Kat, Alton Towers and Monster Munch.

PR agencies also point out the difference between buying space online and earning space. 'Buying space is what digital agencies do,' says Candace Kuss, head of planning at PR agency Hill & Knowlton, which recently worked on social media for Tango. 'Many have a need to create some sort of content, that they then want to be able to control. Earning space is typically the remit of PR.'

Morwenna Angove, sales and marketing director at Alton Towers, agrees that PR agencies often create better social media ideas. 'Digital agencies tend to be better at web and technical-type stuff, while agencies are more creative,' she says.

Alton Towers approached Frank PR to create an online campaign that would engage with 'thrill-seekers', rather than its traditional family audience.

The resulting viral activity was ‘Test Drive Bras’, which featured women going on the rides at the theme park in their bras 'to test the comfort factor of underwear on a roller-coaster', in association with lingerie company Ultimo. It received more than 500,000 views and became the 28th most popular clip on YouTube.

The campaign shows that brands doing online PR successfully are making it work because they are willing to take risks. 'Taking work into new territories, using new techniques, doing things in different ways and trying new things that have never been done before is crucial,' adds Sears.

Matt Park, head of online at Taylor Herring, says his agency is also constantly pushing its clients to be more adventurous with their online budgets. It has recently set up a 'Pup Idol' talent search competition on Facebook as part of a campaign for Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment’s DVD release of Marley & Me.

However, while PR agencies claim to be experts in this field, some brands have been more comfortable hiring digital specialists.

Cream liqueur brand Baileys works with PR agency Immediate Future to help build awareness online. 'The proposals for digital PR I had seen from traditional agencies did not give me confidence in their abilities in this area,' says James Payne, Baileys global communications manager at Diageo.

'Most PR agencies are building their digital capability, but new developments happen incredibly quickly, so having a specialist team that can focus on digital exclusively makes sense.'

Bigmouthmedia has created a specialist division to handle social media and online PR, and works with clients including The Body Shop and Philips.

'Our digital expertise allows us to be better at measuring online PR, as well as optimising our work for search,' says Leanne Rinning, online PR manager at the company.

It is in this area of search and measurement that well-meaning PR agencies often fall short.

'We always retain a digital agency as we need its expertise in ensuring we attract the maximum number of visitors to our site and the maximum conversions,' says Angove. 'Digital planning agencies, as well as Frank, help us plan strategy for web, SEO [search engine optimisation], PPC [pay per click] and navigation.'

Many brands are also hiring PR agencies to work alongside their in-house digital staff. Orange’s PR agency, Golin Harris, plays a major part in its digital PR activity, but the telecoms company also has a digital expert on its in-house team - something that Sears believes has been a rising trend over the past six months. 'We have an in-house team dedicated to online PR and it is integral to everything we do,' he says.

Similarly, much of Channel 4’s social media originates in-house, with a consistent presence on MSN, Bebo, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. 'We therefore expect our agencies to provide something above and beyond what we are doing in-house,' says Sarah Booth, chief publicity manager at Channel 4, which also works with Bite on its social media activity.

Herein lies the biggest challenge for agencies: keeping one step ahead of their clients. Some PR agencies are clearly making strides in social media and online PR and many have proven their expertise. However, the majority have yet to come up with a satisfactory offering and lack the necessary skill sets and staff to do so.

As a result, teams from across the marketing disciplines, from creative and media agencies to digital shops and specialist online PR agencies, as well as in-house teams, are stepping into the void.

We are only just beginning to discover the full potential of social media and online PR. Ultimately, those who succeed in this area will be the agencies or teams bold enough to take risks and come up with fresh ideas, while being savvy enough to avoid the inevitable pitfalls associated with live, unedited content.

Brands will also inevitably continue to slip up in this arena. The negative media coverage of Ben Southall’s Twitter typo, when he spelt the name of the paradise island wrong on his second day, was the flipside to a campaign that won awards for the extent of its positive media coverage. So it is incumbent on PR agencies to make themselves the first choice as brand partners in this space.


The Body Shop

The Body Shop asked Bigmouthmedia to use the brand’s tagline ‘Nature’s way to beautiful’ as a hook to launch its new website.

It also wanted to raise awareness of the online launch of two products and achieve global online media coverage.

The PR agency used social media to network with key online influencers, including a blogger outreach programme. The launch also included distribution of press releases online, as well as a viral push.

As a result of the month-long campaign, more than 71,000 full-page reads of online press releases were triggered.

Coverage also ran on 17 key online influencing blogs, which created buzz and conversation around the products.

The Body Shop achieved offline press attention, covering both the new website and fresh product ranges.

The campaign boosted traffic to the new website and the amount of time consumers
spent on the site.


Monster Munch

Walkers asked Frank PR to carry out an online brand perception study for its products, analysing gossip forums, blogs, chatrooms, tweets and social networking sites.

It discovered that Monster Munch was hugely popular on Facebook and this insight led it to invest in activity based on the return of Mega Monster Munch.

Targeting 24- to 40-year-olds, the creative idea ‘Find our monsters’ was born. Consumers were asked to help locate the original monster suits from the 80s TV ads. A £5000 reward was offered.

Activity included offline PR activity, a redesigned website and viral clips featuring 80s icons Timmy Mallett and Pat Sharp.

Roast Beef Monster Munch became the fastest-selling in the category across independent stores, outselling top brand Walkers Cheese & Onion. The online chatter created as a result of the campaign even led Walkers to redesign the brand’s packaging.


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