Why PR firms will win the social media race

The worlds of public relations and advertising are starting to collide. As ad spend increasingly goes online, advertising firms are starting to pitch for social media campaigns. Equally, public relations firms, faced with a decline in the traditional realm of media relations are turning to social media channels to reach their clients’ audiences. As a result, it’s increasingly common to find ad firms, competing directly with PR firms for the same piece of business.

Competition of course is a good thing. And many ad firms were early into digital communications and have made the transition from megaphone to conversation. Those are the ones which will do well. An ad firm already has a number of distinct advantages over PR – they have long thought in terms of campaigns, whereas sadly PR often succumbs to the tactical; they have planning departments who are strong at analyzing the audience; they are used to big budgets which helps with big thinking; they have strong visuals which lend themselves well to the web; and they are often ‘in at the right level’ at the client, where PR’s interface can be lower down.

However, fundamentally public relations firms are better positioned to implement social media programs for the simple fact they understand conversations. PR has always been about relationships with audiences, and so disintermediation to build those relationships directly with a brand’s community poses no paradigm shift. It’s just a natural extension of the core skills of a communicator – simply via new channels.

If you see the Social Web as a conversational and editorial medium rather than a broadcast and advertorial vector then it becomes clear that a PR firm is well placed to guide that program. However, PR firms must make rapid advances in terms of their planning, their visual presentation; their technical skills; and their ‘big picture’ integration. Ad firms have often taken the lead across the promotional mix, but that is now changing.

In fact, the lines between an ad firm and a PR firm are becoming increasingly blurred. Take SEO for instance. Part of that is Search Engine Marketing (or Search Engine Advertising) ie the buying of keywords. That’s ad spend but is integral to a PR program given the amount of content PR produces. Or take Facebook app promotion – that might include some targeted ad spend but be implemented as part of the social media campaign by PR. In fact, the more integrated the campaign, the more indistinguishable the roles, and broader the skillset required.

Since communication is fundamental to the Social Web, PR firms have less far to come than their advertising brethren. But the journey will change us both, and neither can get there without the other, so it will be an exciting ride.