#PRdebate: Can PR step up to the digital challenge?

I attended the NMKWhat happens to online PR debate last night, and it was a very interesting and worthwhile session. Big thanks to Ian Delaney and Jenny Tyler at NMK for organising.

The session was structured as an Oxford-style debate on the issue of ‘has the PR industry lost its capability to lead clients in a New Media Landscape?’, with  Roger Warner of Content and Motion and Antony Mayfield from iCrossing in the ‘yes’ camp, and Stuart Bruce of Wolfstar and James Warren of Weber Shandwick in the ‘no’ camp.   Mike Nutley, editor-in-chief at NMA chaired the discussion.

I should also point out that a great many of the agencies that ‘get’ online PR and social media were there too. However, there was a real lack of client-side attendance, which meant there was a heavy bias towards the PR angle and argument, which was always going to win the debate in such a crowd. Please read Roger Warner’s write up for a different and more digitally-focused point of view.

As you can tell by the panel, it was a meeting of strong opinions, but i was surprised not so much by the differences discussed on the night, but more by the similarities. Obviously, the two sides had differing opinions on many of the issues, but overall I felt the vision for the future of online PR, digital communications, call it what you will, were similar. Let me make it clear that both sides made a good argument for digital or PR to lead clients in a New Media Landscape, but what i took from it was that it will in fact be a mixture of skills coming from both sides that will win out, something that i totally agree with.

For exampIe, I agree with the ‘yes’ debaters that you need specific skill sets in an online environment, and that not all PRs have this, but I also agree with the ‘no’ side that the art of communications, not the way in which we reach our audience, is the key factor.

From a personal point of view, i also found it difficult to choose a side. I come from a traditional PR background, but what we’ve been trying to do with Liberate Media over the last three years is very far from traditional. We are part of a newer breed of PR agencies that are trying to break free from the shackles of traditional agencies in terms of our set up, approach and skill sets. So from that point I agree traditional agencies cannot lead unless they bite the bullet and evolve. But from a communications stand point, i also believe this blend of skills, be it PR, digital or journalism will be the future not either – or.

This part of the debate was also flavoured with the point that PR has become media relations in many cases, and this is why digital must lead as media relations alone is not relevant. This has been an issue, but taking the PR panel members as an example, it’s certainly not true in their cases, and i would argue to a greater degree that more of an emphasis has been put on strategy and communications development in the leading PR agencies over recent years to move away from this problem. And at the top, i don’t think this is a major issue.

So, where does that leave me? Well, if by ‘the PR industry’ you mean traditional agencies or ‘the dinosaurs that run PR who don’t get the significance of digital’, as James Warren put it, then i agree PR has already lost. But if we’re talking about the growing band of smart new agencies and the intelligent approach of the larger   agencies of which a few were represented last night, then no. These sorts of comms professionals know they still have a lot to learn, but they are building digital skill sets by hiring in experienced individuals or looking beyond the boundaries of what would traditionally be PR. Yes, the social media specific agencies and digital agencies have a lead in understanding the environment, but they also need to skill up in terms of comms strategy and delivery. Something that they have also been doing over the last few years.

Who will win? Well, it’s simple really, the winners will be the agencies that get this blend of skills right, be they digital or PR in original orientation.

The debate continues on Twitter: #PRDebate

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3 thoughts on “#PRdebate: Can PR step up to the digital challenge?

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