Social media, digital PR, online PR, whatever you want to call it has become an important focus for many businesses over the last few years. As a result, a whole host of companies have sprung up to jump on the bandwagon and offer a range of new and exciting PR services. They talk about social media as if it were a black art that only social media gurus can master; and strike the fear of god into businesses that are failing to engage with their audiences online.

But is it really so different from what PR people have always done and do all companies need to buy into the whole shooting match?

PR has always been about identifying who you need to engage with and ensuring the right message is delivered to these audiences in the right way. But the way we do this has changed. In the old days, it was all about getting in print. This, more often than not, meant telephone calls to editors, press conferences and lunches, along with writing clear and concise news releases that were printed, stuffed and posted out – or perhaps faxed if appropriate. Media lists came from a big book rather than an online database and it was all about establishing relationships and knowing journalist likes and dislikes.

But technology was set to change things and, as an industry, PR was quick to embrace the wonders of email. At first, only a few journalists wanted press releases that way and again it was important to know who they were. And then from the late 80s there were newsgroups and CIX conferences – that provided another way to communicate with the press.

Now we are in the middle of the social media revolution and this new world of immediate 24/7 news and information and user generated content is changing the way we do business. Social media is certainly providing new and exciting opportunities to talk journalists and, just like before, PR has had to adapt the way it communicates. Some journalists, for example, like to be pitched via Twitter – challenging PRs to mange to get the message across in 140 characters or less. And there are even some journalists that are exclusively sourcing story ideas through Twitter.

However, it’s not only about journalists – a whole new media has sprung up. Key influencers online could be anyone and a respected and well read blogger, for example, must be given as much importance. Of course, the way you approach this new audience is different from a traditional journalist; but it’s not rocket science. Adapt your content and your tone for each and everyone – it’s what we do best, being social and communicating to people in the right way. It is just that now there are more people and more variables.

Digital PR does mean some blurring of the lines between what is the job of the marketing department and what is PR, as often it means communicating directly with the end user –  delivering news and other content through Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media forums.

The lines are also blurred between digital and traditional PR. In our 24/7 news culture, many publications have regularly updated online news sites, and some such industry icons such as Computer Weekly no longer publish in hardcopy – so where do these sit? PR is still communicating with the same journalists, in the same way. It just needs to be quicker, more dynamic and more proactive. As soon as news is out online we need to be monitoring for opportunities to comment where appropriate.

Basically, most PR companies have been quietly going digital for years, but we also recognise the important role traditional PR has to play for most companies. The problem is that now, all too often, companies are jumping too far onto the digital bandwagon simply because they have bought into the hype and think they should be doing it without proper analysis of how it will actually benefit their brand. Take Facebook; for an FMCG it can work well, but for an enterprise IT security vendor, for example, it may well just mean a lot of effort for very little return. And for social media to be effective, it does need a lot of human effort.

By using a specialist digital agency that has no traditional PR experience, the danger is that it is not properly integrated with media communications.  In fact, it’s hard to see how you actually can separate the two and sometimes it only serves to shift the focus so far that traditional PR is neglected – a serious mistake for most businesses. In times when money is tighter than ever, it’s essential to focus on what gives you the most bang for your buck.

Of course there are some types of business – those that rely solely on driving people to their sites to buy – where digital has a bigger role to play; and for these, yes, a digital agency can do wonderful things. But for most, what is needed is an integrated approach that takes the overall corporate strategy, examines each and every target audience, identifies how best to get the message across and where to do it which any PR agency worth its salt will consider and plan PR as a whole around these points.

And an integrated approach also means getting the most of all content.  If you want to speak to CEOs of financial services companies for example, you can’t beat an informative traditional by-lined opinion piece in the FT or The Banker to give credibility; and no amount of tweets, re-tweets and blog discussions can replace that. However, once you have the piece published, it is likely it will also be online, so Twitter and LinkedIn can then help to spread the word further, ensuring that even those in your target audience that don’t read the publication are aware of it and can simply click on a link to see it.

All that is needed to get it right is to integrate knowledge of what will work in digital media for each client. Companies need to look for skilled a PR professionals that can focus on how best to reach the target audience, understand their company and their product, who they should be communicating to get the right message out and how best to do engage them.  Put simply, if you don’t know who you should be talking to in digital media, it doesn’t matter how many Twitter followers or LinkedIn connections you have, the campaign will fail.

Just like when we got email and then when publications first went online, technology and the new breed of user generated content is taking PR to a new place and agencies need to adapt the way they do things. But never forget that, central to all of it, the core competencies of PR remain the same – without these, all you will do is waste energy creating a lot of shallow online noise without anything credible to back it up.

Allie Andrews

Allie Andrews


Allie Andrews is an Account Director at PRPR.