UK PR industry upping its game and its income with digital offerings: PRCA study

By Chris Lee

PR agencies are seeing a rise in clients’ digital spends and are diversifying their offerings as a result, according to a new study from the Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA). Nearly three quarters (72 per cent) of UK PR firms now say they offer Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) services compared to just 19 per cent five years ago, while two thirds (63 per cent) now offer website design and build services, up from just 16 per cent in 2008.

The findings were unveiled at a roundtable debate at the offices of Ketchum PR in London and hosted by Ketchum’s associate director of digital, Danny Whatmough, who also steers the PRCA Digital Group.

“PR agencies have worked really hard in the last five years to make sure they can offer clients the services they expect,” Whatmough told delegates.

What do clients want in 2013?

The table of Jed Hallam, head of social strategy at Mindshare; David Gallagher, chief executive of Ketchum in Europe; Candice Kuss, executive creative director at Hill+Knowlton Strategies and Pete Sigrist, managing director of 33 Digital, then discussed what clients demand from PRs in 2013.

According to Hill+Knowlton’s Kuss, clients want someone they can trust to handle it all in digital. “And ‘it all’ means whatever comes under their remit,” she said. “Simpler and easier and brand stewardship is better under one centre.”

The very word “digital” could be problematic, delegates appeared to agree.

“[The market] is definitely different from a few years ago. There’s more talent and maturity,” Ketchum’s Gallagher argued. “They don’t always know what they want but they’re more focused. There’s a demystification of what is ‘digital’.”

33 Digital’s Sigrist does not believe the word “digital is particularly helpful” and he believes it “will feel anachronistic soon” while Hill+Knowlton’s Kuss argued that the word had come to mean “social media”, but should not.

What is PR in 2013?

As PRs expand their services they increasingly find themselves fighting over territory traditionally associated with advertising and SEO, leading to debate over what is the best way to earn – or buy – the attention of target audiences and aim to influence their behaviour.

“In my mind I’ve been saying the same thing throughout my career. The PR thing is not an issue of skills; it’s an issue of perception,” Mindshare’s Hallam told delegates. “You have access to consumers. They’re the same ideas but you’re getting more respect for them. We’re still seeing things as discipline-centric. A good idea is a good idea; that’s about as far as it goes. Not starting with the platform, starting with the idea. PR can play a role here.”

33 Digital’s Sigrist added: “There are incredibly valuable concepts in PR. The way the world works is that some people have more sway than others. We understand how the world of people works, which I think has been the most exciting part of social media. Having a human lens on how to see a budget is a real advantage.”

Ketchum’s Gallagher agreed, adding that he believes in the next two years a PR agency-led campaign could well win the Grand Prix at Cannes Lions, the celebrated creative awards.

“I think we take false confidence as PR and journalists,” Gallagher said. “There’s a diminishing supply of talent in traditional PR and it will be gone in five years. I do think we take false comfort with our ability to grab what’s newsworthy.”

What does the future hold for PR?

So what will PR look like in the next year or two? What should PRs be doing to remain competitive and offer value to clients?

“Make stuff people want is mostly true. It’s more than just content and algorithms, but it does connect with how you can compete as a small brand,” Sigrist told delegates. “I think what’s holding back PR is a defensive nature; we don’t want to lose. We need to be more like ad agencies with their panache. People can find you now and connect with you.”

Sigrist added that PRs need to move away from their traditional focus on newspapers.

“You don’t have to deal with the Daily Mail anymore. The combined circulation of the quality dailies is three million, while24 million people log onto Facebook daily [in the UK],” he added. “The real value of writing is in the editing and I think that – while most ideas suck – the editing process is the best value we can add to clients. Editing is just as important today and if you can’t do that then you may as well not bother with the idea. You need someone on the team that understands the channel and the audience you’re addressing to get to an idea that will actually fly. You need to make someone go ‘wow, I want to tell someone about that’.”

Summing up, Whatmough told NMK: “This was an opportunity for the digital PR community to come together, take stock of where we are and look to the future. And it looks as though the future is rosy. No-one is claiming to have all the answers, but budgets are up, agencies are experimenting with new structures and offerings and the level of creative output is on the rise.”

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