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  • Once upon a time there was the ‘Agency’.

  • Once upon a time there was the ‘Agency’.

    Once upon a time there was the ‘Agency’.

    I have been thinking about how the public relations agency might evolve in the next couple of years. Advertising went through this change much earlier – the dominant full-service agency made way for multiple new formats – the creative hot-shop; the media buying agency; the media planning agency; the account planning agency and so on… sure the full service agency survives too. I think public relations offerings might be due for radical change. Three trends are influencing/ will influence change:
    Domain and vertical expertise
    As public relations gains deeper entrenchment into several key functions within the organisation, specialist offerings providing greater understanding and rigor in respective domains have found takers. Clients have similarly found value in deeper knowledge and contacts in respective verticals. We have already seen this happen in:

    1. Domains: Public Affairs; Investor relations; Internal Communication
    2. Verticals: Technology; Aviation; Entertainment

    The trend is likely to continue and more verticals like Sport etc. are expected to find takers.
    Social (People) Media
    The advent of blogs and social media have given rise to a completely new set of ‘influencers’ – “where earlier mainstream media alone was the key conduit through which information traveled and opinion was formed, no longer is the individual dependent on just the media to be heard – s/he speaks for herself/himself through blogs, podcasts, videos, wikis and these individuals are coming together on social network sites and content communities.”
    It is clearly a different environment – the participants are different, playing with a different set of rules, moving at a speed that’s far rapid. Even mainstream media has had to evolve, adopting many ingredients and participants from this new environment.
    So, who is where? The India Scene.
    If we look around, it isn’t difficult to tell that most ‘mainstream public relations agencies’ in India are, at the moment, somewhat lagging in their understanding of the space. On the other hand are the mainstream advertising agencies – they are usually prompt at adding new sub-brands/ divisions to keep alive their 360 degrees claims and this time is no different. Interactions with (many of) them however won’t give you the confidence that they have the understanding – they understand the terms/ concepts alright, but do they understand the underlying principles of Social Media? I am not so sure, when I see rampant Astoturfing a la Silky Kumar and others. They are uniquely positioned though to get the client to spend the money on social networking sites of their own :) – did you see ROI being hit for that long twenty20 six? Yes, there it goes…
    Among the ‘interactive agencies’, many of who which are run by friends, I know only one which is building ‘serious capabilities’ in the space and I respect them for the intent and the effort they are putting into it. Most others, under pressure from the client, are working towards finding ‘mentions on blogs’ as an extra service. Extra for extra money? Am not sure about that. The answer may lie in gaining strategic understanding to the tools & concepts and integrating them into the offerings.
    However, advertising, and related creative, has mostly been about driving traffic and sales. Do the latter two players have a strategic understanding of ‘reputation’? Public relations agencies, with their inherent understanding of reputation and engagement may be naturally suited. Somewhat lagging at the moment, as they may be, are still the logical owners of the social media domain, I think.
    There are also a few dispersed social media consultants – successful bloggers/ enthusiastic tech wizards; loads of energy, good understanding of the tools but perhaps lacking, again, in understanding of reputation. Would a large Indian or global brand trust their reputation to such a team? Depends on the risk taking ability of a brand manager or the communication head.
    Blogs are but a piece and there too the game has already moved beyond mere blogs into social networking sites like Facebook, Orkut and others and micro blogging phenomenons like SMS Gupshup and Twitter. There too, which tools/platforms have gained critical mass? What’s the impact? How do we leverage!!…is the game and not just being in the know of every little sneeze on the social media scene.
    Even as we ourselves developed our strategic blogs and social media offering, we were very clear that ‘this’ is only half the story. The other half is combining such an offering with our understanding of mainstream public relations and marketing. So, that’s how we have been approaching our work – combine the two for holistic management of reputation.
    So, clearly, social media offerings in isolation don’t work – integrated public relations is the way to go. How will this get achieved? Mergers? Strategic tie-ups to gain reach and scale could be a way forward.
    Technology Intervention
    Barring internal knowledge management portals of a few large agencies, technology usage for a typical public professional was, until recently, limited to email and Google search. This is changing rapidly and technology will play an increasingly crucial role in disseminating messages; connecting with stakeholders; managing costs – both of outreach and employee cost. Technology will also, like in every other business today, bridge the divide of size, offering a comparatively leveler playing field to smaller players.

    1. Online wire agencies, many of them allowing free uploads, are helping agencies reach their messages – across geographies; faster; cheaper.
    2. Social Media Press Release, Press Release Optimisation are fast becoming SOP.
    3. Contacts and content accompany the professional- my friend Paul, a US national, has been traveling across India, Europe for the last many months. Without missing a beat, he continues to write speeches/ press releases for his US based clients and disseminates them, currently from Paris? Oh, not sure where he is at the moment, for it doesn’t matter – he is online and live wherever he is.
    4. Concepts like The News Alliance and others, when they come alive, promise to offer platforms for professionals to combine social networking, with content management and message dissemination, providing great ease, minimal intrusion and reduced spends on time and money… offering great value for the professional and business owners alike.

    Public relations in above scenario is clearly going to be divided into strategic and operational offerings. Something that on the lines of the advertising business, can be split over two or more agencies – one for strategy and direction; one or more for operations.
    Such a format would make immense sense for clients who want best-in-class, on somewhat lower budgets. The full-service, multi-specialty agency will continue to drive value for global clients working under one umbrella.
    As participants in the space, we are clearly living in interesting times.
    What are the scenarios you see emerge? Which ones that I mention you agree/ disagree with? Do share your thoughts, like always.

    Disclaimer: Views of authors are personal and do not represent the views of Blogworks, or any of its clients.

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