Digital Dips Toes Into PR Waters

Back in 2001, when it built the Subservient Chicken with Crispin Porter + Bogusky, The Barbarian Group sat back to watch its creation take off on the Web. The launch plan consisted of little more than e-mailing friends of the firm with a link.

Nearly a decade later, with social media becoming the backbone of the Web and competition for attention intense, TBG is looking to hire earned media specialists who can drive traffic to client projects, rather than wait for the magic to happen.

Marketing “is becoming so blurred, it’s hard for us who can do 80 percent of it not to do the rest,” said Rick Webb, COO of TBG.

Digital shops big and small are entering a territory once the exclusive terrain of public relations agencies: they’re hiring PR veterans in an effort to establish primacy in the fast growing but unsettled area of social media, betting their expertise in content can be complemented with PR-like capabilities.

For digital shops like TBG, EVB and Mekanism, earned media is nothing new. The problem began when clients expected pieces of creative to “go viral” without any paid media support.

As a result, Mekanism has created a five-person, PR-like social media syndication department, and EVB three months ago brought on Droga5 veteran Craig Batzofin as its earned media director. He spread creative like EVB’s “Clean It Up” video for Orbit, which involved seeding the stop-motion video on sites.

“We needed someone who thinks a little bit like a PR person, a little bit like a strategist and a little bit like a creative to make these things famous,” said Daniel Stein, EVB’s CEO.

And last November, Razorfish recruited Fleishman-Hillard executive Cristina Lawrence as director of social media and word-of-mouth marketing. Lawrence built a team of 10, many with PR backgrounds, focused on social strategy and execution with blogger outreach and community management services. For instance, Razorfish worked with child product maker Munchkin to integrate influential mommy bloggers into its site.

Web shops are uniquely positioned to pull together the content and communications sides of social media, said Lawrence, particularly since they have better creative and analytics capabilities. It also helps that agencies like Razorfish work with brand managers while PR firms often deal with communications teams, she added. “It’s a direct line to the decision makers,” she said.

Part of this shift at digital agencies is due to the changing nature of their projects. While they had mainly done site builds with long lead times and end dates, more clients now put attention (and money) into social media hubs. The build is only step one, with the focus shifting on supplying fresh content and managing the communities.

AKQA, for instance, now has a social media team dedicated to the Nike Football Facebook page where it responds to customers and provides content updates. “We know how to build engaging digital experiences,” said Tom Bedecarre, AKQA’s chief executive officer. “Now we’re getting this deeper level of engagement.”

Of course, this trend leads to digital shops bumping up against PR practices, which have aggressively staked out a position as the lead agencies in social media. Their argument is straightforward: social media is less about technology than people talking to people, which in theory is PR’s expertise.

Some PR firms have recognized the need to go beyond communications to provide strategic and creative services, such as application and microsite building.
Independent Edelman has been at the forefront of this. Edelman Digital, started in 1995, has now grown to 187 employees. It can provide a range of services beyond PR for clients like Ben & Jerry’s.

“To execute a robust digital strategy, you have to … do everything,” said Kevin King, managing director of Edelman Digital. In his view, “traditional” digital agencies aren’t adept at being nimble enough to react as quickly as needed in social media. PR firms, steeped in the 24-hour news cycle, don’t have that problem, he said.

“It’s very different from a traditional marketing campaign,” he added.

But PR firms in general are in for a culture clash, said Peter Yesawich Jr., who lasted just a month as a vp at Edelman Digital in San Francisco, where he’d been tapped to add creative firepower. What he found, he said, is PR firms “don’t understand digital” [and] bill high rates for rote activities like Twitter updates.

By the same token, the DNA of agencies like Razorfish, R/GA and AKQA is in building Web sites. Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, a digital shop that began in 2002 with an integrated PR practice, believes this is a hurdle to making earned media anything more than an add-on service, not an expertise.

“I’d have a hard time believing a digital production shop that builds Web sites would be good at massaging and managing relationships with bloggers,” he said.