8 Ways PR Is Changing in 2015 (with Ted Birkhahn of Peppercomm)

Peppercomm President on the future of the comms business

ted birkhahn

The communications game is always evolving, but few in the industry would argue that the pace of that change has moved into hyper-speed over the past 5-10 years.

As Weber Shandwick releases advertisements, Edelman moves further into paid content, and every agency tries to plot strategy moving forward, it’s easy to get a bit overwhelmed.

We spoke to Ted Birkhahn, president of New York’s Peppercomm, to get his take on where they industry’s headed — and what agencies need to do to stay competitive.

1. EVERYONE Should Create Content

We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the importance of content that’s not necessarily about the clients themselves but about the general interest topics that their audiences want to engage on.

At the risk of being a little bit controversial, I think it’s the wrong approach to establish content “studios” and “hubs” within the larger firm. A lot of the agencies have done that because it enables them to package and sell it better.

At Peppercomm, we have integrated content expertise throughout all client teams, because we truly feel that, if you don’t understand the art and science behind content strategy, you will have a hard time being a ‘communicator’ in 2015.

When you outsource content creation across the board, you run the risk of hiring developers that don’t really understand your business.

2. PR Firms Are Competing with Ad Agencies

Peppercomm is never going to become a large advertising agency that does multi-million dollar ad buys and ad campaigns, but we’re developing advertising copy for our clients all the time now (on a much smaller scale).

We see ourselves more than ever going against traditional advertising firms or interactive firms…firms across the industry are becoming integrated/marketing/comms providers rather than just PR firms.

The reason why PR firms can morph into that space is that they’re great storytellers.

3. PESO Is the New Standard

I’m not sure how firms in our industry an survive moving forward unless they are proficient at talking about and operating within the PESO model.

The big question becomes ‘how do you build out those services?’ because some of them are obviously not inherent to PR firms.

Do you add it through acquisition?  Do you add it through key hires?  Do you build it internally or organically?  I think the answers to those questions will differ from firm to firm, but you’ve got to be doing something because you can’t just snap your fingers and hope that it appears.

4. PR Should Own Social Media

Best practices involve social being handled by the same agency that’s handling the more traditional earned media outreach.

Clients that go out and hire separate agencies to do social are doing a disservice to their brands. There is so little distinction between social and traditional that it becomes very difficult to work with separate teams.

Very early on, we integrated social throughout all of our account teams because we didn’t want to create silos and we certainly didn’t want to outsource it.

Now, many of our employees are working on social at the same time they’re working on media relations and event management.

5. Flexible Measurement Standards Win the Day 

The overall strategy is to get as specific as possible, because clients are getting a lot of pressure from their internal clients or their bosses to demonstrate ROI across everything they do.

The type of measurement varies per client: some don’t know what to measure, while others will tell you what’s most important to them.

We’re not ever going to sit there and say there’s a direct correlation between what we’re doing on the comms front and what’s driving business, but we can draw indirect correlations.

Ten years ago we’d bring in a measurement firm, but now that’s totally tailored to our clients’ needs and performed by our in-house team…and it’s affordable.

6. Targeting Is Paramount in Media Relations

I think the perception that we push media relations down to junior level contacts is somewhat justified…a lot of agencies and clients have gotten burned as a result, and reporters have grown very disgruntled over it.

Today, you’re no longer calling hundreds of reporters and developing media lists where you literally smile and dial all day.

As a result, people who have relationships with those top tier reporter are becoming even more valuable. [Successful agencies are] not going to farm that out to an entry-level position.

7. Be Realistic to Stay Competitive

To stay competitive, agencies have to offer what the client wants but not extend themselves so far that they start over-promising and under-delivering…I’d rather say ‘no’ to a client.

Some agencies risk claiming, ‘we can do advertising or digital marketing now’…but if the quality of those services doesn’t mirror the quality of their more traditional services, they’re going to damage client relationships and start losing business.

8. The PR vs. Marketing Debate Is Over

Most of our client contacts work in marketing…we don’t even deal with PR people anymore.

We still get push-back on that front, and some companies still compartmentalize to separate PR from marketing and even from social media.

But the lines have blurred so much (and rightfully so) that there shouldn’t really be a distinction between PR and marketing.

Transcription prepared by RA Fisher Ink

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.