TREND.iNSIGHT: Social Communications Part I

TRENDAFRiCA August 19, 2013

A TREND. iNSIGHT report compiled by TREND. Publishing Editor Louise Marsland (@trendlives) brought to you in association with: FleishmanHillard and Lion’s Wing Brand Communications. 

1Lionswing  FL

SNAPSHOT: Disrupting PR

‘Social Communications’ is about how public relations agencies and communication strategists need to reengineer themselves as social businesses to meet their client’s communication needs. It is about integrating digital strategy (including social media and mobile) into client earned media campaigns.

Many public relations agencies, particularly the smaller ones and independents, are grappling with the embedded knowledge that is required – not just for them, but by their clients too.

If communication practitioners do not upskill and take ownership of the earned media space, advertising agencies and digital shops will subsume their roles in all client brand campaigns, taking over the function of the traditional PR in the earned media space because all communication and brand campaigns need to integrate digital across the board – from big brands to small niche clients. No campaign can afford to be without a social and digital element.

I believe there will be many mergers in the industry in the near future; as well as the larger PR agencies poaching digital agency staff and visa versa.

The next very important business imperative for PR agencies is that their campaigns now need to show clients measureable return on investment. Digital campaigns are measurable and the PR industry is also expected to generate business leads, not just procure column centimetres.

This is the time for communication practitioners because you are specialists in earned media – which is essentially where social media falls – this is what you do best. And you have the relationships with the media – not the digital agencies nor the ad agencies. You need to take ownership of the earned media space and make sure you are counted as the professionals that you are, providing the vital communications and branding services that you do.


 1. Professionalising the industry: for a couple of years now, a regulatory committee born out of PRISA, but operating apart from the organisation, has been working on presenting a green paper to parliament on the industry in the hopes of professionalising it. The document lays out the education minimum to be called a public relations practitioner, and registration with a legislative body that will replace PRISA eventually with a ‘society of public relations practitioners’. It needs to be approved by parliament to professionalise the industry. As Bridget von Holdt, one of the primary drivers behind this move says: “The industry needs to be seen as being about more than the press release.”

2. Reputation management: is key because both B2C and B2B buyers do their own research and ask opinions before doing business or purchasing goods and services. Reputation, positive reviews and strong search and social visibility is key. “Instead of building episodic awareness, the new imperative for PR is to develop ongoing brand visibility and a strong reputation,” says Sarah Skerik, PR Newswire vice president of social media in the US.

3. Expanded measurement: social media is the norm for any communications and it needs to be measured, monitored and utilised by brands. We’ve all heard about big data, it is now about understanding and using the data being generated by all these new technologies that consumers are now interacting with. The are many apps and digital tools being developed to help synthesise data to benefit the end-user, as indicated by Melissa Todisco, vice president, Hunter PR, US.

4. Lead generation & conversion: PR needs to deliver measurable business results. ROI is essential. “We have to ask how we differentiate ourselves,” says Shana Harris, COO of the international Warchawski Agency. “What are our goals, and what are the audience’s pain points? We have to put ourselves in our target audience’s shoes, understand the target audience and understand the experience we want to create for them.”

5. Content PR: become an information leader for your niche and be useful (utility is key). Brands have an unparalleled opportunity to position themselves via content and storytelling. Content marketing, once the preserve of the PR industry, now forms part of all integrated marketing strategies and the lines of communication are blurring. PR practitioners need to be on top of their game to remain in control of earned media.

6. Micro stories: stories don’t have to be epic, but can be about one element. Oreo released a different Oreo on their Facebook page for 100 days – influenced by the news of the day, ie, gay rights issues with a ‘gay pride’ cookie; Curiosity’s landing on Mars; Elvis’s birthday, etc. A simple idea, simple concept. No press releases. The media sought them out and media exposure followed.

7. Mulitimedia content: video is the future of the web. Ad agencies do this well – every new, big campaign being released, now also has a “making of” video. People want the back story. They want to ‘see’ what they are reading. Visual communications are key as we’ve seen with the rise of services like Instagram and Pinterest. Nic Harambolous from Nic Socks says that he gets most sales conversions from posting his funky men’s sock designs on Instagram.

8. Seek out engagement opportunities: This is your turf! At SXSW in Texas this year, Mashable had a ‘house’ where geeks could take a photo with Grumpy Cat, creating an opportunity to connect with this specialised digital audience that generated buzz beyond a hard news product launch. It is all about the brand experience now.

9. Skills development: there is an emerging technologies skills gap at the top of organisations and an experience gap at the entry to an organisation. There needs to be mentoring and skills transfer by and for both, as well as ongoing education.

10. Authentic communications, not spin: brands have to demonstrate honesty and transparency, not just talk about it. This goes for all business processes and communication – from ethically sourced raw materials, to the factories you produce your goods in, to your social media conversations.

Bridget von Holdt

Bridget von Holdt



Does public relations need a new definition? It certainly seems that way from the number of agencies rebranding themselves as communication agencies, communication strategists and reputation management specialists.

One could be forgiven for wondering if there are any ‘public relations’ agencies left in South Africa.

Public relations still seems to have a slight whiff of unsavoury spin attached to it in South Africa and it has seemed as if many in the industry don’t want to be associated with the ‘stigma’ attached to the colloquial definition of public relations.

We should be past that as an industry, but like the old analogies that abound in any industry like the shoemaker whose own kids have holes in their shoes – the public relations industry in South Africa must be among the worst when it comes to publicising and branding itself.

The global Chartered Marketing Officer’s Council (CMO) reported that its research showed that 60% of marketers worldwide would make an agency change in 2013, with social marketing, web design and PR firms topping the list – lack of innovation and value-added thinking was given as the primary reason for a change.

The old “boobs and balloons/PR poppie” definition of what a PRO represents hasn’t been applicable for a decade or so in South Africa, as most PR agencies have repositioned as communication strategists and business solutions providers, but the stereotype persists in some quarters and PR remains at the bottom of the marketing food chain, having to be content with budget scraps.

But, like all industries in the communication sector, PR has faced huge disruption in recent years.

When PR Newswire asked PR respondents across the globe to complete the sentence “PR is…?” they documented how much modern public relations has evolved in the last five to 10 years. Answers ranged from: “PR is… a key part of integrated marketing of the future; telling a story; content that adds value for a variety of readers; about creating understanding for a complex world; solving problems for organisations through strategic communication; relationship management; a channel for conversation; content that adds value for readers; engaging dialogue; a connection between a company and its publics…”

This quote from PR Newswire says it all: “Social media has changed customer expectations and introduced an age of radical transparency. Smart organisations have recalibrated their entire enterprise to connect with, communicate to and serve their customers and prospects.”

This means tactically, that there has to be collaboration and integration within organisations and all service providers looking after a brand, and listening and response, need to prioritise responding to customers immediately and 24/7.

Another key influencer is the disruption of the traditional media model. One of the most noteworthy stories from 2012 was Newsweek going all digital in 2013. In the marketing communication industry in South Africa in particular, we have seen the closure of almost all the print publications serving just this particular industry in the last decade in SA: Marketplace, Marketing Mix, Journal of Marketing and now AdVantage, and the rise of niche online media such as MarkLives, Grubstreet, TechCentral, Memeburn and TREND.

In the mainstream media, shrinking newspaper newsrooms and the closure of top consumer magazine brands, as well as the decimation of the business-to-business magazine print publishing industry have resulted in far fewer traditional media opportunities for communicators.

But the migration of niche B2B sites online, the popularity of social media platforms, the increase in community media in print and radio, as well as the impact of the 24-hour television news channel and cycle has led to other opportunities on a far larger scale, as influence becomes a bigger prize than column centimetres.

So how do brands compete online? “By consistently publishing unique, useful and interesting content – therein lies the opportunity for PR professionals,” says Susan Skerik of PR Newswire. But Skerik does warn organisations not to rely only on one social network to build brand presence – since they don’t have ownership over social networks and are therefore not in control of the process or changes in terms and conditions. Brands still need to develop direct connections with customers and direct them to their own websites.

That is why a two-year process born out of our own Public Relations Institute of South Africa (PRISA) and leading industry professionals, to have Parliament recognise the industry as a legitimate profession with accompanying standards of education and regulation, should be seen as a welcome one and a significant step in professionalising the industry, setting standards and working as a unified lobby group on issues such as further education and skills transfer, particularly when it comes to digital training and measurement.

For PRISA stalwart Bridget von Holdt, who has also represented the South African PR industry on international bodies for many years, the fact that there is a green paper ready to go before parliament is the result of years of lobbying to professionalise the PR industry.

“One of my issues I’ve had, is that the entry level to PR is zero. Anyone can open up a PR company. I’ve worked hard, as has everyone else at PRISA, to professionalise the profession. I used to phone up companies who advertised for a ‘sales/PRO’ person and explain to them what a PRO was!

“I have wanted to legalise the profession, raise the entry level. We looked at how we could legislate public relations to give it more credibility. So you have to be registered to be a practising PR practitioner,” says Von Holdt who is managing director of the newly-formed The Glasshouse (her company was formerly Inzalo Communications).

PRISA defines PR as: “Public relations is the distinctive management function that establishes and maintains mutual communication, understanding, acceptance and co-operation between an organisation and its publics.”

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has done a fair bit of work to come up with a global, modern, acceptable definition of public relations, even crowdsourcing views to take all opinion on board.

PRSA reports that the formal practice of what we know as “public relations” dates back to the early 20th century when the earliest definitions focussed on “press agentry and publicity”, to more modern definitions including “engagement and relationship building”.

In 2011, PRSA led a global challenge to modernise the definition of public relations, including a public vote. This is the definition decided on: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

PRSA gave this explanation: “Simple and straightforward, this definition focuses on the basic concept of public relations — as a communication process, one that is strategic in nature and emphasizing ‘mutually beneficial relationships’. ‘Process’ is preferable to ‘management function’, which can evoke ideas of control and top-down, one-way communications.

“’Relationships’ relates to public relations’ role in helping to bring together organizations and individuals with their key stakeholders. ‘Publics’ is preferable to ‘stakeholders’, as the former relates to the very ‘public’ nature of public relations, whereas ‘stakeholders’ has connotations of publicly-traded companies.”

PRSA then set about listing the management functions of public relations (quoted verbatim):

  • Anticipating, analysing and interpreting public opinion, attitudes and issues that might impact, for good or ill, the operations and plans of the organization.
  • Counselling management at all levels in the organization with regard to policy decisions, courses of action and communication, taking into account their public ramifications and the organization’s social or citizenship responsibilities.
  • Researching, conducting and evaluating, on a continuing basis, programs of action and communication to achieve the informed public understanding necessary to the success of an organization’s aims. These may include marketing; financial; fund raising; employee, community or government relations; and other programs.
  • Planning and implementing the organization’s efforts to influence or change public policy. Setting objectives, planning, budgeting, recruiting and training staff, developing facilities — in short, managing the resources needed to perform all of the above.

Figures released by PRISA in March, in South Africa this year, show that the public relations industry in South Africa and indeed in Africa, expects to show growth this year of between 5% and 9% growth, with some hoping for 10% and 20%. This was based on a survey by the International Communications Consultancy organisation (ICCO) in conjunction with The Holmes Report.

ICCO represents PR associations worldwide and PRISA members were among those surveyed.

While 51% believed that the industry would remain stable, 24% expected an improvement in the industry. However, 69% believe that macro business issues such as the economy, socio-political factors and BBBEE restrictions could create slower or lower growth in the communication industry. Continued “limited understanding of the role of PR and therefore low budget allocations” was a reason given for this, as was the fact that more PR firms were competing for the same piece of the action.

PRISA said the industry needs to educate the market on exactly how it adds value.

The issue of “red tape” in the SMME market was also raised as a restriction to both growth and sustainability.

“The respondents also feel that there are barriers to breaking into new markets due to ‘monopolies’, but it’s important to note here that many (47%) also see certain macro business issues assisting growth in our industry. This includes increased governance and stakeholder engagement requirements, the growth of community enterprises and the explosion of social media. Some believe, though, that the latter is too often too handed to digital agencies or conducted in-house, when brands and companies should be aware that this is a critical communication element and forms part of reputation management, the domain of the PR professional,” PRISA reported.

Industries that remain “good prospects” for growth in the PR industry were seen to be: telecommunications, pharmaceutical and healthcare, IT, food and drink, and consumer products. Bottom of the list was: mining, metals, freight transport, defence and security.

Areas cited in the research as being key income drivers were: corporate social responsibility campaigns, digital services content creation and management, integrated communication, and disaster management.

“PRISA highlights the fact that editorial services and social network management also ranked high, which means industry members themselves see the connection between these communications offerings in getting a single, strong message out for their clients.”

Interestingly, most of the respondents surveyed believed that digital business would grow by 77%, while marketing spend on PR for 2013 was “likely to remain the same”.

Attracting competent staff was named as one of the three biggest challenges in the industry (50%), while 34% saw the second biggest challenge as advertising and marketing companies stealing business from the PR and communication industry, with competition from local firms coming in as the third challenge at 28%.

The issue of media evaluation that was so controversial in the past seems to be resolving itself, with some 65% of those surveyed using the Barcelona Declaration and 25% using the processes listed in the Barcelona Accord. PRISA said it was pleased that so many firms were working towards standardising measurement and reporting metrics by using the Barcelona Accord.

Game changers

The biggest topic of conversation in the industry is digital integration. And accompanying that is the question as to who owns earned media?

Then comes the question of skills – are PR companies and PR practitioners that don’t upskill and acquire digital skills or enter into digital partnerships making themselves redundant?

According to IMTS top trends for PR and marketing in 2013, before social media and smart devices completely changed communication, the big change for public relations came about in the 1990s when the concept of integrated marketing blurred the lines between marketing and public relations. The key point to note here is that where case studies used to be owned by PR, they are now at the core of storytelling and content-driven programs run by anyone from internal marketing to branding and advertising agencies and digital agencies. Content marketing is at the top of the list of marketing and PR strategy today, fuelled by social media and the consumer’s insatiable desire for great content to share.

Mike Sharman

Mike Sharman

On the question of earned media – social media is seen as earned media. Public relations is earned media. So who should be leading the social media charge for clients?

Communications practitioners know how to tell stories and produce great content and ideas to enthral cynical journalists and gain column centimetres for clients. The job hasn’t changed, the medium has and your audience is closer to you, a click away instead of a deadline away.

It is not only the PR industry of course, that has had to reinvent itself in recent times. One of the reasons the PR industry is under threat is because advertising agencies have had to reinvent themselves too and digital agencies have taken ownership of social media.

The digital communications agencies of course, have a diametrically opposing viewpoint, although the end goal is the same as the traditional PR agencies.

The CEO of Gloo, Pete Case, mentions that the ever changing complex media landscape has given consumers a voice and influence and brands an audience 24/7.

“Over the past decade, the worlds of media and advertising have changed dramatically. Where brands and marketing managers were once the ones who decided what message they would communicate to the market, now their customers have a voice and they’re not afraid to use it,” Case says.

He explains that the creative team is no longer made up only of a copywriter and an art director reporting to a creative director. “In addition to these roles, the agency/client partnership of the future will pull in experts in customer service, product/service design, user experience, datamining, branding, reputation and more, to craft strategies that span channels and create an integrated platform for dialogue with customers. Business solutions are starting to interact with marketing and media. Owned media such as websites and mobile apps are transactional platforms, as well as the marketing and communications spaces brands use to talk to their audiences.”

Cerebra managing director, Craig Rodney, believes that the traditional PR role will become such a small role that clients will take it inside. He does believe that public relations needs a new definition as digital has been a massive game changer.

“I had a PR company, but we had technology clients, so we prided ourselves on our technology acumen and were at the forefront of the evolution of social media.”

He says the terminology ‘public relations’ limits thinking and they transformed into a media engagement communication company when his company (Emerging Media) joined forces with Cerebra.

“The shift that PR companies need to make is to recognise that their role is that of a content and conversation company.”

He explains that digital agencies create content for bought properties (paid media), while reaching ‘attention media’ (attracting the attention of the communities of these brands) is earned media.

Former actor and now owner of Retroviral social communication agency, Mike Sharman, believes he is the PR company of “the now”. He says public relations, largely unfairly, still has a “bad rap” defined by “pretty girls and canapés and the gin and tonic brigade”.

“Positioning is important. If you start out as a PR agency, you are relegated to being the ginger stepchild of the agency world that everyone wants to beat up on.”

Sharman defines the industry hierarchy as such: “Agencies are the cool kids. No one wants public relations in the agency context. Digital agencies are the hipsters. People want to hang out with us. We have cool things, cool toys… hipsters come with their lattes and skinny jeans and Instagram. PR has always been the ugly duckling of the industry.”

He defines Retroviral as a “word of mouth dissemination hype-creative agency”, but they are playing in the earned media space, like the PR agencies and digital agencies and social media agencies…

When he worked for a ‘traditional’ PR agency, Sharman says he was lucky to work with smart people who thought about strategy first.

“But still today, agencies sell tactics as strategy, they don’t know the difference. Strategy is how to support a business using communication. It is an umbrella strategy. It is not your tactics – that is social media, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn… We need to step back and ask what the business is doing? What the business strategy is?”

Sharman says that some communicators really don’t get digital: “They think that there are all these cool online spaces to hang out in and they want to be there.” He emphasises that it is about relevance and about not being intrusive or invasive. “That is why we play in the earned space rather than the paid-for space. We don’t want to be intrusive.”

One of the dangers to the industry is that brands are becoming publishers of their own content and are becoming very good at creating content that their customer wants, says Rodney.

“Look, this is the best thing to happen to the PR industry. It will cull the herd. PR was boring and crap. The average PR company out there was crap, because they don’t think. They are not thinking about their clients, their audience and about creating such amazing content that people want. They think their role is to create press releases and they limit their thinking according to the confines of the media they engage with.”

Rodney says PR people need to start thinking of themselves as content creators and storytellers. “The publishing part is becoming the easy part – as long as you get your thinking right and understand who your target audience is.”

There are a number of key influencers TREND. identified that have impacted on the public relations industry, forcing change:

  • Developing digital technologies – from the internet to social media and now apps and even Google Glass, how consumers consume content has changed which massively influences how we work in our own industries.
  • Disruption in the media industry – how we publish and how we curate content has changed. Newsweek has gone online only, the date for publication of the last newspaper has been set (it’s the Year 2043 according to the book ‘The Vanishing Newspaper’ by journalism professor Philip Meyer).
  • The emergence of the social enterprise – social business is a massive trend as it affects how every industry does and will do business and includes the integration of all enterprise-wide systems, for example, CRM including call centres; and elevates marketing and by definition communications, to a higher profile within an organisation as reputation will be all that matters in the end, not your historical legacy.
  • Dealing directly with the public via social media platforms and direct activations – PR is no longer just a conduit between client and media. Consumers respond directly to brand channels and the CEOs/marketing directors, on social media. This conversation has to be managed.
  • Public relations has become one part of what a communication management or strategic communication firm now does – this now includes media relations, reputation management, social media, content creation and curation, etc.

SEE PART II TOMORROW ON: ‘Professionalising the PR industry’

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