Public relations professionals talked to Communicate about the rising trends and the changing relationship between PR agencies and their clients.
In the early 1900s, the father of public relations, Edward Louis Bernays, described the profession as “a management function, which tabulates public attitudes, defines the policies, procedures and interests of an organization… followed by executing a program of action to earn public understanding and acceptance.” Fast forward to 2018, and the rules of the game have changed. Much of this change is due to pervasive nature of digital and social media, which led to the re-structure of PR agencies – especially those whose clients’ social media are handled by another (usually digital) agency.
WHOSE JOB IS IT ANYWAY? The dilemma of social media falling under a digital or PR agency is one of the challenges that clients face. “Clients are now approaching agencies with a combined request for PR, social media and digital services in response to the changing media landscape as well as the needs of the audience and its mindset,” says Joumana Rizk, managing director, Mirros.
It really depends on what the clients want and prefer, requiring agencies to tailor their offerings accordingly. “Usually we opt for the solution that suits the client. If the account was handed to a small digital agency, we monitor the content strategy,” says Rita Chammas, PR and communication director at MSL Group.
Even though digital agencies are the experts of the medium, social media – and its role in crises – have led to PR agencies evolving and adapting and also becoming experts of the medium. “What you say online needs to be relayed in a press release, an ad, a video and so on,” says Ceem Haidar, managing director at The Commery.
Ultimately, the agency has to guide the client and offer a bundled solution. “As PR agencies, the wave we have to ride is the one that sweeps the clients’ audience,” concludes Hanady Dagher, managing partner at M.H.D. for public relations.
GO EASY. As agencies try and ride the wave, clients are becoming more demanding to see results on digital media, which is considered to be more cost-effective than print media. This is also leading to clients becoming more cautious with budget allocation. “Clients are put under pressure from both their finance department to cut their budgets and from their agencies to shift their shrinking budget to the digital world,” says Myrna Abou Mrad, founder and CEO of The Full Circles.
Even though there’s a huge shift towards online media, print media relations are still crucial for some. “Some clients have not given up on the traditional press relations and engagement, but they have added more weight to the digital realm. Even their offline coverage is used for online purposes such as the website or social media,” adds Dalia Ghawi, managing partner at The Commery.
Content wise, clients want a well-structured campaign that can be tracked and monitored. “They demand more accurate results by setting more specific KPIs,” says Chammas.
Clients’ demands for tracking, monitoring and delivering aren’t only due to budget constraints. Audiences are also becoming more demanding and picky with their media and advertising.
As Dagher puts it, “Clients know that their audiences are becoming allergic to traditional advertising, so they are constantly searching and asking for a more friendly approach to better communicate their messages.”
“As PR agencies, the wave we have to ride is the one that sweeps the clients’ audience.”
– Hanady Dagher, managing partner at M.H.D. for public relations.
THE NEW WORLD ORDER. In a bid to cater to the new audience – and new client – PR agencies have to relook at their strategies and keep pace with upcoming trends.
Dagher sums up the upcoming trends in public relations in three categories. The first one is “the shift towards online or offline storytelling”. She adds, “This is something we have experienced through the growing demand by clients to develop their digital communication on social media, especially through powerful video content.” The second trend is “the growing emphasis on micro-influencers and bloggers; the latter have become part of an efficient marketing strategy given the fact that using the right third party voice to promote a client’s particular message can be a powerful way to reach audiences”. The third is “the growing reliance on specialty PR agencies,” such as those specializing in specific aspects of PR, like launch events, reputation management or thought leadership, or specific fields like business, entertainment and arts, she explains.
Chammas, on the other hand, feels it’s not just a matter of trends as the entire dynamic has changed. She feels that Public Relations should be replaced with Public Engagement, because the field today is about “giving your client a story to tell while having the right people talk about the brand.” “You can no longer be the brand that talks to people – we need to add a layer of engagement”, she says.
“We don’t need influencers if we create influential brands.”
– Rita Chammas, PR and communications director, MSL Group
This layer of engagement that Chammas refers to is something practiced at The Commery as well. The agency’s managing partner, Ceem Haidar touches upon the concept of the conversation through PR channels. “An approach we are using at The Commery is to create conversations in whatever form, be it through words, storytelling or visuals and videos. By creating conversations, we want to engage the target markets to create a dialogue, which removes the invisible barrier between an organization and its publics,” she says.
So, how does one achieve this level of engagement and conversation consistently? “Strategic collaborations and creative content such as interactive videos are becoming key elements,” says Rizk. The need for today’s P professionals is are digital and strategic know-how that’s essential to execute PR campaigns in their new form.
INFLUENCERS IN PR. Brands and agencies today have to find new ways of creating and maintaining a high level of conversation and engagement.
The use of social media influencers in PR activities and stunt has caused an increase in the number of influencers and a decrease in their credibility, especially in Lebanon.
“In Lebanon, there are social climbers. When they will think beyond their own ego and physical appearance and create a stampede on the streets, then they will become ‘influencers’. And it’s not their mistake! The exercise starts at the agency/client level,” exclaims Abou Mrad.
But even though influencers are seen as damaging to a brand, for some they are a great investment that guarantees great exposure. “Working with the right opinion leaders can in fact help a business to reach the correct audience, promote positive branding and increase customer engagement and awareness,” says Dagher.
Moreover, regardless of the agency’s point of view, sometimes the use of influencers in Public Relations is simply a client’s demand, because clients know that a large portion of their target audience is online, especially on social media.
“We live in a hyper-connected word, and circles of influence are growing,” explains Ghawi.
“The secret is to collaborate with people of influence who have something to say that relates to the brand being promoted,” advises Chammas. Since many influencers are brands in their own right, it is crucial that these brands share similar attributes to those they are promoting.
Simply put, “We don’t need influencers if we create influential brands,” says Chammas.