Why a specialist practice? December 4, 2007Posted by James Warren in pr, social media, work.
A while back a gentleman wrote a letter to PR Week bemoaning the fact that my employer, Weber Shandwick, had established a standalone social media practice. The very excellent (although slightly naughty) Mr Wooding broke our blogging guidelines by taking umbrage at the fact and taking the letter’s writer to task on his blog. I didn’t respond partly because I was tied up in New York (steady) and mostly because I didn’t feel the need.
Anyway, the spat has been raised again here and here, so I thought I should add my perspective. Yes, we have a standalone social media practice. Actually, that’s not entirely true: we have a standalone interactive, social and emerging media practice. The ‘news’ PR Week was reporting was that my team’s P&L moved from being part of the tech division’s budget to being a standalone, central budget.
So why does Weber Shandwick have a dedicated digital practice?
First things first. I fundamentally believe you need specialist skills to be an effective digital communications consultant. Off the top of my head (and this is by no means an ordered or definitive list), you need to be a geek. Or rather you need to know a great deal about technology (preferably, I believe, to coding level), be sufficiently familiar with the myriad platforms and products available that you know how they work, who uses them and how to stitch them together. You need to know (through experience) what works and what doesn’t work online, what is and what isn’t best practice. Basic stuff like where the audience is, what they like to consume and how they like to consume it needs to be second nature (and this applies as much to tweens as it does to OAPs as it does to IT managers as it does to healthcare professionals as it does to policy makers). You need to know when digital is not the right thing to do. You need to know what the next big thing is and be able to explain it to your client. And you need to be able to tell a good story, otherwise all the above is a waste of time. As things stand, very few traditional PR/PA people have these skills. Those that do are working in roles like mine (or similar).
There are some other reasons why we’ve adopted the standalone strategy (reading this back it comes across as a willy-waving exercise. It really isn’t meant to me. I’m just trying to give it some context):
- Weber Shandwick is big. By PR agency standards, very big. It employs lots and lots of people (over 320 in the London office alone, together with regional offices in Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin, Aberdeen and more), working across many industry sectors. Each industry sector practice is the size of a medium-sized agency in its own right. Now, that’s lots of people, lots of clients and lots of complexity. At this point in time – while social media relations (for want of a better phrase) is in its infancy – putting sufficiently ‘digital’ PR people in the ‘silo’ of each practice doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. Better, we believe, to build a central centre of excellence where a team of digital specialists can sit, work and learn together, and help to define best practice guidelines and training materials that can then be disseminated throughout the whole agency.
- Weber Shandwick has very big clients, and lots of them. Clearly, very big companies have a great deal to lose from poorly planned and executed online programmes. The potential for injudiciously chosen or poorly implemented online activity to damage share prices, reputation etc leads me to believe that while this social media lark is still nascent, engagement activity is best left to those people with the skills and experience outlined above. It is very easy to get things slightly wrong and end up with all sorts of digital egg on your face (and a jolly upset client). Now, while the same could be said for any client of any agency, when the client is a global one representing many, many millions of pounds’ worth of business to your employer (not to mention the other tens of millions it spends with your holding company’s other marketing agencies), it tends to make you rather determined not to fuck up.
- Finally, Weber Shandwick believes that digital technologies and techniques lie at the heart of communications, in particular in relation to creating/encouraging advocacy (and PR is *all* about advocacy, as any fule kno). So part of my team’s focus is to identify ways in which we can build, nurture and measure advocacy online. To that end we are a central hothouse of innovation, experimentation and development, where we identify new technologies, try new techniques and – crucially – get things wrong in a controlled environment. Then we share that learning with the rest of the agency, increasingly on a global basis.
Ultimately my team’s role is to educate, evangelise and train the rest of the agency so they have the knowledge and tools at their disposal to make ‘digital PR’ a natural part of their communications arsenal. My team is a hub for best practice and its objective is to infuse digital DNA throughout the company. As we move into phase two of our strategy we’re identifying/putting evangelists in each practice area (these are most commonly the younger members of staff – the digital natives – that ‘naturally’ have a lot of the skills I listed above) who are virtual members of our team and who will over time take on and apply digital engagement skills and spread the ‘word’ within their practices. But you can’t expect a large agency (no matter how brilliant) to go from an almost standing start to warp speed overnight. WS takes digital very seriously, which is why we’re investing in building a best-in-class team (of which more later) to help clients make the most of the opportunities now available.
Of course, if I’m successful my team will self-destruct and the fabled digital DNA will have been spread throughout the organisation. Realistically, I see this taking at least another twelve months – and we have a structured training programme and lots of tools to help our employees get there as quickly – and correctly – as possible. It is no exaggeration to say we’re reinventing the way PR people think about doing PR (this is not exclusively digital – our advocacy process and tools have a significant role to play here too). Anyway, I’ve gone on too long…
Is the central specialist practice the right strategy? Time will tell. I’ve explained why I think it works for us, at this point in time, but would be interested in your thoughts – however trifling they may be. Before I go: we’re hiring across the board from senior to junior levels, and potentially not just in London, so if you fancy joining the digital evolution, please get in touch: jwarren [at] webershandwick [dot] com.