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Why a specialist practice? December 4, 2007

Posted 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.


1. Matt Ravden - December 4, 2007

Z’matter of fact, yes please, I’d like a job. This all sounds like fun.

It does seem a very pointless argument, by which I mean there isn’t really an argument at all. All PR companies know ‘digital’ is important, and they are all running to do something about it. in fact, it looks rather like one of the scenes in 28 Weeks, where everyone has contracted the Rage virus. The Social Media virus is spreading like wildfire … the only antidote will be keeping a cool head, which is what you’ve done in your blog Mr Warren. Good on you.

Yes, ‘digital’ is huge, and it is complex. I’m not sure you need to be a geek, but you certainly need to understand geeks and you probably need a few geeks kicking around the place. But the big unsolved issue, which this bloggy spat highlights, is where and how, and to what degree, to integrate on and offline PR. I am not convinced anyone has got close to understanding where the sweet spot is. Weber Shandwick has gone for a division, Rainier, in stark contrast, has gone for …. a division, hasn’t it? Or am I missing something.

Anyway, one thing we all know about social media is that there are some nice platforms to blow off steam and wail and gnash and all that good stuff. And the blogosphere would be terribly boring without it.

2. jameswarren - December 4, 2007

Thanks Matt. I wouldn’t describe my team as a division. But our goal is to make sure Weber Shandwick’s staff are as comfortable with online PR as they are offline. Or indeed that they see no divide. The sweet spot you refer to is dictated by the audience and the campaign. It’s not static.

3. James Cherkoff - December 4, 2007

Interesting….but I wonder why you think you will only be successful if you self-destruct. I think that in time you’ll end up with the biggest most profitable part of the WS empire…

4. jameswarren - December 4, 2007

Thanks James. I think we’ll *partially* self-destruct, in that we won’t be doing the things we’re doing now, they’ll be done by the account teams. We’ll be looking at and playing with the next technologies and techniques (and managing an ever-more complex mix of partners, platforms and suppliers). Most profitable? Only if we move away from hourly billing…

5. Mark - December 4, 2007

Ah James (Cherkoff) I don’t think James (Warren) means that he’ll literally self-destruct, he means that digital will have become so ingrained across WS – second nature to one and all – that the need for his specialist team will be removed. He of course – as you point out – will be sitting on top of it all as King of the World.

I too attest to the argument that, one day, social media will simply be another weapon in the rounded PR pro’s armoury. But it’s not yet, so teams such as Jimbob’s are there to make sure it becomes that.

I do also, however, think that the need for specialism in the digital area is driven by the fact that it’s more difficult to separate the message and the medium or, at least, PR people are getting more involved in the medium of delivery (hence the need for a few geeks). We should all be able to create some compelling messages for specific audiences, but in this age of digital and social media the delivery of them requires a bit of geekness. This is particularly true where PR is the publisher as well as the communicator.

In summary, therefore, “ain’t no thang”.

6. Matt Ravden - December 4, 2007

The geek thing is a phase. Remember that the first generation of dotcom accounts all went to the tech agencies, because there was a need to understand the technology behind the medium. But now, they are, quite rightly, consumer accounts, because the technology is neither here nor there.

I think the geekiness is literally in working out how to ‘work’ the medium to get the story to the right audience – the language of RSS reeds and SEO and all that baloney. And of course there’s a lot of technology in tracking users and measuring impacts.

But to witness Facebook behaviour is to see the technology shackles being cast off. Why else would grown adults – and women probably more than men – take such delight in Superpoking each other? Finally they can play around with this stuff without having to read a manual. You may need to be a geek to massage the channel, but we ain’t talking about early adoption usage any more.

7. notetoeditors - December 4, 2007

Thanks James for bringing sense to my ill-considered PR fire stoking. I still firmly believe that Social Media will remain a specialist practice in much the same way Analyst Relations has. Wider account teams will definitelly become more skilled-up but I think this is because social media is so much more sexy than AR (sorry Dom) so it naturally ignites people’s interest to get involved.

One thing that I’ve taken away from all of this is that a good blogument doesn’t half do wonders for your blog traffic. There was I, idling along at about 3 clicks a day – mainly from Google searches for incorrectly spelt German gun dogs – and all of a sudden, my ratings are on a par with an Audley Harrison fight (though hopefully far more enjoyable to watch).

8. Matt Ravden - December 4, 2007

Asking a PR practitioner who doesn’t know analysts to do AR is like asking a Shepherd to start looking after a flock of snow geese.

Asking a PR practitioner to get to grips with social media is like asking the Shepherd to find a better way of herding his sheep, because one or two of them seem to be having an undue influence on the others. (ed. can’t mention black sheep in this day and age)

I rest my case.

9. Mark - December 4, 2007

Surely asking a PR pro to do AR is more like telling a shepherd that he’s had a good crack at managing a flock of unruly sheep but doesn’t appear to be cut out for it, so perhaps he’d like to go and groom the sheepdogs?

He’ll then be influencing those that influence the sheep, which is obviously far more important (and a little less stressful…).

I jest, of course. Kind of.

10. Jonathan - December 4, 2007

I am definitely a geek and I’m also a PR person because of my experience working in a non-specialist account handling role. At the moment agencies need people to translate and filter everything into something that they understand . . . so everyone gets it and the whole agency starts to become digital – in the sense of knowing what threats and opportunities digital brings and most importantly DOING it.

I agree that it’s pretty much essential right now to know about the web on a code level – because stuff isn’t drag and drop. . . yet. I taught myself basic CSS/HTML firstly because I’m a geek and and secondly because I had to in order to build a blog that did what I wanted to. I also do fairly geeky stuff on a day to day basis as part of my job (file conversions/setting up feeds/creating pipes/making widgets etc) and I think it’s easy to forget just how techy you need to be to do even the most seemingly basic of things. This isn’t something that everyone can get their head around. Until stuff becomes drag and drop or just second nature because it’s been around so long or they’ve been taught it like people like me – then for now being a geek and understanding how everything works is a bit of a necessity IMHO. For a great overview of the sort of people that we’re all talking about, read this. I think we can learn a lot from the digital agencies. And they’re all geeks.

PS the official agency blog that started all of this was launched on 18th October and has had all of 8 posts since then, with three of them on the same day. That says it all for me. But, have they had the last laugh by generating all this debate? Hmm, not sure. Doubt it.

11. James Warren - December 5, 2007

Thanks Matt and Mark. I think. My mate Nick’s favoured chat-up line used to be that he was a shepherd. Needless to say, it wasn’t hugely successful – although he had a near miss one winter’s evening when he got a huge sympathy vote for pretending his sheepdog had just died. Mind you, it was a darn sight more successful than the time I pretended to be gay just to talk to a beautiful girl in the pub. Despite the fact I got to speak to her all night – much to the chagrin of my mates – the fact that my opening gambit very obviously negated any hope I had made the whole experience excruciatingly painful. Muppet.

Jonathan, thanks for your comment too. I agree about the digital agencies, but think they could also learn a great deal from us about telling stories and ‘having conversations’. And ‘that’.

12. Jonathan - December 5, 2007

Good point. Agreed. [you muppet re above]

13. Tim Hoang - December 6, 2007

Great post James and i hope this puts to rest the whole digital team debate. At the time I thought Gareth’s argument was a very valid one – everyone in PR should have some knowledge in the digital space but you are right, there are those that can be more specialised – especially as, let’s face it, 9 out of 10 agencies banging on about social media are not actually doing anything with it. The world needs pioneers and hopefully students will be studying what your team, Borkowski, Bruce, Shiny Red, etc in the future – because if not, it’ll mean that digital Pr hasn’t really taken off and all those lonely nights i’ve spent reading everyone’s blogs will be wasted.

14. grantie - December 6, 2007

Totally agree with you warren.com. Division is so … divisive a term. Agencies should be setting up ‘centres’ that educate the rest of the business based on their specialist knowledge with the understanding that it can’t remain ‘specialist’ for too much longer, because it is going to become an additional, central channel of communications.

In the meantime the ‘centre’ provides best practice and executes on behalf of those clients who want to take a leading position in this new world, or at least dip their toes in the water.

Makes perfect sense to me…

15. James Warren - December 6, 2007

Tim, Currie (see what I did there?), thank you for your comments.

16. Mark - December 6, 2007

James, your previous comment (no.11) reminds me. I’ve got two cute little puppy dogs here at the house…which means we’re due a lunch at Cognac golf club over New Year. Be a nice trip out for them.

17. Matt - December 7, 2007

All a bit late in the day, but as I am (now) a client of a pr agency, at a bloody huge organisation that spends chuffing millions of pounds a year on pr/marketing/advertising etc, my bosses (mainly oldish men in suits) expet to see a specialism in something before they spend their money…

Not saying it is right…but at the moment, in the conservative world in which I now operate, that is the way it is. I suspect (hope) WS knows this and to reach companies like mine they keep the areas.

Like James, in my previous agency role I had the job of educating the agency about digital techniques and how to integrate them into ‘mainstream’ pr (altho I suspect at a much lower level than what James does on account of the fact that I didn’t know what I was talking about) and a lot of the ‘more established’ pr practitioners just didn’t get it.

18. James Warren - December 7, 2007

Mark: surely they’ll run off with our balls? Which means we’ll have to just sit in the restaurant and twiddle our thumbs.

Matt: thanks for your comment. Having a ‘specialist’ team does inspire confidence in some clients. But that raises a very interesting point, which is that as much as my role is about dragging the agency kicking and screaming (joke) into the digital age, that will all come to nought if we can’t also do the same with clients. Many clients need convincing that engaging in social media is worthwhile. And that comes down to measurement – we need to be able to prove to clients that investing in this stuff works. WS is spending a huge amount of time (not to mention cash) focusing on this and some day soon I’ll be able to share our approach. In the meantime, our initial findings (on broad advocacy versus pure digital advocacy), announced last week, can be found here. The next challenge (which we’re working with Dr Paul Marsden to figure out) is uncovering the impact of digital/social media content/activity on the creation of advocacy.

19. Stuart Bruce - December 7, 2007

If you read carefully what James is saying, and what I’ve said, there isn’t actually that big a difference between us. In fact I agree with almost everything James has said. One of the key points I made is that:

“At the moment social media and online PR does require specialists, because so few PR people have the required skills. But it is such as a core, fundamental part of public relations that everyone needs to get on board.”

That’s why it works for big agencies to have a ‘division’ (or whatever they want to describe it as) specialising in social media. But it depends on how they do it. If the intention is that the specialists are there to support account teams and upskill the entire agency then I think it’s the right approach. If they are there to ‘do it all’ and operate just as a separate service and profit centre then I think it’s the wrong approach.

20. James Warren - December 8, 2007

Thanks for your comment Stuart – we’re agreed we agree (well, ‘almost’). I had hoped to meet you (finally) at Le Web, but client commitments require me to stay in London. Perhaps I’ll see you at the next WOM UK meet? I haven’t forgotten you still owe me some champers ; )

21. Nick - December 11, 2007

In my defence, at the time of the sheep dog incident we were both clearly suffering from some sort of confusion over what made a young man about town attractive to the ladies. Why we thought such pointless dribble would be a successful weapon in distracting every girls attention away from Dan ‘chilli crisp’ Chaser can only be attributed to the blur that was 1664. In relation to the subject matter, I have nothing to add on the fascinating subject of social media or the arguement for different operating structures in PR firms. In fact I only read this blog so I can confirm to your godchildren that you are still alive. Thanks for sending them the advent calander by the way and for making me laugh out loud in the office.

22. Chris Brown - December 11, 2007

Being highly comfortable with online PR and contributing to our surging online presence, please check out the latest offering from the highly acclaimed Weber Shandwick Property Team which is spread across the entire WS network in UK and Ireland at http://www.prop-arazzi.com

23. Craig McGill - January 4, 2008

James, it’s good to see that you are honest in that if your division works then ultimately it comes back into the fold. It’s equally warming to see a major PR company grasp the implications of all of this – and also spread the word to clients – because in the coming 12-18 months it’s really going to put the public back into public relations and then media may/may not hook into using the material you are producing as well.

I look forward to seeing how you get on and the next time you’re up visiting the Glasgow office, drop me an email and I’ll treat you to a pint for a chat over this.

24. Simon Says Move « PR 2.0 - October 17, 2008

[…] European practice teams (as described, in a slightly round about fashion, in the phase two bit of this post) to bolster our ability to provide clients with appropriate multi-channel comms counsel and […]

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