DeathI’ve been wondering if the PR role is slipping and if the growth in interactive marketing will make PR agencies largely irrelevant unless they diversify and get wise to online opportunities?

Forrester’s December 2010 US Interactive Marketing Online Executive Panel Survey showed that PR agencies held a respectable fourth place when it came to which agencies are helping with company/brand interactive marketing but the same survey also showed that 68% of marketers were working with at least two or more agencies for their interactive marketing needs (all competing for budgets and control no doubt).

In the 14 months since that survey took place interactive marketing has continued to mature, and I wonder if the full-service interactive agency is growing up and gaining control — leaving the PR agency behind at the kids table.

Why is PR at risk of losing their seat at the interactive table?

  • Traditional media decreasing in relevancy: Traditional media is declining creating a twofold problem for PR agencies. Firstly, ‘Digital’ is usually classed as its own category sending clients to digital specialists first for their online priorities. Secondly, the feeling is that many PR agencies still prioritize planning traditional media campaigns over online — whether via their own heritage bias or client vanity at seeing themselves in mass media like newspapers or TV — meaning the PR agency role is also decreasing in relevancy.
  •  Frontline ‘public relations’ online moving in-house: With every brand launching social profiles like Twitter and Facebook to speak directly with customers PR agencies were often key supporters of these initiatives. Often seen as ‘putting the public back in to public relations’ PR agencies certainly filled a shortfall in skills and labor that emerging interactive teams required. The next evolution? With mature marketers shifting interactive internally as best practice it seems likely that PR agencies will lose the day to day community management budget as an obvious delivery and cost efficiency. (Community manager salaries are becoming more competitive vs. PR agency billing structures). What will they offer in place?
  •  PR agencies tend to lack specialized service: Specialized digital marketing niches, like mobile, are taking off. PR agencies are often slow to adopt in-house specialized digital knowledge and play in the earned media space. This limits their ability to be involved in the design and build of emerging media and they also can’t participate where channels are being commercialized by media buying.
  •  Interactive marketing spend is dominated by search and paid advertising:  While PR agencies may be leading at social marketing when it comes to interactive, search marketing and display advertising are the big areas for spend. The majority of standalone PR agencies (without a media buying company in their group) are philosophically devoted to earning media, drastically limiting their involvement in some of the biggest budgets going. Furthermore, the one area that PR naturally fits with for contribution, Search marketing, is not being integrated into any PR agency offerings.

Adapt or Die: Why search is the answer

PR agencies seem to have left the biggest piece of the interactive marketing pie just sitting on the table. While search agencies diversify to offer services like press release writing and article generation (in fact agencies like iCrossing have entire branded content divisions) many PR agencies aren’t even adopting simple keyword targeting strategies to accompany the content they DO create.

On top of this PR’s greatest skill, influencer relations, is being sullied by cack-handed blogger outreach program consisting of bulk emailing names cut and pasted from a media database. Influence as a subject overall is complex and non-standardized but today’s link-building programs executed by search agencies have a level of sophistication that PR agencies don’t even have as a baseline when seeking online editorial for clients.

Given that PR has digitally relevant skills for search marketing and that interactive marketing budgets in search out-spend other areas PR tries to play in online (like social media) by as much as 900% [2012 interactive marketing spend from the US Interactive Marketing Forecast 2011 – 2016] shouldn’t the PR agency be adapting search capability to avoid extinction? I think yes.