Conversations at the Intersection of PR, Traditional & New Media

Are Indian PR agencies ready to offer Social Media Services?

Well, this may sound a bit controversial and that too from an ex-agency guy but there are some valid arguments that I would like to bring forward.

From outside, PR agencies may be best suited to tell your story online, as they have mastered the art of presenting their client’s side in the best possible manner. They know how to build and nurture relationships with the gatekeepers, dig out that hidden story that may bring recognition and credibility to their client and also shield their client’s public image in times of crisis.

But is social media only about generating content, which can be pushed using various freely available social media tools? Or Is it about publishing your press releases on the online news portal? Or is it about joining various discussion forums and groups and start discussions, while subtly pitching your client’s services? Or closer: is it about tweeting your client’s updates/media coverage? Or creating a blog and posting news articles that would probably never see the light of the day in the mainstream media? Or it is about uploading your client’s images and videos over YouTube and Flickr?

While all the above is in some way part of the new media but represents not even 10% of the entire social media gamut. Social media is huge, and in no way similar to the mainstream media and cannot be handled using our old push strategy.

Some of the famous misconceptions harbored by PR agencies:

1)      Like PR, Social Media is an earned media: No way, there is heavy investment made by every major brand visible on the social media arena. You don’t get horde of visitors just by creating a Facebook page, or by starting a blog. You need to promote it using various SEO & SEM techniques, online advertisements, contests, quizzes, blogger engagement (they do not get engaged with you for free) and many other promotional techniques which do not come cheap. If PR agencies really want to make some dent in this big game, then they need to develop a whole new business model with full-fledged creative, advertising and media buying services. Something very similar to an ad agency but with a dash of PR skills. Initially it may be not necessary for PR agencies to create a completely new set-up – partnerships with trusted developers, design agencies and platforms should be enough to accomplish a PR program’s goals.  But they need to have people within the PR agencies, who understand how to spec and manage social media projects to be able to get activities executed professionally, on budget and in a way that impresses the client.  I just don’t see a lot of PR firms even thinking this way yet, let alone hiring these kinds of people (Even if they decide to do, then please give them freedom and money to work their way out).  This will continue to be a huge hole for most agencies, and the shops that come around and get this right, will have a huge leg up on their competition.

2)      Like PR social media can be charged on retainer basis: Most bloggers expect some form of compensation when they market brands, products or services.  There is a cost to acquiring fans in Facebook.  It takes time to drive a Twitter following.  And creating content to fuel social media channels can be expensive if done well. Then on what basis the agency can arrive at a retainer fees? Social Media agencies have a call-centre type set-up in the back end to respond to queries, feedback or even monitor what’s been spoken about the client in this large universe. A retainer fees similar to what is being paid in India, will no way be able to cover these overhead expenses.

3)      There is nothing technical about social media: Increasingly, social media is becoming a technology play.  From Facebook applications to games, brands are using new technologies to reach and engage with their communities, on the web and on mobile. And while I have great respect for my PR community – I’ve worked with a lot of really smart people – I’ve just got to say: they are, on the whole, not the most tech-savvy group I know.  Yes, the kids right out of college get it, and there are some very tech-focused PR execs, but many VPs and CEOs often can’t manipulate their own Blackberries, let alone use a QR code scanner.  They may be familiar with the buzzwords, but they have no hands-on experience. Just try and throw some very tactical social media related problems at them and you may get what I am talking about.

So how is this group going to be able to embrace, sell in, and deliver on technologies that will create or enhance social opportunities? In PR you can get away with showering your bookish gyan on your clients, but by simply reading some tech/SM blogs you cannot get on using the tools in its most creative way. To be able to successfully steer the Social Media ship you need to be hands-on with each and every tool.


I am in no way trying to disregard my own community but simply trying to say that PR agencies need to rethink their social media strategies. I may be wrong but the recent Exchange 4 Media’s Indian Digital Media Awards had not even one PR agency, even in the nominations’ list.

The bottom line: though PR seems to have the creative and storytelling capabilities that fuel a lot of what social is, most firms lack skillsets that they need to be able to deliver an integrated social media approach.   This will keep some firms hopping for a while until they figure out how to plug the holes, or else they’ll just decide not to play in the social media game.

Is your PR firm plugging the social media knowledge gaps or abdicating to others?  Are you frustrated or elated at the direction this is going?  I would like to hear from you….


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Categorised in: Public Relations, Social Media

7 Responses »

  1. PR agencies in India have by and large failed to evolve to global standards. Both in terms of providing comprehensive and strategic reputation management services and in using new media tools effectively. Their best bet would be to team up with leading global communications networks and gain from their technological and communications expertise.

    • I agree with you but not totally. The global communications networks may be good with their internationally recognized best practices, but when it comes to understanding India and its dynamics they somehow do not meet the expectations.

  2. Nice Article.

    In my personal opinion, the way forward is to first focus on the overlap between traditional PR and digital PR. Take what we are good at doing to the SM platforms.

    There is a need for information to be disseminated not only as Emails but simultaneously as podcasts, Youtube clips, SM Release – only then can we achieve the desired positioning across platforms.

    Would like to hear your thoughts on way forward..

  3. Really enjoyed reading this Vikram. I agree with your point that we in PR can probably identify stories which will help build a better reputation for our clients, but when it comes to utilizing them on social media, we are ill equipped since we do not know how use the medium to our fullest advantage. However, I am not sure that even the social media agencies can get this right. Apart from technologically advanced solutions like games and graphics, the biggest change is the move to two way communication from a monologue. After all, a meaningful social media presence can only be created if a brand shares the relevant messages with its TG and responds to queries from TG in real time. The way customers operate today, it is very tough to guarantee such rapid flow of communication. Remember, we are not talking about lip service here and proper information dissemination.

    • You are right, the right method will be to create a different business model and develop a hybrid workflow with experts from both sides and should be managed by the leader who understands both the system and is hands on with the latest technology. Also pricing should be right, a petty sum of 50k to 1 Lakh will not do justice to this high man-power intensive job.

  4. I’d perhaps argue that you may be trying to club ‘digital’ and ‘social’ together. Whereas digital is largely a paid media domain, social is predominantly a content-driven domain that is complemented by paid media support as appropriate/where needed.

    It is the content-driven part of social media (not digital media) that makes it easier for PR agencies to adopt this practice and integrate it tightly with other PR/communications services. Of course, merely creating content is not enough and it needs adequate promotion to make it both visible and discoverable. Earlier, with mainstream media, PR agencies depended on promoting content through ‘contacts’ – in the social media space, mere contacts alone may not be enough, since there are many other avenues (paid and organic) to promote it.

    But you seem to be focusing more on the promotion itself in point 1 – what matters is the content; promotion is a necessary add-on and can be outsourced or planned internally (within PR agencies) given the constant need.

    Point 2 too assumes that the paid media part does not make it appropriate for the retainer model – but the content-based approach does make it apt for the retainer model, I believe. It is simply a matter of looking at the client’s objective and plot the content requirement over a period of time and create that content regularly. And of course, share and promote it.

    Social media technicalities are not as difficult as website building technicalities, if I were to address point 3.


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Disclaimer: The thoughts expressed by me in this blog are my personal views and do not represent the views of my employer or the organizations I have been associated with. I believe in the principle of sharing information. Feel free to link to any of the posts in this blog.
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