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The line between digital and PR isn’t just blurred, it’s practically non-existent

The world of PR is evolving quickly, with clients increasingly expecting agencies to wear multiple hats, from the more traditional media relations, to SEO and website design. Senior Consultant Kam Arkinstall discusses these changes following a recent PRCA event.

Last week, I attended an event hosted by the PRCA entitled ‘What will a PR professional look like in 2020?’ As speaker Cindy Simmons of the MPA rightly pointed out, this is a very difficult question to answer.

Five years ago, Twitter users were sending about 50 million tweets a day. That may sound like a lot, but today that figure is 500 million. In the same time frame, Facebook has grown from about 500 million users, to 1.4 billion. Meanwhile, Instagram was only launched in 2010, while Snapchat was still just a student project idea. I’m sure you see where I’m going with this.

The tools and platforms that PR professionals need to understand – and even have mastery of – have changed so staggeringly in the last five years, that predicting where we will be five years from now seems near impossible.

New skills needed – the rise of digital

So impossible was the question in fact, that none of the speakers at the PRCA event really tackled it. Instead, the discussion ranged over the changes and challenges facing people in PR today – essentially looking at the things that may impact on what PR will look like in 2020, without making predictions.

The PRCA’s Digital PR report, released mid-September, illustrates the changing nature of PR and what is expected of PR agencies. The report found, in the past year in particular, that the industry has seen huge growth in digital expectation; whether working in-house or in an agency setting, PR professionals should be able to deliver digital services.

The biggest growth in expectation was around SEO (20% growth); blogger outreach (18% growth); online advertising/PPC (14% growth); and online reputation management (14%). Agencies also reported an increasing demand from clients for them to take the lead on website design and build services.

Upskilling or understanding?

One message that came across strongly throughout the evening was the changing make-up of PR agency staff. Agencies are taking on people with skills in (for example) digital content creation and social media, as opposed to the more traditional media relations. They are also trying to ‘upskill staff’ in digital areas, and there was much talk of PR professionals moving away from the skills that were their ‘bread and butter’ at the start of their careers.

This was a very familiar topic for me, as I’m actually one of those new people entering the PR world – someone with a digital content, website development, and social media background.

I’m not the first addition to the team in this respect. My colleague Simon Donohue, Head of Content at Intelligent Conversation, is now nearly two years into his role, and Content Executive Sarah Chambers is one year in.

These latest industry developments do raise some interesting questions in relation to the evolving role of PR agencies. Should we expect staff to be skilled in every aspect of digital and traditional media? How should agencies work together for clients? Should a particular type of agency – digital, PR, advertising – be taking the lead on the brand strategy?

An excellent point was made during the course of the evening: Do we all need to know how to do everything, or do we just need to understand it? In other words, it’s sometimes best to work with other agencies who are expert in the areas you don’t have the skills in, rather than trying to be all things to all people.

It was, quite rightly, acknowledged that even if you can’t do something yourself, if you understand it, you can have an intelligent discussion with your client about it.

A blurred line or no line?

The ‘blurred lines’ between PR and digital were referred to several times during the evening. However, as all the speakers acknowledged, the two are now very much hand in hand and set on a course to become ever more closely linked. Based on the findings of the PRCA’s report and the discussions at the event, it seems to me that there’s no blurred line, in fact there isn’t a line at all.