I came across 2 divergent pieces of posts last week. Arun Sudhaman of The Holmes Report writes, “PR firms are finally realizing the opportunity to provide the kinds of services that, in the digital worldâ??s short history, have tended to be associated with their peers from the worlds of advertising and marketing” and poses the question, “Is the PR world, and the clients that it services, ready for this transformation?“.

He goes on to explain it with the spate of recent acquisitions by PR firms across the globe in expanding their capabilities.

On the other hand, we have Stephanie Schwab, in Jason Falls’ Social Media Explorer using three themes – marketing budgets, technology and advertising – to outline why PR firms may not win social media business.

I agree that Arun’s piece is more about current state of affairs on the back of some recent, high-profile acquisitions and Stephanie’s is a piece of opinion. But the crux is the question – is PR geared to own social media, as an integrated piece?

Let us approach this across the obvious three.

1. Earned media – PR rules!

Earned media demands the classic PR approach – instead of dealing with mainstream media, you deal with opinions, online, wherever they are aired. PR agencies are better equipped to prioritize and address these opinions for the benefit of client brands.

2. Owned media – The Grey Wall!
Long back, owned media meant a website. Or a microsite. And there were specific agencies for this – they knew coding and they knew sitemaps. The content was largely slapdash material made possible by smart client representatives. These days, owned media may mean a whole lot of things…from a Facebook page, to a LinkedIn Group…to a Twitter profile or even a Ning community.

One part of all this (including websites) is the technical and operational aspects – coding, server, design, post-build SEO etc. There are specific agencies to handle this and there is no specific advantage for a PR agency or an advertising firm to butt in. Coordination costs are something scoffed at, at many client organizations (the procurement department, in particular), so revenue-wise too, it doesn’t add much. Where PR firms can still add value and win the coordination-cost battle is in being the owner of the objective behind each owned media vehicle.

Any owned media property that is being planned for the long run is better aligned with PR than advertising. And, this is the right time to express my annoyance towards shorter-span, time-bound, campaign-specific owned media vehicles. They just add to the clutter online and are orphaned just because an advertising firm’s ego did not allow it to work with a PR-created and sustained owned media vehicle of the client. Or, because both budgets are decided in adjacent rooms with titanium-grade walls in between. That is so darn sad, since the client loses money, as I had explained in this earlier post.

3. Paid media – Advertising rules. By sheer legacy.
But, with a rider. I agree that marketing budgets are huge and globally, agency commission is the way to get some off it in the absence of regular retainers that PR firms enjoy – but a phenomenally huge chunk of those obscene marketing dollars still go towards media buying. And the negotiation between clients and advertising agencies in either using pan-agency creds and might to bring down media costs or in reducing the already-piddly agency commission is well known, though it is discussed vocally only after at least 15 tequila shots.

Incidentally, if I was allowed a minor plug to illustrate a point, we (as in, Edelman) handle earned and paid media mighty well, across the world.

The point of all this is simply this: PR is better suited to talk online about the larger messaging and story arc, while advertising agencies are better suited to talk the shorter, sales-driven communication burst. The irony is that large players across both PR and advertising can gobble/work with appropriate partners to make the integrated piece happen seamlessly for clients – as simple as that.

To sum up, PR could earn better while billing lesser, and advertising agencies could bill higher, while earning lesser. What is lacking amidst all this is something I had outlined in my earlier post.

For PR, we have a client-side PR head. Or a communication manager. His job is to align internal stakeholders’ priorities and be the appropriate voice of the brand, with or without a PR firm in tow. For marketing, almost all clients have a marketing head, who’s job is to align internal stakeholders’ (sounds familiar?) priorities and work with assorted firms to deliver. If both these heads are dipping into the social media/digital ocean to deliver some/many of their objectives, where is the digital lead, to align (here we go again!) internal priorities and be the single voice of strategy, messaging and execution of all-things-digital?

The brands/organizations that already have this role seem to have understood the need and importance of this role. More than managing external vendors like PR, advertising or dedicated social media firms, it is handling internal priorities and objectives that is more critical, considering PR and marketing teams, internally, have their own, divergent agendas and commensurate budgets. A digital lead/head is not a technical pro in coding or a design expert or even a social media socializer (!!) with gazillion followers on Twitter – he is simply someone with a voice and perspective, in the best interest of his brand/organization, out to coordinate digital efforts. Needless to add, he should be able to talk sense, both internally and with external vendors.

Social media is definitely not rocket science – it is merely a function of getting the objective, tools and tone right, in that order. Any decent firm or a combination of decent firms with assorted capabilities can make this happen. The missing link is the client. We have multiple clients, in plural, from a single organization, working with multiple firms for digital and social media efforts. We need to stop ruminating on this ‘who owns’ or ‘who will win’ business – social media should be owned and driven by clients. Agencies help clients ideate, execute and scale. It is up to a dedicated digital resource at the client side to figure out the best firm or a combination of firms to deliver that, for his/her internal stakeholders.

Right now, the war of the ownership (or the lack of it) exists only because there are way too many people, from every single client, speaking to way too many firms. In time, clients will realize that this is an incredible waste of time, effort and of course, money. When they do realize that, they would naturally make someone internally responsible to manage the inter-departmental digital mess. Then, it is up to the best equipped PR or advertising or digital firm to convince that person about their collective set of capabilities. Who knows…the twain could even meet and work together, because the collective digital pie may be incredibly huge!