Beware of “Digital PR” Specialists when You Really Need PR Help

First rule of business For the past 20 or so years, I’ve used the Internet extensively in my work. For the past 10 years or so, social media has become integral to what I do for clients and in my profession. If you count the hours I spend on these platforms, you’d think I should have earned expert status by now, but I don’t go there.

When a client has a complex social media or digital issue, I can honestly say that I know what I don’t know. That means that I know when to bring in a strategic partner to complement my core competencies.  Yes, I can pretty quickly assess a situation, including the full range of digital ones, to determine the impact or potential impact on a client.  That tells me enough to know when I can handle it, and when it may make more sense to bring in someone better trained to address that part of the situation.

For this reason, O’Brien Communications stays true to its focus as a corporate communications firm, which is to say, if you can imagine having a senior level communications pro with a particular skillset at your disposal, that’s me. And when you need design, research, SEO and other types of service, I can form a team pretty quickly.

This all brings me to a relatively new communications animal that all too often doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know. I’m talking about the “digital PR” pro.

I’m not talking about the pro with a true public relations background and has developed a strong digital PR capability. I’m talking about the ad writer or content creator who has an advertising or SEO background who now says he or she can do PR.

The operative word is “digital.” It’s quite likely that when you meet with someone who calls himself or herself a digital PR pro, the focus and true area of strength is digital.  That individual will likely give you great advice on search engine optimization (SEO), key words, which tools to use to measure and institute a comprehensive online program, and how to assess and maximize your online budget.

Second rule of businessWhat you won’t always get is good advice on the larger PR strategies and tactics that you may require, even if they do involve digital. Case in point, news releases.

Today, digital distribution of news releases is the norm. A well-rounded PR pro will tell you that news releases serve multiple purposes, from adhering to disclosure requirements from the Securities Exchange Commission, to providing a communications messaging platform for other communications initiatives.  While every news release should be newsworthy, the process for creating each news release usually aids everything from internal communications to analyst outreach.  In other words, a good PR pro knows that news releases serve multiple internal and external purposes, and that not every news release is designed to appeal to a national consumer audience on the front page of USA Today or land a spot on Good Morning America.

All too often, however, digital PR pros are likely to shun news releases when they are not capable of seeing beyond the limited consumer newsworthiness of those releases. They see development of a news release as an either-or, mutually exclusive decision, preferring instead to recommend blog posts and Facebook posts.   In some circumstances, that ignores the larger process at work.

When you meet someone who self-describes as a digital PR specialist, do not accept on face value that this individual is capable of helping you in a crisis, in an issues management situation, or in many other more routine communications scenarios.

Ironically, a digital pro is probably most dangerous in an area where he or she actually has a track record of some success, like publicity. It’s not uncommon for someone who is a whiz at Twitter and Facebook to rack up a media placement or two.  It’s quite common for digital PR pros to think, based on some success, they know more than they do and that PR is easier than it looks.  This can lead to mistakes of overconfidence rooted in lack of more full PR experience.

Here is a short list of areas where digital PR pros are not likely to be a good fit and why:

Public Relations – A digital pro is likely to see PR only as publicity or media relations under the marketing umbrella.  This can be a mistake.  Individuals who do this often believe that the attention that comes with publicity is a cure-all to business problems which perhaps cannot or should not be addressed through PR.  This can break the bank in terms of time and money without ever making a dent in the problem.

Crisis Communications – We see it every day.  A tweet or Facebook post gets taken out of context (or perhaps not), and backlash ensues.  An organization finds itself at the center of a minor or major controversy.  So, the organization turns to the digital pro to fix it, since that is where the problem started.  It should come as no surprise that the digital pro is likely to try to recommend more digital tactics to fix the problem, either through hasty online apologies, explanations, or other communications that only dig a deeper digital hole.  An experienced crisis communicator is likely to come in and force everyone to take a step back and breathe before taking any further actions.

Corporate Communications – In corporate communications, we cover everything from earnings disclosures and annual reports, to speechwriting for CEOs and executive visibility.  All of this tends to be very strategic and should be in line with the organization’s larger business strategies that may include marketing but are not driven by marketing.

This is where the digital PR pro can be a fish out of water. If he or she sees PR primarily as marketing, just about everything within the corporate communications discipline is foreign.  So, instead of doing what more experienced pros do (defer to someone with specialized capabilities), they all too often try to do it themselves, and can end up providing some very misguided marketing advice masquerading as corporate communications.  Make sure you get corporate communications counsel from someone who’s been in the board room on similar issues.

Probably the best advice is simply to read the bio of the person who represents himself or herself as a digital PR pro. Look to see if they are accredited or certified by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) or the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). Find out if prior to this job he or she had any broad public relations experience or training beyond digital.

A red flag to watch for centers on whether the digital pro has come up through the ranks in digital design or advertising with no PR training. Just because someone once wrote content for Web sites does not mean that person understands how to create and implement the kind of comprehensive PR program you need.

If you’d like to talk about this, please feel free to get in touch.

Also published on Medium.

Posted in Content Development & Writing, Corporate & Strategic Communication, General, Marketing Communications, Pittsburgh, PR & Media Relations and tagged , , , , , .