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Why PR agencies must play a more supportive role in social media

Posted by Danny Whatmough on 8th June 2010

Forrester’s Sean Corcoran has a really interesting blog post looking at the role agencies have to play in a social media world. He makes a valid point about how different types of agencies (e.g. PR, advertising, WOM etc.) have different skills etc. they can bring to the social media table.

But, it is the second part of his post that is the most revealing and also challenging for PR agencies:

“Yet the reality is while many of these agencies are helping their clients with strategy and even organizational structure, they’re mainly playing a support role. Why? Because most marketers want to have the conversations directly with their customers. They don’t want a middle man either talking for them or adding another layer of people to the communication process. As one social marketer recently told us, their agency acts as their arms and legs, ears and eyes, sometimes their brain but NEVER their mouth. Only employees are allowed to talk to their customers. And while some companies, usually ones with limited resources (like some in the B2B space), do allow their agencies to speak on their behalf, we have found it is becoming very uncommon (we’ll have data on this soon). “

It is an opinion and viewpoint that we have been mulling over and debating at Wildfire recently. Debby wrote a blog post last month which sums this up well:

“…ultimately we believe it is our responsibility to equip clients with the training, skills and confidence to help them find an authentic voice and engage in the conversation themselves over time…

“We understand that this isn’t going to happen overnight, and there will always be a need for agencies to provide the manpower to run campaigns when internal resources aren’t available.  But on the whole, we think it’s better that we guide [our clients] through the social media maze and assist you in building relationships directly with [their] audiences, rather than continue to act as another wall between [them] and [their]  customers.”

This is a big shift for many PR agencies, used to playing a very tactical day-to-day role in the life of their clients. Moving to a more strategic, supportive role will be hard for many.

It will be tough for many brands too as, rather than simply outsourcing a PR function, there is now a direct challenge to get their hands dirty and ‘muck in’.

This ‘hand-in-hand’ partner role is one we’ve always advocated and is one we’ll continue to evangelise about as it becomes more and more relevant.

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