Ad and PR Agencies Tackle Social Media Differently


The public relations agency industry in the U.S. has fared better than most marketing/communications disciplines in this recession for two reasons: the surge in importance of social media, and a much greater awareness by top executives of the importance of PR.

In a matter of hours, a few negative comments on Facebook, Twitter or any number of other online sites can spread quickly to a global,

"What’s that I hear? Oh, geez... it's a Facebook stampede of unfriendly friends. Robin, get the Batmobile ready to rock & roll. Fast, before they ruin the reputations of the Powers That Be." "Holy emoticons, Batman! We gotta get there before they reach the C-suite!"

Internet-wide audience, as well as to offline media. As result of online and other corporate crises that have crippled companies recently, the work we do in PR, especially in reputation and crisis management, has suddenly become more visible to and valued by CEOs, CMOs and other top managers.  So, while companies have cut ad budgets, PR budgets haven’t been so badly affected, and some have actually grown.

A lot has been written about ad agencies working hard to get a piece of the social media pie, and succeeding.  But this doesn’t mean that ad agencies are taking PR agencies’ slice of the pie.  To better understand the role of advertising and PR in social media, we need to examine the role of each in social media.

We could view social media networks as both opportunities for promotion and as an ongoing challenge to the management of both corporate and product reputations.

The public relations industry is best equipped to take charge of the reputation management aspects of social media, hands down.  Advertising professionals are trained to send out messages crafted just the way the marketing department wants them.  However, social media networks are another ball of wax.  The audience answers back, and sometimes not in a positive way.

Ad agencies aren’t accustomed to two-way dialogue with the audience, nor are they trained to respond without being promotional, which is all-important when communicating in a social media network.  This, however, is exactly what PR professionals do well. When we provide journalists with information in a way that communicates carefully crafted messaging, we can’t guarantee they will use the information the way we want, or use it at all. It takes a great deal of skill to present a company’s messages to the media succinctly and persuasively, and then to respond quickly and honestly to journalists’ doubts and criticisms in a way that will serve a company well.  This process has prepared us for dealing with people in social media networks.

But now for the promotional potential of social media: promotion is where ad agencies excel, although the PR industry is holding its own in this area, also.  The way I see it, ad agencies are using social media as an extension of their traditional creative skills. The Old Spice campaign, for example, consists of a series of video ads that are spread around virally using networks such as Twitter. Ad Week noted in an article this summer that, “The [Old Spice] effort proves that ad agencies can use the social media tools at their disposal to embed their work as deeply in digital culture as their offline ads are seeded in popular culture.”  The same article quoted blogger Edward Bocches, Chief Creative Officer at Interpublic Group ad agency Mullen, who said that what’s new is the expectation that the creative teams in ad agencies will come up with new material in response to what is happening online within hours, rather than in the weeks.

Ad agencies may be deploying new tools (i.e., Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) for the delivery of ads and sales promotion, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing a different kind of work than they were doing before.  I don’t see ad agencies going after the public dialogue aspects of social media.  Public dialogue is the traditional domain of PR agencies, whether the dialogue is online, in traditional media, in speeches, or wherever it takes place.  Ad agencies are focusing their social media efforts on promotion, using humor, fun, sexiness, and other such attention-getting devices.

The advertising and public relations industries have never worked well together. What’s really evident to me is that we had better start to do so now, for the sake of our clients.  Since we’re playing in the same sandbox and using the same tools, it’s more important than ever for advertising and PR professionals to understand each other’s disciplines better and work in greater harmony.

Lucy Siegel

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4 Responses to “Ad and PR Agencies Tackle Social Media Differently”

  1. Sandra Holtzman Says:

    Being a marketer with roots in both PR and advertising I tend to agree with the comments in the posting although I don’t believe PR has come that far forward in the social networking world either. Where marketing/advertising fails for sure is in missing the opportunity to create a dialogue and partnership with the customer as opposed to straight “selling” as is the common practice. Branding done smart, is the partnership of the customer (all stakeholders) and the client. Most clients don’t understand this shift, and if they can’t understand it, they can’t practice it. Customer-focused marketing addresses this shift and gives customers what they want in the way they want it. Large clients have traditionally been more comfortable dictating their messages. This is what is getting them in trouble in social media. The old way is: here’s our website (as an example). We give out just enough information to hook you into getting interested then sell, sell, sell. The new way is: you have a problem. We’ll help solve it. Here are multiple solutions. Oh, and by the way, this site is sponsored by the client. Big difference. Clients who use a customer-focused approach, automatically get built in differentiators from their competition and increased ROI, because customers respond better and more often to this methodology.

    • Bridge Global Strategies Says:

      Sandra, good points. Many people have summed up what you’re saying as pull vs push. Advertising people have a really hard time not being promotional. So do many people who have marketing backgrounds but have never been PR consultants or worked as journalists (I’ve done both). What you describe as “the new way” is actually the way a good PR professional has always worked with journalists.

  2. German Saa Says:

    In a market where the so-called ‘traditional print’ media is still King, two-way communication (the one offered by PR) is still the most cost-effective way to get the client’s point across and receive feedback almost immediately… Giant advert agencies seem to present us (PR) as “part of their services” in parallel campaigns but the differences and short-comings pop up almost automatically. It goes to the old basic way of explaining the differences between PR and Advertising in Communications 101:
    “Love me” –> Advertising
    “Believe me”–>PR
    Alas! a new act in the circus (Social Media), well, I think if we stick to the same principles, both disciplines should be able to cooperatively in some case and separately in others, work seamlessly for the benefit of our clients, of course first understanding the intricacies of how these new ways of reaching target audiences work and second using them as effective senders & receivers of messages…

    • Bridge Global Strategies Says:

      German, have to laugh – “Love me” or “believe me!” I agree with everything you said. Someone wrote predictions recently on what PR would be like 10 years from now and one of them was that some of the currently conglomerate-owned (otherwise known as ad agency-dominated communications company-owned) multinational PR companies will do LBOs and win their independence back from the conglomerates. I think it was Paul Holmes who wrote this and his remark was that being conglomerate-owned isn’t helping those companies, at least not recently with the demise of traditional advertising.

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