Savvy PR Firms Could Soon Rule Native Ads and Social Campaigns

Who's Going to Eat Your Lunch?

By Published on .

I don't know how many examples it takes to define a trend, but two recent Ad Age stories about public-relations firms point to a notable shift in the advertising landscape.

"Edelman Moves Into Paid Space" announces that the public-relations firm will focus on the integration of paid media with social-media programs.

Another headline reads,"Weber Shandwick Sets Up New Unit To Capitalize on Content Marketing Craze." This new unit, the article explains, will market native advertising and digital-media buying.

To summarize: two of the largest public-relations firms are going into the advertising business. It's not a blind leap into new markets, but rather a natural extension of their evolving content-marketing strategies.

You could deride this as an opportunistic ploy to get a bigger piece of the marketing budget. Or you could acknowledge the truth: forward-thinking public-relations firms have been more adept than advertising agencies at grasping the strategic implications of content marketing, which now includes an important paid-media component.

In general, public-relations firms have been quicker to adapt to the changing social-media landscape. It's not just the big players like Edelman and Weber Shandwick. Independent firms such as Shift Communications and Digital Influence Group saw social media, and in turn content marketing, as a natural extension of their mission.

It's important to note that public-relations firms aren't banging down doors to break into the traditional advertising world of print and television, at least not yet. Rather, they're smartly taking advantage of opportunities that have come their way. For example, the concept of native advertising -- embedding paid content in an editorial environment so that it is barely distinguishable from the journalistic information around it -- is conceptually the same as placing press releases that look like independent journalism. It's a natural fit for public-relations firms.

These firms come to this new world with advantages. They understand the publishing business and have a long tradition of collaborating with publishers to create content. And they get that content marketing is not only about creating interesting material; it is equally about managing the distribution of content through all of the social channels. With the major social platforms like Facebook and Twitter introducing paid-media opportunities, the public-relations firms simply are climbing on board.

From a business perspective, here's one way to envision this shift. Imagine a pie chart with slices carved out for advertising and public relations. Now imagine an animation where a big piece of the advertising slice moves into the public-relations piece of the pie. It makes your heart beat faster just thinking about it.

To remain relevant, and become valuable partners with our clients in the development of content strategies, advertising agencies will need to adapt in three important ways.

First, we love to make stuff: ads, social campaigns and viral videos. As a result, we're organized into departments that support the production of discrete communication elements. The problem is that content marketing is a fluid, ongoing enterprise. It's more like running a daily newspaper than publishing a collection of books. We won't get really good at content marketing without modifying our business model to accommodate this difference.

Second, advertising agencies need to abandon the distinction between advertising and public relations. Agencies should leverage their growing social-media expertise to integrate earned media -- traditionally the realm of public relations -- into their practices. This will make them much more effective as content marketers.

Third, we need to increase our focus on content distribution. For all the thought and creativity that we invest in the creation of cool stuff, we need to put an equal amount of thought and creativity into its distribution through all available channels.

Advertising agencies that adapt will maintain leadership in the world of paid media and expand their expertise into the world of earned and owned media as well. Who knows? Pretty soon public-relations firms and the most successful advertising agencies may look pretty much the same.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson.
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