Innovation in PR: Digital Tools

This article is part of a series of thought leadership expert pieces for Digital DNA Northern Ireland in preparation for their June 2016 conference.  Innovation is one of this year’s themes…

Innovation; noun - a new method, process, product, etc.

Innovation, like disruption, has been called a business buzz word but in its essence is change, and the benefits it brings don’t just apply to product industries.

It’s a question that’s been debated many times in recent years - ‘what is the future of Public Relations and how do we get there?’

There have been calls for innovation, new ways of thinking and doing, to keep up with an economy that is flying ahead in terms of digital technology, staff resourcing and consumer engagement.

And here we are, still emailing and telephoning press release pitches to news desks.

It’s a good thing we’re not using fax machines, or you’d stop reading right now…

Service Offering Innovation

Calls for innovation have come, in part, because of the advancement of Content Marketing - or Inbound PR.

Content Marketing is simply when owned media (i.e. blogs, social channels, images, speeches, videos, eBooks) is used in a cohesive plan publishing content in specific places to target specific audiences and achieve a specific outcome (more often than not, online).

Realistically, this tactic is new in nothing more than name.

It could be argued that the Content Marketing industry has been around for well over a century. The American agriculture company John Deere is often credited as the pioneer with their publication “The Furrow” which, originally printed in 1895.

Whatever you term it, as a process it is undoubtedly important in proactively creating media opportunities. Optimising websites and press releases, engaging meaningfully with audiences on social media and increasing search engine rankings are just some of the outputs forward-thinking PR agencies now deliver as part of their service offering.

The problem for the PR industry - and the mammoth opportunity for the business community - is that media relations has remained their bread and butter. And the online media landscape is drastically different to the old days of print.

All the secrets to Do-It-Yourself have now been exposed. Journalists no longer have PR gatekeepers and even when they do, they’d rather talk to business owners and startup founders anyway. Finding, pitching and building relationships with the media is now anyone’s game.

With this in mind, Digital Marketing agencies are swooping in, not only offering the content production and media relations work, but also the more technical (and lucrative) online advertising trade.

PR service providers must stay ahead in terms of digital tools and skills to compete for future clients.

Top Digital Tool: 

As content moves increasingly visual, free tools like are making it even easier for organisations to communicate everything from statistics to stories in a slick design format suitable for social and digital channels. Mainstream media are also incorporating more of this type of content into their coverage and it strengthens pitches when accompanying press releases.

Service Delivery Innovation

The most strikingly slow area of innovation within PR is in the service delivery and pricing models.

Modern PR agencies are pitching products and services in a way that old-school businesses recognise, maybe even feel comfortable with, but which don’t necessarily fit with how modern businesses operate.

Giving them what they might want, but not necessarily what they need.

Here, too, technology is advancing how some PR agencies are delivering for clients. Freelance subcontractors, 24-hour teams and global network alliances are allowing even the smallest of agencies to deliver on a global scale across cultures and continents.

Take The PR Network, for example, who are utilising online project management systems, niche skilled freelancers and personalised services. Here in Northern Ireland, local agency Serious PR has been offering a similar approach for some years.

Unfortunately though, this innovative model is fairly unique. For the most part the industry still operates a generic retainer offering: staff costs billed by the hour, set hours per month with extra billed on top, unnecessary management tiers of directors whose job it is to wine and dine to win new clients…

In a modern age of round-the-clock social media with an increasingly PR-able community of startups who can do much of the leg work themselves requiring only higher level strategic advice sporadically; this old model is outdated, no longer fit for purpose and basically, not worth the investment.

For the same round-the-clock-need-for-highly-skilled-digital reasons, this model will also soon, become unprofitable.

The PR industry will need to look to peers in the startup community, FinTech, Digital Marketing and beyond to learn how better to utilise the digital landscape and the various tools and skills within it, if they want to deliver a more personalised, tailored service to the next generation of businesses.

Otherwise, they will find themselves consistently accused of over-pricing and under-delivering.

Top Digital Tool:

There are numerous automation tools available to streamline PR processes, from social scheduling software such as Hootsuite, Sprout Social and Buffer, to tools like Coverage Book to save time on even the most basic task of reporting back to clients.

Service Team Innovation

Of course, you need more than products and services to deliver for clients. You need good people behind them.

The needs of a modern workforce and the increasing skill set required to produce high quality content and technical prowess to clients also demands industry innovation.

PR agencies have a bad reputation when it comes to people management. From “slave-labour” internships accessible only to wealthy students resulting in a diversity gap, to the first-in-last-out mentality of overworked employees churned at a high rate and burning out mentally before their 30s, when they seek some respite and career development in an in-house role.

This is an industry that will struggle to lure the best writers, digital marketers and data scientists, who could instead go play ping-pong and bring their dogs to work in a cool new startup down the road.

Equally problematic, is the traditional PR agency’s need for good “all-rounders”; folk who can do a bit of this and a bit of that. Even once recruited, a digital specialist doesn’t fit easily across their project team structures.

Add to that the fact that they’re either asking applicants for a Digital Diploma (trust me, they don’t teach you how to do the job) or they’re seeking a multitude of skills from graphic design to advanced PPC, all wrapped up in an inexperienced graduate so they can pay them buttons…

Staff recruitment, retention and development then, is an area that could definitely benefit from some innovative thinking.

Top Digital Tool: 

Asana is one of a multitude of project management and team-working programmes that allows for flexibility among teams. At , we use it to work through all design, eCommerce, digital marketing and social media jobs across a geographically dispersed team, half of whom work outside the office base and outside office hours.

Service Evaluation Innovation

Despite the traditional argument that PR is “part-art-part-science”, Public Relations jobs were predominantly filled with good writers, skilled communicators and blue-sky-thinking ideas people.

There was, and remains, a deficit of skilled data folk. That’s a problem when analytics has become the bedrock of modern campaign evaluation.

In the most forward-thinking of agencies digital is now the cornerstone of performance scrutiny. We may try to measure public sentiment, we may even attempt to prove awareness raising, but the modern business wants more.

They want concrete value evidence.

Beyond traditional PR services like media coverage, modern agencies are on a steep learning curve of measuring data from blog domain rankings, search engine optimisation (SEO), technical up-skilling in areas such as video production, measuring social media activity and finding ways to automate as much as possible to free up time for creativity, content production and long-term campaign planning.

By utilising innovative tools modern PR can try to bridge the gap between outputs and outcomes, and show real bottom-line value to businesses.

Top Digital Tool:

Answer The Client connects to a Google Analytics account and does great things for a PR report. Once online media coverage URLs are pasted in, the tool links the traffic source to website visitors producing an immediate (and easy to understand) snapshot of how much traffic was generated by the PR coverage, as well as any goal and/or transaction value created.

But all of these innovative practices are far from widespread.

Admittedly the industry is learning and innovating, just not as fast as the business community it is serving needs it to.

Regardless of the industry you’re in, digital technologies are arming all of us with a wide variety of innovations in products, service delivery and processes.

We know for a fact that innovative business who utilise these technologies perform better and are ultimately more successful.

More than that, however, in future, lack of innovation may result in some business models dying out completely…

Survive or thrive.

This article is part of a series of thought leadership expert pieces for Digital DNA Northern Ireland in preparation for their June 2016 conference.  Innovation is one of this year’s themes.