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March 13, 2010
Who Should Handle My Company's Social Media Initiative?

Who handles a business’ social media initiatives?

A. The Digital Agency
B. The Ad Agency
C. The Marketing Agency
D. The PR Agency
E. All of the Above

Admittedly, this is a silly way to open my column. (Undergrads, the correct answer is “E, All of the Above.”) However, ask your client this same question. Next, ask them how many of the agencies they do business with have pitched social media projects in the past year. The fact is the full spectrum of communications agencies are competing -- often tooth and nail -- to grab as large a piece of your client’s social media budget as they can. While each agency can make a legitimate claim to carrying out social media initiatives, it may just fall to you to convince the client that your agency is the one to entrust with social media.

In this writer’s opinion, one of those generic agencies listed in the question above holds a considerable advantage over the rest of the field when it comes to social media, and if you, dear reader, are an employee of one of the these agencies, you may just be surprised by my pick. If so, hear me out as I try to explain my stance.

It’s the PR Agency. (Full disclosure: I spent a year in Washington, D.C. working at a public relations agency with some brilliant PR minds.)

Digital Gal, hold your retort. Ad Guy, don’t get your cardigan in a twist. I do not mean to say you two can’t do social media. What I am getting at here is that social media is a medium more in line with what PR practitioners have been cultivating an expertise in for decades.

Before I write anything more on this point, I want you to do me a favor and dispel your preconceived notions of the PR flak. I’m not talking about P.T. Barnum or about war-bond propaganda, and I am definitely not talking about the slimy spin doctor. What I am talking about is the relations part of public relations.

As David Ogilvy said, “If it doesn't sell, it isn't creative.” At the core of exceptional advertising and marketing is The Sell. At the core of exceptional PR is The Message. In the two previous sentences, I want you to substitute the term "social media" in place of “advertising and marketing” in the first sentence and “PR” in the second. In which sentence does “social media” sound more appropriate? The latter, of course.

If a social media initiative is too obvious about The Sell, then the community will ignore or reject it. John Q. Public doesn’t use Twitter and Facebook to be inundated with “buy this” messaging. J.Q uses these networks to maintain relationships, and this is what we as communications professionals need to understand about the nature of the beast. True social media campaigns are about creating and fostering a relationship between the consumer and the brand, a goal that is achieved with the right messaging.

I recently visited a leading ad agency, where one of the ad men I met stated that he tells his clients it is actually a good thing to be a little afraid at the onset of a campaign. This is an excellent mantra to apply to social media since committing to this medium is not without its risks. Unfettered access to these communities in turn means unfettered feedback from these communities (i.e. the infamous Motrin versus Mommy Bloggers debacle). PR practitioners have a name for handling that kind of thing: crisis communications. Better yet, a PR flak might just be able to foresee these issues before they arise, something that can be an invaluable asset during the planning phase.

Have you ever been handed a media policy document by management? If you are unfamiliar, a media policy outlines procedure and talking points for an organization’s staff when speaking with journalists. More likely, you have been handed a social media policy guideline, as more of us engage in social media than speak with journalists. If you had both documents in your hand, you would be quick to see the similarities. Most social media policies I’ve seen appear to have been adapted from media guidelines.

Granted, this covers merely a portion of what goes into executing a quality social media campaign. The digital agency will use its development chops to craft unique user experiences. The ad agency and its creatives will come up with new, fun ways to engage users. The marketing agency will rely on methodology and research to ensure success. Yet if your agency is working in the social realm, take the time to read up on PR 101. It will make you better at your job and give your agency an edge as it struggles to become your client’s go-to firm for social media.



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Justin Celko is a digital communications professional based in Chicago, IL. Follow him on Twitter.

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