4 Reasons Why PR Agencies Are Taking Over Social Media

with 69 Comments

PR agencies will inevitably own the social media space for big brands. They simply have the right skill set and the right billing model. They have the ability to buy the social media talent needed. And they have something that other social media agencies do not – bigger, more time tested resources for relationship building and research.

1. PR Does Story Telling

At the most basic of levels, writing and story telling is the heart of public relations. It is important to be able to spin an angle, develop a company’s story in a news worthy format, or simply compose a narrative through press releases and conversations.

2. PR Does Relationship Building

Maintaining connections with journalists is old PR (and still important). Today companies need to maintain relationships with influencers. This is a larger scale. These influencers are more numerous and more varied than their journalist counterparts. There are A, B, and C list bloggers, Twitterati, Youtube Stars and the list goes on. Other marketing segments have a lot to learn in this arena.

3. PR Does Crisis Management

The publicity game works both ways, for better or worse. They are out there to push the good, but even more importantly sometimes is having a team to react quickly when bad press hits. This is even more important within social media, where the bad can spread at a blistering pace. No other segment of the marketing community is built well to deal with this exact situation.

4. PR Has the Right Billing Model

All marketing companies share an hourly billing model, but PR bills for ongoing work, not an end product. PR agencies are prepared for a constant effort to get earned media to the right audience, to book event publicity, to leverage partnerships, to cultivate longer term relationships with stakeholders and media.

What PR agencies do you think are leading the way in taking over social media for big brands?

Image Credit ShutterStock.com

69 Responses

  1. Andrew Fowler

    It would be nice if this was true but I'm finding it's the social media agencies that are infringing on PR territory. Most of the large agencies I know are just now getting into SM. I'd say the most notable hybrid shop is Shift Communications run by the guru, maven, ninja, rock star @tdefren.

  2. Jason Kintzler

    Nice! I've said this for a couple years – PR should be the one to carry the torch (http://bit.ly/cl28OO) and help their clients go direct-to-consumer.

    I agree with Andrew about large agencies, however. The problem: Some larger agencies think they have a secret sauce. The result will be more and more small agencies taking big clients away. Hybrid or not, these scrappy, small agencies simply “get it” and are eager to work hard.

    A good PR agency is only as good as its' people – no matter what the size.
    Cowboy hat tip to the hard workers who are getting it done.


  3. jakrose

    I agree Andrew. I think this is the talent gap at play. There are not enough
    social media professionals for all the brands out there that need the
    expertise. And right now the social media agencies are owning things pretty
    well. I think PR firms will steadily take over these roles, it is

  4. jakrose

    Definitely. I agree Jason. I suppose I am talking about looking forward. The
    large PR agencies are beginning to wake up and create social media hubs that
    act very similar to the social media agencies out there, only with more

  5. mrchristopherl

    I don’t think any one single practice agency will “own” PR. Sadly I’ve seen too many of my peers and colleagues refuse to get past the “it’s only a fad” aspect of social media. Then there are those “Big” agencies that now claim Social Media skills because they have a recently reassigned account manager and two interns fresh out of college that made a “cool” Facebook page, and sadly the clients assume because they can do “all that other PR stuff” that they can do the job.

    The sad fact of many social media agencies is that their services barely go past the initial setup of your presence on various platforms.

    We’ve been incorporating and integrating Social Media tools into overall PR and Marketing strategies for communications for several years (In 1996 we were talking about online reputation management when a “sucks.com” website was set up in relation to a client.

    While Twitter, Facebook, & Foursquare are newer tools, blogs, podcasts, wikis, and online PR has been a tool for us for a long time. Over 8 years ago, we realized that individuals would be gathering their news from online and on demand sources and specifically targeted our efforts towards those mediums.

    Here’s a recent case study of our work for a client printed in Meetings: Minnesota’s Hospitality Journal Magazine – http://digital.mn-meetings.com/mn-meetings/2010

    And an interview with Twin Cities Business Magazine’s editor Gene Rebeck about our social media work:

    Christopher Lower
    Sterling Cross Communications
    Traditional Storytelling Integrating Today's Technology

  6. GabrielCarrejo

    I agree that PR does those things but the agencies we are working with and others that I've seen (that think they can do it themselves) have nary a clue when it comes to true digital marketing.

    Social media? Yeah, it's pretty basic when you think about it. What about complete digital asset optimization? The creating, managing, and optimizing the Content Distribution Network? Creating and converting traffic? Not so much.

    Until PR and marketing firms get a grip on this, or hire someone that does (like us #shamelessplug), we'll be picking all kinds of juicy, low-hanging fruit.

  7. Cybes51

    Would be great if this was from an academic journal, becuase it is the exact question I am trying to answer in 2000 words. “Business Case for PR”, will keep looking on ProQuest

  8. Jeremy Pepper

    Those are reasons why it should be in PR, but PR is losing and has been losing the fight for years on social media.

    Heck, wrote it three years ago: http://pop-pr.blogspot.com/2007/10/pr-will-lose

  9. JimBob51

    Unless you actually participate you will never get it – too many PR people think Social Media is a fad and beneath them. It actually takes time to learn and to build an appropriate following

  10. Stuart Foster

    Stop being right.

    That said…agree with almost everything in your article.

    That said? I work for an integrated agency (and one that is better known for its advertising prowess). I think the key to our success has been involving both the PR department AND our creative department in the conversation.

  11. Jeremy Pepper

    Yep, that most likely does help you out more than the silo'ed agencies. But I can tell you horror stories of my conglomerate experience.

    Another thing to ponder: why does PR have such low self-esteem that it has to remake itself with PR 2.0 BS monikers? Is there an Advertising 2.0 or Marketing 2.0 meme out there that I haven't noticed?

  12. Stuart Foster


    PR does seem to have a major case of “scrub” syndrome.

    BUT…I've found that by merely changing the positioning of PR ideas…they are readily received by both advertising aficionados and clients alike.

    The self esteem thing can be damaging. However, if people just mount up and change a few words and throw your chips in with strategy? You'll find that everything that you wanted to do actually gets DONE.

    Oh…and your slides are in the front. ;)

  13. jakrose

    I am not talking about the full industry. I agree that many segments of marketing are and will be agencies of record for Social Media. More broadly and specifically for the big brands, I think the large PR agencies will ultimately win out. They are already doing 100 times more than they were one year ago.

    And yes, many agencies of all kind are merely teaching Twitter and Facebook. But within such a new industry, that is unavoidable. Until the learning curve shortens, there is a big space for people to do very little in and be looked at as saviors.

  14. jakrose

    I never said Social Media is simple. But then again, PR agencies are not filled with people that are stupid. Keep in mind I do not work in PR, but the more I see from all side of the industry, the more I see the large PR agencies are poised to take over the top.

    And they ARE hiring people that have a clue. Edelmen, Weber, Porter, Ogilvy Digital, Ketchum, etc. They may not get down into every specialty of internet marketing in house, but they don't have to.

  15. Lelia King

    I agree with both of you and Jason I like your description of the “scrappy” agencies as the ones that will succeed. Or maybe, just scrappy individuals. Social media requires scrappiness – It's not something for which you can create a formula to follow. Maybe that's why so many individuals are now going for solo careers?

  16. BrandonUttley


    I agree. Of course, I am biased, having worked in public relations for over 20 years. PR has also been encroaching on traditional advertising for many years, even prior to the birth of social media as we now know it.

    The real key is that PR has a seat at the management table, and PR has evolved as a profession for over a century. It's not going away. It really makes sense for PR and social media to merge.

  17. jakrose

    Hence why there is so much hiring of independent social media professionals into large PR agencies right now. They know they need the help and they are getting it.

  18. jakrose

    Thanks for all the great comments. A couple points of clarification. And perhaps a I will do a follow up post to reply to some of the good points below.
    – I am focusing on the big PR agencies
    – I am focusing on Fortune 500 brands
    – I am speaking in broad terms about where things are headed not where they are (which means my title sucks)
    – Mullen is an exception. I don't know what category to put them into really

  19. Gene Wicker Jr

    I don't see this as any different than agencies ignoring the web until they started losing business… or agencies ignoring SEO until they started losing business and so on. Some agencies are still ignoring social media (their loss), but others have drank the Kool-Aid and now offer it as a service.

    I think its wishful thinking that social media is going to fall to PR. Sure there are always companies that turn to PR for everything and then there are others that will turn there for lack of anywhere else to go. Will there be some successes? Sure. Will there be failures. Absolutely.

    It would be my guess that those that really succeed will either do it in-house or turn to agencies that are social media specialists. In five years this may change, but who knows what social media will look like in five years?

    And just because someone can crank out press releases doesn't imply that they can manage conversations on FB, Twitter, etc. One doesn't translate to the other. Its a different line of communication.

    Just some loose thoughts from a loose mind ;-)

  20. Rich Becker


    5. PR feels like it has no choice, because mass media is wounded.

    I honestly think social media requires a multi-disciplined approach, and need not be owned by a single communication subgroup. But it seems the general feeling from public relations is that the industry has the most to lose with less mass media and more niche communication.

    Why is this? I wonder sometimes if this is simply because media relations has dominated the discipline for so long, and now some firms are counting posts and connections as opposed to column inches.

    Something to think about Jason. Enjoyed the perspective.


  21. SherryinAL

    Jason, I completely agree with your premise and the reasons you give, but I don't limit the concept to large agencies. As a PR professional specializing in a vertical market (outdoor sports) for over 20 years, I've always found the advantage my boutique agency held over large agencies, often bringing me my industry's big clients, was my focus on that one market and its attendant media. It lends itself to relationship building on a scale that simply wouldn't be possible if I promoted, say, hunting optics, diapers, automobiles, and cruise lines. That's why the inclusion of (and in some cases, transition to) social media in my PR agency wasn't a stretch for me; it's what I've always done. We just use different tools now.

  22. Dave Linabury

    “PR agencies will inevitably own the social media space for big brands.”

    That's cute. Hee hee. Oh wait, you were serious, Jason? All I've seen PR firms do is screw up in social media and use Twitter for spamming us with press releases. Not that many agencies get it any better…

  23. adamiss

    Great post Jason, and of course I fully agree (and am fully biased). The additional point I'd make is that sometime soon, the term social media will cease to exist, and we'll recognize it for what it really is: the evolution of media. PR people (good PR people and firms that is) have always been adept in dealing with the changing media landscape, from print to radio to television and now the Web. There is a place for specialized services in every medium – but to me the real opportunity is for strategists that see the big picture.

    If we knew that Twitter or FB or LBS services were going to be THE prevalent platform for the next 50 years, then they'd become commoditized services and I think PR would be in trouble. My guess is that the way we communicate remains dynamic and ever-changing, and that's the real opportunity for smart PR people.

  24. jakrose

    It is what it is, a prediction. The more I see of the social media space as
    a whole, the more I believe it, especially when I talk to Fortune 100

    Are they there today, no, not at all. And as you said, they are not the only
    ones using these new tools in annoying ways. There is a large education gap
    to be sure. I think once the full resources are applied by the big PR firms,
    they are best positioned to own the status of “social media agency of
    record” for big brands.

  25. Scott Hepburn

    Good questions (arguments?), Jason?

    There's been some discussion here in Charlotte lately about the “we'll handle your social media” pitches coming into Fortune 500s from agencies of all sorts. The big PR firms (and I'd add ad agencies to that) are pitching SM as if they know what they're talking about, but the client-siders say these agencies are revealing a lack of knowledge IN THEIR PITCHES.

    The part I'm curious about is whether the social media professionals with true street cred stay solo, or whether they accept a call up to the big leagues. What do you think?

  26. Neil Callanan

    I'd agree on each of your four points individually, but I'm not sure I buy the idea that PR will “inevitably own” social for big brands.

    Isn't the reason that the SocMe agencies and independents are having the biggest impact is their focus on training and empowering the client and to do points 1, 2, and 3 of your post?

    This is a hard switch for PR to make and in many cases, the bigger the agency, the more challenging it will be to make the switch away from the traditional PR model.

  27. Janet Aronica

    I don't know. I think strategy-wise, yes, PR agencies can most definitely help because of all the reasons you listed. But who is going to do the day-to-day execution of said strategy? Due to their existing pitching responsibilities, is it feasible for PR agencies to be the ones managing the communities?

  28. jakrose

    Scott I think it is a bit of both. I think most individuals enjoy the
    freedom of being on their own, but I think at the end of the day most
    individuals will go to the stability and resources of an agency or be so
    successful that they create their own agency.

    There will always be bad pitching, from every aspect of marketing. In this
    post I am really only talking about 7 to PR agencies. Perhaps I should do a
    follow up post in that direction.

  29. Indra Gardiner

    Jason, completely agree with your post. We wrote about this on our blog back in December from the perspective of accountability. Here's the link – http://www.dontdrinkthekoolaidblog.com/social-m…. Managing messaging and engagement, crisis communications and ongoing monitoring of communication are all areas that PR already owns. If a crisis hits, everyone turns to the PR team and social media now makes a crisis a tsunami.

    The continuous needs of social media are not well suited to the “campaign” mindset of ad teams. I do believe the creativity of ad teams can enhance social media programs but it's not in their DNA to manage the day in and day out of social media.

  30. Joe Ciarallo

    There's a whole conference called “Advertising 2.0” http://www.digitalhollywood.com/Advertising08.html

  31. Joe Ciarallo

    There's a whole conference called “Advertising 2.0” http://www.digitalhollywood.com/Advertising08.html

  32. Jeremy Pepper

    But no one else calls it Advertising 2.0 besides Digital Hollywood … trying to sell tickets.

  33. Jeremy Pepper

    Yah, too used to having the SM slides in the back of the bus. And then getting screwed out of the budget.

    PR adapts, but sometimes a little too slow.

  34. Paul Sutton

    This is a huge issue for PR agencies at present, and too many are being too slow at taking on the responsibility. At the moment I don't unfortunately think PR agencies ARE taking over the social media space – it should only be a matter of time, but more CEOs and MDs need to get up to speed, and very quickly. A recent survey revealed that only 22% of the top PR pros listed by PR Week are on Twitter – that's an awful statistic! In addition, there are too many consultants who aren't interested or willing to take on the new skillset that social media requires. I've blogged about this a lot, but specifically here: http://tribalboogie.blogspot.com/2010/02/are-pr

    I really hope this changes and am currently feeling positive having very recently joined a PR agency that really is embracing digital in a big way. But I do fear for the rest of the PR industry…

  35. Paul Sutton

    This is a huge issue for PR agencies at present, and too many are being too slow at taking on the responsibility. At the moment I don't unfortunately think PR agencies ARE taking over the social media space – it should only be a matter of time, but more CEOs and MDs need to get up to speed, and very quickly. A recent survey revealed that only 22% of the top PR pros listed by PR Week are on Twitter – that's an awful statistic! In addition, there are too many consultants who aren't interested or willing to take on the new skillset that social media requires. I've blogged about this a lot, but specifically here: http://tribalboogie.blogspot.com/2010/02/are-pr

    I really hope this changes and am currently feeling positive having very recently joined a PR agency that really is embracing digital in a big way. But I do fear for the rest of the PR industry…

  36. Beth_Carroll

    I totally agree. Us PR kids are experienced in knitting together strands of the marketing mix to create a holistic strategy. And social media is about communicating messages effectively through conversations – it's what we do.

  37. mattbambow

    I really really don't agree with this sentiment. Have you actually been party to any conversation about writing social media strategies? I would argue potentially not. The key to your argument appears to be “they have done it before” but thats such an archaic argument for something modern. Social needs to be handled by people that understand the mix of digital, business strategy and communications planning which PR teams are not normally responsible for. I think social strategy sits best within the people that hold the content – creative agencies/content agencies – not PR agencies.

  38. jakrose

    I would say 22% is not as bad as you think. Step outside of the social
    media bubble and consider what percentage of marketing professionals
    are heavily involved in social media. I would guess, and this is a gut
    feeling, that it is equal to or less.

  39. kristy

    I could not disagree more.

    There is a fundamental problem with anyone thinking they'll “own” the social media space. Even just perceiving that it's “ownable” screams of outdated thinking.

    Companies can and should own their end of “conversations,” yes, but they can't force the conversations to happen — no matter how hard they try — and they do NOT have control over what's happening on the other end of the conversation. That's the “problem” with 2.0: consumers get to talk back and say whatever they want. You can't spin or narrate or direct that part. (Deleting comments doesn't count as “spin.”)

    I do agree that PR firms are needed for crisis control, but some of the biggest crises I've seen in the social media space were borne out of PR snafus.

    So long as PR firms (or any traditional marketing firms, frankly) insist on defining social media by old terms (e.g., suggesting that maintaining connections with journalists is basically the same as maintaining connections with influencers), you're trying to fit square pegs into round holes. The SM space simply doesn't fit into neat, little, decades-old boxes.

  40. jakrose

    No one is talking about “owning” the conversation. Not sure where you got
    that. The post is speaking to who will be the go to agency type for big

  41. aaronperlut

    As a 17-year PR guy who has spent the past 5 years dedicating his time to social media and formerly worked for the largest PR firm in the world — I could not disagree more.

    We all know that social media is very much about engagement, the challenge being you must break though not only an incredibly cluttered social media landscape, but a cluttered media spectrum as a whole. To break through that clutter is the greatest challenge of engaging a brand in a meaningful way with target consumers, and doing on not only on social, but also in traditional means, is tantamount — surrounding the consumer at every turn.

    This takes creativity — creativity that gets people talking, bloggers writing, and traditional media chattering on end. And creativity, sadly, has traditionally been the domain of the ad agencies, where as PR has traditionally been the land of reputation and issues management with no sense of humor nor humanity — often the most effective clutter-busting agent in social forums.

    The PR agencies that will indeed break through the clutter via both social and traditional mediums are the ones that are able to understand they cannot operate as they have for decades, beating people over the head with the same old dreadfully boring message platform, and there are few models out there that have demonstrated such — from Fleishman, to Burson, to H&K, to even Edelman (which has been the most adept at digital of the biggies).

    Can PR do it? Yes. Are they currently positioned to do so in the present agency model — hell no.

    P.S. Grow a mustache.

  42. Patti Schom-Moffatt

    the company on first base will be the one that owns “strategy” and is media agnostic so the client gets what is right for the product, the issue or the project. This changes continually. The owner of the strategy needs to have the chops to deliver across all possible executions, inclusive of social media. but social media is not an end — it's one more way to deliver against the clients goals. I think PR firms are best placed to own strategy and integrated delivery.

  43. jeffespo

    Agree with all of the sentiment in the post.

    Only question I have is with the opening statement. Do you think that agencies will transplant internal PR folks who man SM for their companies. Or will it be a balance of the two?

    The bigger fight seems more long tailed between PR (agencies/internal) and the advertising arms of companies. With the integration of ads in streams and evolution of FB ads, on can only assume that an adwords model will soon emerge.

  44. jakrose

    I think PR agencies will definitely supplant internal PR (and currently
    are), at least at a companies entrance into social media. It is an education
    gap. Agencies do it for you until you can do it for yourself. I think this
    is the unavoidable evolution most companies need to go through.

    Agreed with paid vs earned integration. All agency formats are of course
    merging. Mullen is an example.

  45. jeffespo

    I am somewhat biased to it, doing the SM efforts for Vistaprint, however I do see your point. With a larger company that uses an agency for the PR, the transition is somewhat natural. However if there is an existing structure – I'd say that it could continue to be handled internally given the intimate knowledge (again the bias) and proximity to issues when it hits the fan.

    Agencies on the other hand can often lend credibility to a space as the C-suite can be skeptical. Mullen does do a great job.

  46. rainesmaker

    Some other interesting plays are coming from marketing research firms and enterprise-level integrators. I get a bunch of “aha's” from the marketing research folks who are starting to see the light in using social discussion groups as continuous market insight research for product development.

    Agree, crises management on the PR side has merits: Listen, learn, evolve response so organizations achieve incremental gains in being proactive rather than reactive over time.

    It's all about where the deliverable will deliver actionable insight.

    Thanks Jason.


  47. abladias

    I don't know in USA (you are quite far ahead, and this could worry me ;-), but I don't see this coming any time soon in Spain.
    We've set up the number one SMM Consulting Agency in Spain, and our approach is absolutely different from a Consulting, PR Agency or Advertising Agency. It is exactly the hybrid between the 3 of them. And this works. And we are winning a lot of new big contracts with big firms and we are winning against their traditional agencies.
    Maybe later, they will decide to go for their PR firms to create day to day content in social media or advertising firms to create campaigns. But strategy, setting SM up and training and coaching their employees is now in our hands. And when they'll decide otherwise, innovation will be over, and we will have moved into the next innovation marketing space (call it Social CRM, Mobile Networks, whatever).
    In any case, I see your point if you are talking about big PR agencies against big Advertising agencies.

  48. Andrew Wyatt

    Couldn't it be the contrary ?
    PR agencies are losing market share due to social media marketing.
    PR Agencies have always lived in an organized world where they could pull the right strings.
    Social Media marketing is chaotic and nobody has a clue what string to pull best.

  49. Roger Warner, C&M

    I'd agree with all 4 points Jason, PR *ought* to be a home for all this stuff – the skill sets are all there. But I don't think that's happening any time soon… as most of the comments here attest. Trad PR is painfully slow, one-track and neurotic. It really needs to get its act together.

  50. Jon B

    All good points, but creative and strategic communications all operate on similar models. If you're smarter or more upper funnel in media, you're not focusing on spots and dots, nor are you billing by the hour (per se). Billing models differ by client, as do responsibilities.

    Plenty of media folks are heavily engaged in communications strategy, which includes crisis management, relationship building (often owning CRM), bill on retainer, and it goes without saying that they are strong storytellers.

    This post points out that these are four ingredients to success, but in no way are they unique to PR.