The only three questions you need to ask your prospective PR social media agency

B L Ochman has an interesting post claiming that you don’t need to ask six to 20 questions as scores of blog posts claim (mine was Top ten ways not to chose a social media consultant), but you need to ask just two:

1) Do they walk the walk?

"If your key agency people are not participating as thought leaders in the space, should they be advising you?
They need street cred themselves."
Ed Nicholson, Director Tyson Corporate PR

Does the agency have a credible social media presence of its own and for how long? Personally I’ve been active in this space for more than seven years (more than 12 if you include Usenet, mailing lists, forums etc) and most people in the Wolfstar PR team also have impressive social media track records, as well as Wolfstar having its own presence.

2) Do they have case studies to share with you to demonstrate their success incorporating social media into clients’ overall marketing strategy?

As Ochman says ‘if they don’t, they’ll be learning on your dime.’

Good as these questions are I think a third one is essential.

3) Do they have excellent experience and expertise in traditional public relations?

Social media isn’t the be all and end all. It must integrate into the existing corporate communications strategy. Does your prospective consultancy have the experience and expertise to not only integrate, but also advise intelligently on how that strategy needs to change.

Ochman says ‘there are a handful of credible social media agencies and consultants on the planet’, but I’d argue that simply being a credible social media agency or consultant isn’t enough. First and foremost you’ve got to be a credible public relations person.


About Stuart Bruce

International communications consultant and PR trainer specialising in online public affairs, digital corporate communications, online PR and social media; frequent national media commentator and conference speaker.
  • http://www.10yetis.co.uk/public-relations Andy Yeti

    Nice blog. So simple and more to the point so true. There are loads of little pointers that we see so often on the websites of companies that profess to be digital and online wizards. Usually, crap SEO, out of date twittering, and fancy job titles like “Digital Evangelist” and alike, I mean… come on, have a word with ya good self.
    Great blog… of to RT.

  • http://www.speedcommunications.com/blogs/wadds Stephen Waddington

    Neat post and wholly agree on all counts.

    1 – Experience makes for the best consultants, no doubt

    2 – Related to point 1. Hire consultants that walk-the-walk and have a portfolio of case studies

    3 – Social programmes must be rooted in solid communication or marketing planning, and that means a knowledge of traditional PR. My view is that there will be a backlash against frothy social media programmes before long

  • http://www.sixtysecondview.com david brain

    Stuart,

    It is amazing to me after, well, all these years, that so many of agencies will fall short of some if not all these criteria. Being of dinosaur age myself i am noticing certain old friends becoming new ‘friends’ via Facebook. Or at least, they send a friend request and when I look at their profile….nada! And one or two fo these people run agencies you know and who claim expertise in social media. i guess their claim would be not everyone has to be up to speed, but I’m not sure the top folk can afford not to be. Nice post as ever Sir.

  • http://www.wavespr.com Claire Thompson (claireatwaves)

    I’d add one: ask them what mistakes they’ve made and what they’ve learned.

    If they haven’t made a single mistake, either they’re still going to (and it could be at your expense) or they haven’t tried things out/innovated.

    And, as an added bonus, you’ll soon flush out how honest they’re going to be with you…..

  • stuart

    @andy It’s tick box social media so that they can claim they’ve done it

    @wadds Totally agree about the backlash

    @david Too true

    @Claire – great point, originally I started this post with two extra questions, but then decided it would have more impact if I stuck to one. The missing question was “What social media mistakes have you made?”

  • Allan

    Very true

    although one of the issues i have with the social media PR industry in the UK is that its very personality driven… more aboput the PR than what they are trying to promote. Surely a good PR is heard but not seen?

    The industry needs to matureand get a lot more professional!

  • stuart

    @Allan Not sure I totally agree with your personality driven point. It’s partially about transparency, often it’s essential that the ‘personality’ is visible because you’ve got to be open and disclose who is behind something. The days of behind the scenes spin doctors are hopefully drawing to a close and that is about becoming more mature and professional. What I would agree with is that the PR ‘personality’ shouldn’t be at the expense of the client/communications objectives and that is delicate balancing act.

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  • http://www.strivepr.com/notes Sherrilynne Starkie

    Good post. Too many cowboys are coming out of the wood work. But don’t worry, experience and excellent will prevail.

  • Juliaif

    true. true. true. But I guess many PR agencies will learn it the hard way and eventually do their social media-homework

  • http://www.cakegroup.com Tim

    Nice post Stuart. Think they’ll be a lot of other disciplines that would argue PR is certainly an essential part of the mix but might not necessarily be the be all and end all skillset to develop a strategy for a client (and this is coming from someone who says ‘outreach’ quite a lot).

    I’d point to agencies like AKQA whose digital creative such as the Fiat Eco Drive community is driven around an understanding of data rather than an understanding of PR, yet this is a pretty sociable idea that has spawned some pretty impressive conversations.

    There are also agencies like Anomaly and Zeus Jones whose business models are very interesting and lend themselves to creating ideas they develop for/with the client that begin to open up ‘marketing as a service’ – developing ‘stuff’ people need/want which is useful and that would inherently lead to conversation, brand affinity and maybe even advocacy.

    Certainly you’d want some PR support on driving awareness around these ideas- but how much easier is a PR ‘pitch’ when you know you have something that you know will be well received by the person you are ‘outreaching’ too? Although it’s important to understand the etiquette within social media by walking the walk ourselves as consultants in this space, if we or our clients don’t have anything to say that we think would excite the people we need to talk to, we have to revisit the creative.

    After showing me you walk the talk and have experience in ‘doing’ social media, perhaps if I were a client I’d want the next few slides to show me you understand my consumers and that you understand their behaviour in this new world… you might even have an idea…

    (I would just caveat that to increasingly come up with good creative ideas in this space, we DO need to be walking the walk to stimulate new thinking).

  • http://www.contently-managed.com Craig McGill

    I know it’s easy to use the word PR as the starting point for all things social media, but I would say that ‘communicator’ is a better catch-all. Without a good communicator – not just a speaker/typer but someone who can spot the opportunities while also knowing when to shut up is essential.

    Claire’s point is a very valid one. I know that in the years – both personally and professionally – I’ve made some howlers, but they’ve been made and I learned a lot from them and that means those mistakes won’t happen to clients.

    Having said that, I think there’s an element of always learning – but that’s true of any communications – but you don’t want clients thinking you’re learning on their watch.

  • Michelle

    Excellent blog that raises some serious questions. Certainly if I was client side these are the types of questions I’d be asking my agency. The only point I’d make is about the case studies. Twitter and Facebook are still relatively young mediums with actually not that many organisations trully encompassing social media as a sincere and valued part of their of their comms strategy. I think many are scared by the thought of direct communication and the immediacy it requires. They don’t have the time, resource or incliniation to really understand it.

    As such, until we get companies fully committed to social media strategies we won’t be able to generate case studies. And, as the medium is still so young I think if organisations trust their agencies and PR folk they can learn together.

  • stuart

    @Tim – I’m bound to favour public relations, as that’s what I do! However, the real reason I favour it is that I mean public relations in its truest sense, which isn’t frothy publicity, but is about relationships, behaviour and reputation. Saying “Certainly you’d want some PR support on driving awareness” is a very marketing centric view of what public relations actually is and is like looking at 5% of what we do!

    @Craig – Communicator is only part of what public relations does so I’d argue it’s too narrow a term.

    @Michelle – Strongly disagree with you. Our first Twitter case study is from early 2007 and by today’s standards wasn’t very good. We’ve other since, some good, some not so. The medium isn’t that young, it’s just that too many people came to it so late. There’s also how those who who get too excited about how earth shattering it all is, when in fact it isn’t that different to what some of us did 20 years when I first started. Two way communication, listen, learn, conversation – none of that is new, social media simply makes it more visible and easier.

  • http://www.paulstallard.wordpress.com Paul Stallard

    Brilliant post Stuart – again. I was talking to my brother in law the other day about his PR agency of choice. They had advised them to start a blog but make it only accessable to people who sign up for the content. When I asked him did his agency blog themselves, he looked and realised that they didn’t.

    You wouldn’t learn to drive with someone who doesn’t have a license so why do so many companies employ agencies to do something they have little or no experience in doing? I suppose there must be quite a few agencies that employe better salespeople than they do practitioners.

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  • stuart

    @andy It's tick box social media so that they can claim they've done it

    @wadds Totally agree about the backlash

    @david Too true

    @Claire – great point, originally I started this post with two extra questions, but then decided it would have more impact if I stuck to one. The missing question was “What social media mistakes have you made?”