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What does the 2016 PRCA Digital PR and Communications Report mean for the industry as a whole?

There is no doubt that we are living and operating in an increasingly digital world. Social media is slowly but surely taking over our lives, with people getting their news, entertainment and gossip from the growing number of social media platforms available today. The PR and communications industry is no different, as agencies must now more than ever be ahead of the curve and readily able to provide clients with engaging and timely solutions that keep them relevant in the digital age. Times have changed and digital habits have evolved – the TV is now the second screen; behind the smart phone, which is arguably today the first.

But, in the social stratosphere where new trends (and filters) are added almost every day, can agencies and in-house staff keep up with the changing tide?

We think so. Whilst it can be seen as a challenge for businesses to keep up the pace of change in the online space, what is clear is that professionals across the industry are taking positive steps to do so. Equal budget – 55% – is spent across the industry on social media as on website design and build, and it is highly probable that a potential customer will seek a business out on social media at the same time as taking a look at the website.

And this uptake in social and digital media is clearly mirrored in-house as well – to think that 88% of board members now see the value in social media is a huge step in the right direction for businesses as a whole. The social activity of high profile names and company CEOs (namely on Twitter) is increasing, with the likes of Richard Branson, for example, actively using the platform for providing both business and social updates to his 8.59 MILLION followers. A CEO or high profile individual on social media can also monitor any negative PR and promote the brand as a whole – just as long as sufficient media training is carried out to prevent a Susan Boyle Album Launch scale hashtag fail…

Of course, social media can be used as a listening tool, to gauge customer thoughts and feelings against a specific product or campaign and increasingly build a profile of a customer based on the content they are viewing and sharing. However, this doesn’t come without its challenges, as 35% of industry professionals aren’t confident of the ROI of using social media to reach audiences. Our recent Consultation Online report, in association with YouGov, mirrors these findings. Of the 1,401 local councilors polled, 75% thought social media was a ‘very important’ tool; however, a vast majority of these also had fears about the validity of responses derived from social platforms. These fears also spanned to that of social channels becoming a platform for negativity.

So, can these responses ever be truly validated or quantified? We would like to think so. The increasing sophistication of social and digital media has led to the ability to monitor responses that come in via these platforms. Responses can be geotagged to ensure they are coming from respondents suited to the campaign to ensure that those commenting on the issues presented are in the target demographic, and their responses duly noted. A broader awareness on social media and how to measure it can dispel the concerns that some businesses may have around the validity of responses.

Of course, it goes beyond social media. The digital landscape is broadening and businesses can now find their space within it by utilising video-based content to raise brand awareness and drive home their messages. Video-based content now receives the most budget from in-house teams – a considerable 62%. Team this with the ability to broadcast across digital and social channels, and businesses today have the ability to reach audiences at a scale that simply would not have been possible in the industry 10 or 15 years ago.

The benefits of social and digital media cannot be argued with – and they fit hand-in-hand alongside the traditional PR and communications efforts that are still, and will always be, hugely relevant. Businesses can reap the benefits of incorporating a digital strategy alongside their traditional PR and Comms plan, with the two factors complementing each other, rather than working in place of one another.

Ultimately, PR is about connecting with audiences. Businesses must steer clear of bombarding their target audiences with repetitive messages that follow them from platform to platform. A balance must be reached, using the medium to engage audiences via compelling messages, interesting visual and written content, and story-telling. This is something that PR is perfectly placed to do. In the social era, business must ‘be’ social – rather than purely being ‘on’ social.