What Role Should A Communications Agency Play In A Client’s Social Media?

Posted on September 22, 2010

How Should Your Agency Help You With Social Media?

Foreword to 4/4/4

Four Communications Issues.

Four Perspectives.

Four Weeks. Blog Series

This is part 3 of 4 of this series I am writing with Todd Defren, Lou Hoffman, and Paul Roberts. Do we agree? Maybe, maybe not. You can read Todd’s Here, Lou’s Here, and Paul’s Here.

For some great additional perspectives on this topic I encourage you to visit Hans de Groot, Dan Holden, and Don Jennings.

What Role Should A Communications Agency Play In A Client’s Social Media?

By Steve Farnsworth (@Steveology)

One of the long standing questions senior communications executives wrestle with is whether they should be mostly in house staff, or primarily outsource their communications to an agency. The funny thing about this debate is neither model works very well, but a hybrid works extremely well. Communications agencies have a lot to offer when working with clients on social media, as long as the agency practices what they preach, and they bring that specialized knowledge to creating strategy, internal education, and organizational social media development.

Here is why I think they can have a powerful impact on a company’s social media efforts, and the role they scan play. One of the advantages of being a semiconductor fabrication plant (commonly called a fab) is that their clients bring them chip designs with innovative boundary-pushing technology. For the fab to manufacture the chip it must bring to bear all its domain expertise. While the foundry can’t use the client’s intellectual property for other clients, they can apply lessons learned and the new skills they’ve acquired in the service of those other clients. The community of chip designers benefits collectively, “state-of-the-art” is elevated, and the cycle continues.

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In the same way communications agencies are repositories for smart practices. With a few exceptions, most of the best communicators I know work at, or if they are client-side have worked for, agencies. Working for a dozen or two companies every year leaves an indelible sharpness of judgment that working for only one master rarely does. The astute client-side people I know leverage that expertise.

The Next Generation

A few months back Lou Hoffman of the Hoffman Agency and I were having breakfast. I was telling him about a workshop I had given on blogging. He casually mentioned his agency had started delivering them, too. However, he had done something much more innovative than I had. He was delivering workshops on blogging at the corporate level. Why is that innovative? He is teaching companies how to build a team of internal bloggers, and I think that is a window into our future as communications professionals. Lou has a much larger vision of a communications agency’s growing role in an organization. I think you will find blogging workshops simply one arrow in his agency’s quiver, an agency that is quickly evolving to play a much deeper role.

If an agency takes on a role of bringing social media services and education, be it social communications or social marketing, I think it can be a boon for the client. I would be cautious of sheep in social media clothing. (Did I just call communications pros with real social media skills wolves? I guess I did.)

Social Media Makeovers

In a recent conversation with Scott Friedman of Text 100 he made an insightful observation regarding communications professionals and social media. He said that he had seen a lot of PRs with social media makeovers. He went on to explain how a number of PRs he’d met called themselves social media smarties. While they understood social media tools generically, they had failed to truly incorporate social media in to the fabric of their work, and had only inconsequential experience, if any, integrating it into a client’s marketing mix. Instead, they kind of tacked it on to their skill set. A veneer of social media you might say.

In that same vain, Howard Sewell made a very similar cautionary observation. He asked if public relations pros were ill equipped to see the selling side of social media and in turn not succeed in setting goals that truly captured its greater potential. I think this is a valid concern.

However, there are agencies, like Todd Defren of SHIFT Communications, who excels at integrating social communications deeply into his agencies work with fantastic success. When you look at their body of work you have no doubt they walk their talk and in the best sense drink the social media Kool Aid.

A Work In Progress

I suspect that there are a number of new, non-traditional areas that the thriving agencies of the future will bring to the table. Some of those areas will likely include community building and management, social media listening, assisting clients in articulating their thought leadership, and crafting messages in earned media channels. In the end an agency can be a CMO’s most trusted social media consigliere.