Social media makes the traditional PR hierarchy obsolete

PR is a very hierarchical industry. There is set chain of command where the role you do changes according to your position, which is the same in pretty much all jobs.

At the bottom end you have the Account Executives who do the majority of the outreach and engagement, stamp licking and envelope posting, and day to day odd jobs that make an account run smoothy.

You then have varying degress of Account Manager. They do a small proportion of the outreach and engagement, and tend to focus their time on making sure the tactics that are getting the account to run well, are work effectively.

There will then be an Account Director who is responsible for developing the right strategy which will lead into choosing the most appropriate tactics. Likelihood is that they will do very little outreach at all. [UPDATE: thanks for the typo spot Mike!]

It goes on, but in essence, the higher up the food chain you go, the less actual PR you do, and the more time you spend writing documents about how PR should be done and looking to bring in new business.

To me, social media makes this way of working, unworkable. Social media is more skills based.

I might only be an Account Executive, but I have a fundamental understanding of the way that Twitter works, for example, and I will have a good idea of what the right tactics will be to make a Twitter campaign effective.

Or, I might be an Account Director who’s built up a credibility within the blogosphere , yet now in my new role I find that I can’t connect with these people in the same way as I used to.

I think we need to shift away from this approach to a specialist-led way of working, and the more conversations I have with my peers and colleagues about this, the more I think we should act upon it.

If you have an individual within a team who is a natural networker, and knows how the community they’re about to interact with works, let them get involved with planning the tactical approach and then handle that engagement.

If you have someone who is great with numbers, but not so good with people, get them involved with the management side of things and help them to develop their strategic thinking.

There may be a member of the team who’s into all the new tools and technologies – get them playing around with them, learning how they work and become a vital part of the entire planning process.

I see job titles as a way of categorising people into how much they’re getting paid and how important they are. To me, it doesn’t matter how important you are if you don’t understand how micro-communities on Twitter come together and then disappear in a matter of hours. It also doesn’t matter to me if you’re the finest networker in the land but you couldn’t plan a 6 month campaign for toffee.

Each person is an individual and has their own individual strengths. The current system of controlling what level PR pros is at is false and doesn’t truly reflect their worth to their team. By all means, a structure should be in place, but a structure where individuals with different skills are utilised and brought in to add expertise or experience.

The current model isn’t getting the best out of the people within it.

14 thoughts on “Social media makes the traditional PR hierarchy obsolete

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  2. I think your point about the ‘knowledge of using social tools’ is valid. But, in terms of liaising with clients, managing expectations, dealing with problems etc. etc., a good level of experience is critical.

    But for the day to day execution, a thorough understanding of social media is crucial at all levels (though I would argue this is true of trad PR too).

  3. I certainly think there’s something in what you say Matt, but I don’t think you can blow the industry hierarchy out of the water quite that easily…

    In my PR career, I’ve never been one (I hope) to stick very rigidly to the established hierarchy. Long before social media, if I had a media newshound in the team then they’d be the one I’d turn to for thoughts on media strategy. Similarly if we had great creatives, or planners or writers or managers then you’d play to each of their strengths. That’s what a team is.

    But agencies have hierarchies for a reason. They allow employees to understand how well they’re progressing from a career perspective (and believe me, most employees want that) and they also allow people to position themselves when looking to change jobs (and believe me, most prospective employers want that!). From an agency management perspective you also need some level of structure based on experience for remuneration and benefits. Dealing with people on an individual basis in an agency the size of, say, Edelman would be a nightmare.

    Clients also value the different expertise people bring to their business in different ways. To one client your deep knowledge of Twitter communities might be valuable; to another traditional media coverage might be all-important. And then the value of someone with a decade’s experience who can see which individual skills to apply to deliver the strategy that meets the client’s objectives might, of course, be the most valuable of all.

  4. It’s a decent post but, as others say, misses the point that there is still – and will be for a while – a strong presence of traditional PR.

    Also the actual PR work – trad and SM – is only one aspect of the job.

    And letting the young account exec, who is traditionally the one with the SM skills savvy, do all the work on the SM side is crazy for a number of reasons:

    1) They may not know restraint or when NOT to tweet/blog/etc (something which is as important as knowing when to do it)

    2) They may be full of enthusiasm but not see the bigger picture and how everything ties together to maximise time/energy/output.

    You also miss something else out that is more important to clients (and ultimately that’s the business we are in): clients like hierarcy, they like to know when they are dealing with a grunt and when they are dealing with big cheeses. It’s good for their ego’s but also handy for when they have issues.

    Going to have a wee think about this and blog more over at my place later.

  5. You tell ’em Matt! Good post. I reckon there will always be new technologies coming up and they will transform any industry. One day you will be the boss and it might just happen to you :-)

  6. Thanks for your comments and thoughts on this, it’s of great value that you’ve taken so much time in leaving your insights here :)

    @Danny, Mark & Craig – I totally take your points on the client side of things, and there is of course that need for authority and experience in a crisis situation and managing a clients wants and needs. I totally subscribe to the education about social media at all levels, and it’s amazing to see this happening with the Edelman team in the States with junior team members helping to share their knowledge with the more senior guys: http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/yourmoney/sns-200910270820mctnewsservbc-wrk-mentors–tb36707,0,2219926.story

    @Mark – As much as I’d like to fundamentally change the Industry hierarchy, I know full well there’s a couple of barriers in my way :D It’s great that you and others have made the point of finding people with the appropriate skills and using them when needed, rather than ignoring them because they may be junior, but I genuinely don’t think this is as widespread as it should be.

    I don’t think the way the that social media practices are structured needs to mirror that of a traditional PR practice – I see it as the same as trying to apply AVE to a conversation on Facebook I guess – the knowledge and skillsets of social media are tuned differently and are fluid compared to traditional PR and I think that this is the crux of what I’m trying to get at, and of course I may be wrong :)
    I’m kind of in the middle when it comes to the management of employees: on the one hand I totally understand the logistical nightmare that 300 odd employees brings, but then again they’re not just 300 employees, they’re 300 Individual people.

    The starting point for any social media conversation with a client should be ‘What are your business objectives?’ and I think that getting more junior members of the team involved in those initial conversations help to develop their knowledge and awareness at an earlier stage and help them to be able to analyse and consult sooner in their career. When I’ve been involved in those discussions I know that it’s helped me a hell of a lot!

    @Craig – Indeed the most effective campaigns are those that have social media, traditional PR and advertising fully integrated, and I don’t think that the presence of traditional PR is in doubt, it is the the way in which the established hierarchies function that i’m questioning :)

    I think HabitatIntern is a great case for your points about restraint and over-enthusiasm, but I would argue that Habitat chose the wrong person to do the job in the first place by not fully assessing their skills/history/experience etc in the first place, which is a failure on their part, not the Intern’s.

    What I’ve come across in previous workplaces, is a reluctance to engage with the junior team members, purely because they aren’t high enough in the organisation to make their voice heard, despite a better knowledge on certain subjects, and this frustrates me greatly as I assume that this is common practice within the industry.

    As an example, If you spend all day in forums, you’re going to have a better working knowledge of how they function, than someone who’s in meetings all day. It’s when that knowledge isn’t tapped into that the most value is lost.

    I see the PR thought process as a big bubble which everybody, regardless of rank, should feed into and help to mould, and then work with the sections that are most appropriate to their knowledge and skills.

    I currently see it as a triangle in which information and jobs are passed down according to level, not knowledge.

  7. I think some places are in a good state for limiting strict hierarchy and tapping into specialist knowledge and skills, regardless of role. I think I’m in one of those places now (within my immediate team – can’t really speak for the whole agency).

    I’m an AE and feel that my views and understanding of what makes an effective PR campaign (and how it relates to the bigger, brand-shifting/sales driving picture) are strong enough to both directly advise clients and act as the tactician on an account. Clearly my agency thinks so too, as I am encouraged to do both. That’s all about PR skills.

    What I’m not confident with, however, is steering a team, tutoring others, managing budgets, meeting P&L targets and generating new business. That’s all about business experience.

    So what I think I’m trying to say here is that we’re talking about two very different, yet symbiotic, issues here. One is about PR skills, which the AE-SAE level staff tend to excel in (and perhaps surpass their seniors in some specialist areas); the other is business experience, which puts the senior staff into their management roles, understanding how to handle budgets, teams and agency-business planning.

    Where some agencies fail is that they fail to make this distinction and believe that the higher up the food chain you go, the more skilled you inherently are at ‘PR’ generally – excluding “junior” roles from the creative process or disregarding their PR ideas due to their inexperience in business.

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  9. I get where you’re going with this. The problem is that those roles are there so people can measure their own achievement in their career not to mention what many people have said before me on here about needing that hierarchy so the client understands just who they’re talking to.

    I think the real crux is what Dan said above, because you are more experienced, you aren’t necessarily the best person to do that particular job. The better agencies will have the hierarchy in place to deal with any issues that arise and communication but will involve all their staff, no matter what level in the creative process. In turn, what makes a good AD is someone that will recognise when perhaps they aren’t the best person to make the creative decision.

    I’m an AE and I 100% agree with Dan in the above, while my creative and social media ideas may be very good and in some instances better than some of my seniors (theoretically) my crisis management, budget management and team/agency planning are definitely not there yet – that only comes with experience.

    I can see where you’re coming from with regards to the “top down” approach but the best agencies will feed their skills to all of their staff regardless of level. I’m very lucky with the agency I work for and their commitment to improve everyones skills but they also ask those more junior staff members for their opinions and even ask them to run training workshops if they feel the skills would benefit the team.

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