Ubaid Zargar
Corporate Communications and PR

Ruder Finn's tech leap tells us all about PR's evolved role in modern marketing

On the back of consistent tech integration, the agency's chief technology officer explains how PR has embraced a new role in the current landscape.

Public Relations (PR) and communications have transitioned from their traditional roles as ancillary support functions to becoming indispensable pillars of modern marketing strategies. As businesses navigate the digital era, the integration of PR into marketing has emerged as a game-changing factor. Ruder Finn is capitalising on technological advancements to redefine the scope of possibilities for PR within this new paradigm.

Once synonymous with press releases and crisis management, PR has now earned its place at the core of marketing strategies. Its role has expanded to include brand building, storytelling, and engaging with audiences across multiple platforms.

Tejas Totade, chief technology officer, Ruder Finn, a global PR agency, points out that the marketing world from the point of view of PR, has seen a renaissance. While buzzwords such as “martech” and “ad tech” have taken centre stage in marketing discussions over the past few years, Totade opines that PR is progressively making its way towards being on the front burner.

PR in the modern marketing landscape

Totade elucidates, “This was primarily because PR has traditionally been more at the top of the marketing funnel, where it’s all about awareness and reputation management. Now, more and more clients are seeing PR as an extension of their own team. They see us as partners, who are adept in monitoring everything that is going on.”

This shift reflects a recognition of the fundamental fact that effective communication is not just about what a company says but also how it connects with its audience. To this effect, Ruder Finn is upping its services to meet their clientele's needs. Acquiring emerging tech, and integrating it within operations appears to be the way forward.

“It's almost like the emergence of communications technology (Comms Tech) has aligned with the overall renaissance in terms of how people are consuming information. We don't use tools for the sake of tools. we have our own concoction of how we will integrate these tools into our practices,” says Totade.

In 2018, Ruder Finn launched RF Tech Lab, an analytics and emerging technology incubator. The platform helps in the development of the agency’s proprietary solutions in data science, modelling, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

The agency has also introduced Studio 53, a creative studio offering services in design, branding, video, websites, and apps, as well as tech experiences utilising AI, AR and the metaverse.

“Studio 53 is the next chapter, it's an AI-powered creative studio, which brings everything in one place, to provide integrated offerings to our clients,” he explains.

Emergence of tech-driven PR

While substantial strides have been made in harnessing data analytics, automation, and artificial intelligence, the pace of innovation remains relentless. One can't help but wonder if brands have truly reached a level of maturity in understanding what to expect from emerging technologies. Or is the entire onus on agencies to deliver on key performance indicators (KPIs)?

There are certain brands that are already doing a lot more with tech compared to certain brands that tend to be more risk averse, traditionally. They'll wait for their competitors to adopt something before they do it.

Totade opines, “I think it's about education. There are certain brands that are already doing a lot more with tech compared to certain brands that tend to be more risk averse, traditionally. They'll wait for their competitors to adopt something before they do it.”

From the clients who are well-versed in technology and its outcomes, Totade sees a more detailed assessment of their investments.

The clients are getting more sophisticated with the questions. Everyone is going beyond just the impressions...there's a lot more emphasis on ROI.

He explains, “The clients are getting more sophisticated with the questions. Everyone is going beyond just the impressions. There are questions on engagement, session duration on a particular page, and monitoring if the views came from the target demographic. There's a lot more emphasis on ROI.”

However, there are still brands out there that are still catching up with these developments. What appears to push for more adoption is an ecosystem of open dialogues, as per Totade.

“It really helps to kind of have those open dialogues and explain to them the risk versus reward. And I feel like there are certain non-negotiables. And if you satisfy those feelings, more adoption can happen. Brands at this point realise that this is the way forward,” he asserts.

Bringing brands onboard

Bringing innovative technology into the realm of Public Relations (PR) operations can be a formidable challenge, especially when wooing brands to adopt it.

Totade acknowledges the pervasive inertia that often plagues established brands. He says, "There's obviously a lot of inertia that exists because they've been doing things a certain way. It's like, oh, but that's not how we do it. It's always been this way. Challenging that status quo is probably the biggest challenge anyone encounters."

On a more practical level, the transition to new technology is often met with concerns about cost, resource allocation, and, most critically, the assurance of tangible results. Totade highlights, "It comes down to what's the add-on price, what are the resources invested from both agency and client standpoints, and ultimately, what's the guarantee of results?"

To tackle these challenges, Totade suggests a pragmatic approach: proposing pilots to clients.

Ruder Finn has actively undertaken pilot projects, especially when dealing with emerging technologies. These pilots allow clients to witness tangible results in a limited-risk environment, paving the way for wider adoption.

He emphasises, "More and more, we're seeing short-term pilots become the norm. It's like a limited engagement, perhaps three months or a half-year, with a results report at the end. It's binary; it either works or it doesn't. Fortunately, for us, more often than not, it has worked."

Identifying the emerging tech

Before any technology can be integrated into Ruder Finn’s PR services, it remains for the agency to identify and adopt the required tech. But how does the agency go about finding new-age developments that could be leveraged for its services?

Totade answers, "My group essentially does a lot of the groundwork when it comes to looking for what's out there." This includes a team of data analysts and individuals closely attuned to industry developments and the tools available.

According to Totade, integrating new technology is a nuanced process. "Clients always ask, what's the use case?" he explains. 

This use case typically aligns with either pilot projects or crisis management, with the latter being more amenable due to the urgency clients associate with resolving crises. However, aspirational pilots aimed at exploring innovative solutions for core audience groups also play a vital role in Ruder Finn's technological journey.

The key criterion for integration is the presence of a clear and relevant use case. Totade provides an illustrative example, albeit without revealing the client's name. He discusses a high-profile fashion brand that faced a severe reputational crisis. Ruder Finn swiftly leveraged a technology partner from their tech lab, a platform they had a pre-existing relationship with, to conduct predictive analysis. This involved processing millions of online posts to predict viral trends and potential pitfalls, allowing for strategic crisis management.

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