BEIJING — China's marketers are increasingly looking to a PR firm's digital capabilities as a critical reason to select them, according to new research from one of the world's biggest communications markets.

R3's PR Scope study, which surveyed more than 150 marketers and corporate communications decision-makers, has found that digital capabilities have surged as a selection criteria since the study last took place two years ago.

59% of marketers now rate ‘digital capabilities’ as a very important factor when selecting a PR agency, up from just 3.5% in 2015. In addition, the study found that the top two changes in the PR industry are that firms are 'focusing more on digital/social communications,' and the 'transition from traditional PR to digital PR'.

"We’ve never seen digital capabilities so high up in the list of important factors for selecting a PR agency," said R3 China MD Sabrina Lee. "It just shows that the massive shift in the marketing and advertising world has not passed over the PR discipline."

Despite the increase, however, digital still ranks fifth among PR agency selection criteria, behind people, press relations and credibility, strategic planning, and creativity. When it comes to changing agencies, furthermore, 'innovative creativity' ranks as the top factor, ahead of an agency's team, it's integrated capabilities, efficiency and effectiveness and — again in fifth spot — digital capabilities.

While 72% of marketers are satisfied with their current PR agency, 33% would consider a pitch, citing a lack of creativity as their main reason. As in the 2013 and 2015 studies, Ogilvy PR and BlueFocus’ Blue Digital stand out in terms of perception amongst marketers. 'It is interesting to see how each these agencies are reaping the rewards of their long-term growth strategies in China," said Lee. "The fact that they have been able to remain at the top of marketers perception for five years means that their efforts are paying off."

43% of marketers polled still believe that the best approach is to work with a separate PR and digital agency; only 25% think a PR firm should set up a digital division to handle the work. Digital also brings specific marketing and communications challenges — 20% of marketers point to crisis communications, while 14% think it is harder to evaluate the effectiveness of brand promotions when everything is in real-time. 

For most of China's marketers (78%), social media is used to generate buzz and brand familiarity', ahead of building word-of-mouth and influence, and communications integration. There is a marked increase, however, in those using social media for sales promotion (47%), reflecting perhaps the ability to connect content to commerce on China's social media platforms.

Interestingly, fewer marketers (compared to 2015) cite social listening/crisis management, consumer research, and customer service support as social media requirements for their PR activity.

When it comes to outlining overall industry challenges, meanwhile, marketers pointed to the rapid changes in consumer needs (19%), breakthrough creativity, especially in digital (15%), and proactivity/insight (14%). Integration challenges — such as the importance of a digital capability, and competition with other agency disciplines — elicited far fewer responses.

The average tenure of a PR agency relationship has dropped to 2.5 years from 2.9 in 2015. PR relationships are also shorter than relationships with other agency disciplines, particularly advertising and media agencies.

As for the most respected brands among China's marketers, Alibaba ranks top, ahead of Durex, Chanel, Tencent and Nike.