SHANGHAI—Public relations people need to develop brand ideas that are distinctive, credible, relatable, sustainable and extendable if they are to meet the challenges of the new digital area, Edelman’s Gavin Coombes told an audience of industry leaders at the third annual ThinkTank Live conference in Shanghai this morning.

Coombes, who recently joined Edelman as regional president of Edelman Digital, told the audience he had abandoned the PR industry 12 years ago because he was “bored” with the one-dimensional, media relations focus of the business. He worked in digital, advertising and design agencies before returning because he felt the digital revolution had made the PR industry interesting again.

“One of the advantages that PR people have is access,” he says. “Most CEOs don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what the home page of their website looks like, but they do care what is being written about them in The Wall Street Journal. That gives us access…. But it’s not just having access; it’s what you do with it.”

Discussing the Let’s Play campaign he helped to create to support the government of Singapore in its efforts to encourage more sporting activity for its citizens, he cited a number of key factors from the use of research to understand the sporting culture in Singapore as well as ideas that have worked in other markets; the consulting skills to distill that research down to actionable insights; the creative skills to turn that insight into a singular concept; the technical skills to deliver that concept across multiple media channels; and the communications skills to reach all stakeholders with the message.

PR people, he says, need to get better at incorporating both research and digital creativity into their work. He cited an individual working for the digital practice of a PR agency in Asia, who told him, “My role is to sprinkle digital ‘fairy dust’ on a presentation or proposal,” and warned that that kind of thinking will have to change.

“We need to be able to deliver ideas that are distinctive but credible; that are relatable—a brand has to be like a person you want to be friends with; that are sustainable for two or three years, because otherwise you are going to burn through your marketing budget very quickly; that are extendable into other channels and disciplines.”

To achieve that, digital needs to be embedded in any agency—it can’t be just another “practice”—and digital experts need to have resources, including data and analytics and a creative studio, to support them in creating both strategies and content.

“There are things that have always been great about PR,” he says. “Our ability to focus on business goals, our creativity, and our focus on multiple stakeholders and not just consumers. These are things we have to continue to do. But the tools we use have to evolve.”