Fashion PR in the Digital Age

YSL Tweet Denying Pilati Rumours | Source: Twitter

LONDON, United Kingdom — Though they may have been slow off the mark — and indeed much slower than many of their clients might have liked — it is quickly dawning upon the fashion industry’s most respected public relations firms that their once cushy domain is being rapidly disrupted by digital media.

Simply put, no longer is it enough for PR firms to court editors of monthly magazines for editorial coverage over long boozy lunches and manage guest lists for fashion shows and events. Today’s high-powered fashion publicists are coming down from their ivory towers to help clients manage the new, constantly changing paradigm of digital fashion communication, while continuing their focus on personal relationships, which, it turns out, are more important than ever before.

Today, in exclusive conversations with the industry’s leading publicists, BoF examines how new media has transformed the PR landscape and how the sector’s top agencies are adapting to life in the digital age.

Reputation management in an always-on communication cycle

“We now think in terms of information streams,” said Brian Phillips, president and chief executive officer of Black Frame, the elite New York agency that works with some of the industry’s most sought after emerging brands, including Rodarte, Nicholas Kirkwood and Band of Outsiders.

“Temporal boundaries on news no longer exist because of the possibility to feed and fill websites, blogs and Twitter with information at all times. We determine with clients what comprises their stream and these decisions are happening around the clock,” explained Mr. Phillips.

Daniel Marks, the highly-respected director of London-based The Communications Store (TCS) — which counts Net-a-Porter and Christopher Kane on its client roster — agreed. “The resource that the digital revolution created is extraordinary — allowing anyone to find information about a brand, a magazine or a personality,” he said. “Part of our job is to ensure that that information is correct.”

The importance of rapid response reputation management cannot be overstated. In the digital world, unsubstantiated rumours can run wild based on little more than a casual conversation, captured in an out-of-context tweet, ultimately reaching hundreds of thousands of people and feeding further speculation on quick-fire fashion news websites.

The most recent example of this came with speculation about potential successors to John Galliano as creative director of Dior, but Galliano is not alone. In recent seasons, everyone from Alber Elbaz to Karl Lagerfeld to Stefano Pilati has been dogged by rumours which have been turbo-charged by social media.

More publicists are intervening directly in the social conversation to nip false information in the bud. Indeed, it was a tweet from the official YSL account which finally put to rest the persistent rumours of Pilati’s impending dismissal, saying simply “Pilati busy working on the next collection. All the rumors unfounded – he is here to stay.”

Then there are those rumours that are true, but get leaked early. Mr. Marks of TCS recalls one such recent situation. “We were waiting until after fashion week to announce a new collaboration between J Brand and Christopher Kane,” he explained. “A very high profile editor-in-chief, who was privy to the information, gave an interview to an online video crew and mentioned the new collaboration. The editor was unaware that the information was embargoed as the designer had not told her.”

Sensing an opportunity out of the editor’s unintended scoop spreading online, TCS issued a release announcing the new collaboration slightly ahead of time. “Online means you have to be nimble as a PR,” asserted Mr. Marks. “Reaction times have to be quicker and more efficient.”

Relationships — not numbers — count most in blogger engagement

Of all the social media phenomena surrounding the fashion industry, possibly none has received more attention than the rise of the fashion blogger. Fashion publicists are the first to acknowledge the growing importance of this new breed of fashion influencer, but emphasise that relationships drive decisions about which bloggers to work with.

“We can see very directly who helps sell products or who has the greatest influence and number of followers,” said Mr Marks. “Some of the selection process is based on numbers, but much of it is based on good personal relationships.”

Relationship-building with bloggers reached new levels during the New York Fashion Week just past, when PR Consulting founder Pierre Rougier encouraged his clients, Proenza Schouler designers Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, to speak at the Independent Fashion Bloggers (IFB) Conference, just days before they debuted their critically acclaimed Autumn/Winter 2011 collection.

This kind of active blogger engagement strategy may have appeared as an abrupt volte-face for Mr. Rougier, who like many other fashion publicists had been reluctant to engage with the blogosphere at first. But at the IFB Conference, evidence of his change of heart (and mind) couldn’t have been more clear. “Our goal is to maximise our clients’ place on the web and to enhance visibility for all that they do, in addition to promoting and driving users to all their social media channels,” he said.

But agencies are still exercising caution when it comes to blogger engagement. “Sites such as Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and The Business of Fashion are now institutional publishing organisations that follow journalistic codes. We tend not to work with self-published blogs, unless we have long term relationships built with the individuals behind them,” said Mr. Phillips of Black Frame.

Monitoring, amplifying and measuring social buzz

But as KCD senior vice president of public relations Rachna Shah points out, social media engagement transcends the fashion blogosphere.

“The digital revolution has given a voice and a relevance to a much larger, more diverse group,” she said. “The ascent of bloggers has certainly been a buzz topic for the media, but it’s really the interactive role of the public and the consumers that have produced the most significant shift.”

Ms. Shah’s point is a critical one. With the rise of social media and user-generated content, the balance of power between fashion companies and end consumers, in terms of who shapes overall brand perception, has shifted dramatically. In fact, communal consumer conversations are already drowning out official brand communications.

Mesh Chhibber, managing partner of Relative MO, agreed. “The official agenda is no longer set by newspapers of record,” he said. “We can now see how Twitter can drive the communications agenda. It changes everything.”

Indeed, when they find the right opportunities, many PRs — including Relative MO, PR Consulting, Starworks, and more recently, KCD — are using their own Twitter accounts to amplify positive conversations about their clients. “We have a Twitter account that acts synergistically with what our clients are doing online already, and further enhances the scope of reach for everything we work on,” explained Mr. Rougier. But Mr. Marks of TCS — which does not have an agency-level Twitter account — sees things somewhat differently. “We are here to amplify our clients’ voices — not our own,” he said.

To track, measure and understand consumer sentiment and opinions, PR firms are also beginning to use social media monitoring tools like and Radian 6, as well as analytics tools like Google Analytics, Quantcast and Klout to measure online influence.

“We definitely take advantage of online tools to report on web analytics and monitor and quantify social buzz,” said Ms Shah. “As we move forward, Twitter and other social mentions will become widely accepted as legitimate PR value, so we’ll continue to research tools that give us more accurate figures in terms of social reach as these only strengthen and diversify our impact as publicists.”

Streamlining traditional PR processes with digital tools

But Digital PR is not restricted to communications alone. For several seasons now, fashion PRs have been integrating digital tools into their operational processes, particularly those that involve complex logistics such as event planning, inventory management, and sample tracking. More recently, they have been ditching their trademark clipboards and brandishing snazzy new iPad guest lists instead.

Much of this new technology is powered by Fashion GPS, an emerging leader in developing technology tools designed for the fashion PR industry. “I wanted to digitise and streamline the entire process including reporting, which was the most apparent requirement at the time,” explained Fashion GPS founder and chief executive Eddie Mullon. “Initially, I developed a very primitive version of Fashion GPS just for KCD’s sample tracking, but the underlying spirit and incentives carried over to all areas of the fashion process.”

Today, Fashion GPS’ tools and technologies have been implemented by more than 80 clients, including KCD, Starworks Group, Arcadia Group and Louis Vuitton, and more than 1 million samples have been trafficked worldwide.

But while new tools and technologies are an important part of PR in the digital era, these can never replace real insider knowledge. “Nothing beats recognising an editor in person to show them to their seat at a show and knowing their deadlines, filing days, what inspires them,” cautioned Daniel Marks. “No amount of technology can teach a PR that.”

Building digital expertise from inside — and out

Most of the PR agencies admitted that they are still learning how to exploit the potential of social media in favour of their clients, and many are seeking external advice or hiring experts from non-fashion agencies to bolster their digital media expertise. KCD and Starworks are going one step further, building out entire divisions focused on digital PR.

“Previously KCD had two main divisions, PR and Production (handling fashion show and events), but KCD Digital will marry digital elements of both divisions and apply our fashion expertise to not only clients within the fashion industry but also to digital or technology brands seeking fashion industry access,” explained Ms. Shah, whose team was behind Nicola Formichetti’s first Mugler fashion show, the social media event of the season.

Starworks Group founder and chief executive James Grant has also prioritised the digital agenda, hiring individuals across all disciplines of digital marketing to be led by Rob Holzer, the newly-named global director of digital and integrated services for Starworks, serving clients including Loewe, Kate Spade and SHOWstudio.

“His keen business perspective and creative expertise in this area has already invigorated an impressive roster of fashion, beauty and lifestyle brands and will serve as a vital asset to the agency as we look to grow and expand our portfolio,” said Mr. Grant in a press release. Prior to setting its sights on digital PR, Starworks had already been moving from its core celebrity placement and casting business into fashion PR.

What’s clear is that Mr. Grant and his counterparts see digital PR as a huge opportunity for their clients, and a significant opportunity for their own agency growth and survival in the digital age.

“If brands can fully understand how to leverage their messaging and assets across digital platforms and engage with an active audience,” he said, “they can utilise the most powerful communications and sales tool that has ever existed in fashion.”

Imran Amed is founder and editor of The Business of Fashion

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  1. Nice little write up… however I’m left scratching my head a bit, not much leaned here? There’s certainly more of a ‘conversation’ online surrounding the fashion industry and many socialites use interfaces such as twitter an facebook. However, I strongly disagree that many fashion blogs are having a colossal impact within the industry, in fact it has been blown out of all proportion. BoF is 100% unique and stands detached from the fashion blog fraternity, the fundamentals are on business and provide a general round up each day on wholly edited articles in International broadsheets. For me personally, I find most fashion blogs awash with useless information that is incredibly, erm, frivolous and most certainly does not drive continued growth or even far superior brand awareness. The only reason most blogs have come to light is they’ve exploited a window of opportunity, establshed publications have been slow to react. Now they have, they’re once again providing the more interesting content, DazedDigital, Monocle etc… we’ll also find retailers online providing far more interesting content, seen with net-a-porter, farfetch, asos, the corner etc…there’s going to come a ‘flushing down the pan’ episode shortly, unless you are a blog with seriously hot content and a well educated following that are genuinely intrigued, you’ll be washed away with the majority of the ‘blogosphere’. I’m not PR, or and editor, this is purely my unbiased opinion on what I personally spend my time reading online. You can’t just replicate high-end journalism with bitesize, daily nonsense that is mind numbingly trivial. The filtering phase has already been entered, so if you’re a blogger, you best step up to the mark and produce something of note, or face eternal exclusion. Concerning brands having to force-feed PR via these channels, they need to be equally careful, perhaps they should focus on a great product and allow the PR to take care of itself.

    moi from United Kingdom
  2. Just about every business can benefit from a social media strategy and it appears the Fashion Industry is no exception. There are already great things happening across the social web in the fashion industry. We appreciate the mention!

    Best wishes,

    Trish (@Dayngr)
    Community Manager | Radian6

  3. Moi, I see where you’re coming from, it may appear that the smaller blogs have no influence and that ultimately it’s those that have a traditional approach to editorial have a longer reaching voice. But the reality is that these emerging blogs and bloggers have a much broader influence than the traditional sites, it’s just the way it’s trending.

    Let’s face it—when it comes to consumers online in the fashion space, all they really want are the images and a level of personalisation around that content— long highly researched pieces, although easy to read on a train, don’t have the same reach as shorter pieces of content that can be disseminated easily. Blog owners have seemed to be able to catch on to this and are better at engaging with their audience to acquire great content than the larger publications that dick people around—including brands, agencies and the public. The wider influence of these smaller blogs is that most people in editorial are following these sites anyway and that content gets copied or reblogged on Tumblr and suddenly you’re seeing one brand across a series of blogs until you see a larger publication write about it.

    On the other side of things, you need to just look at the numbers i.e. online traffic and its relationship to sales. I run a company that powers e-commerce for around 70 fashion brands around the world. Next to Facebook (number 1), Google (number 2) and Twitter (number 3), the majority of traffic that is being generated is by these smaller blogs, and that traffic is generating sales. So, if you run a PR firm and you actually know what your job is (which is not to place editorial, but to make your client money), who should you gift or loan to? The editor at a large online publication, who may lose half the collection or just sell those clothes at the next christmas party raffle, or a individual who’ll probably wear it, post it on their blog and tell the world about it?

    Apologies if this has come across as a rant, just hoping to add to the general discussion and appreciate the commentary. (And please tell me I’m an idiot @portableandrew :)

  4. Moi, sorry, but I have to agree with the opinion of Andrew above, regarding your response to the original article. There is a digital revolution and with it has come a series of new paradigms,with more to come.
    You obviously have chosen well your primary sources, i.e, Monocle, Dazed, and BOF, but I can assure you that if you take the time, you will find viable content in surprising places.
    “tree trunk news” or legacy printed news, and legacy news media, chases the bloggers and twitterers,who more often have breaking news. In some cases, stated above, the nimble PR can take control and ensure validity.
    In the growing realm of the fashion bloggers, as in any domain, quality content will vary, but fashion is no longer the niche of the socialites and couture consumer, but has become much more global. Powered by the Internet, a shopper in Beijing might be influenced by something seen worn by someone in Brooklyn, and streetshot by a traveling trend forecaster , whose photo is seen by a Parisian designer….et voila ! Should we denounce the validity of the interconnection of the deterritorilization of the reportage?

    Andrew from Bourg-de-thizy, Rhône-Alpes, France
  5. A very good article and some interesting follow-up conversations and comments.

    We are a young company and have been thinking about how to engage the online blogger community but have found the going interesting. While the bloggers have a lot of influence now, I also find that most of them are interested in making money from paid posts, so something like Advertorials. This trend is quite concerning we believe, because it takes away the un-biased views.

  6. When it comes to digital PR in fashion, two aspects can be clearly singled out –on the one hand, it is the role that fashion blogs and other online fashion sources play in lives of fashion-conscientious people, on the other hand – the role of new media in brand promotion. I’d like to dwell upon the first point mentioned.
    It seems to be evident that fashion now is closely connected with the Internet as well as all the other aspects of life since it’s a common channel to get ideas and trends. No doubt about it, virtual life dominates the reality these days – we communicate, buy things and entertain ourselves via web. Naturally, we can witness corresponding processes – meetings are being supplanted by online conferences, online shops are growing more popular day by day, the industry of online games, dates, etc. is also rapidly developing. More to that, each individual nowadays exists in the network space – here I mostly mean personal pages and blogs. The modern blog evolved from the online diary; later on, blog started to serve as a platform for self-promotion – now one’s blog posts no longer contain just a running account of their personal lives but tell the blogosphere about the user as an individual brand. Thus, those who are interested in fashion began to report on it. That’s how fashion blogs emerged. Taking this into consideration, one may conclude that fashion blogs are composed by people keen on fashion who gather the latest trends to keep a track. This is the reason why they are respected and followed by a great amount of people who want to stay up-to-date. Before the Internet was introduced the knowledge about style was obtained with the help of quite the same mechanisms – watching people you want to resemble, looking at photos of stars and models. Now the way to become stylish is to keep monitoring fashion blogs, magazines and to pay attention to what your fashionable friends tend to wear. Besides, if we speak about the youth and its fashion we should bear in mind that as the most popular styles in this case are casual, hipster and street style – often the fashion takes its roots from videos of certain subcultural groups as well as music videos of popular bands.
    As of the impact of fashion blogs on brand recognition, it all started as non-deliberate mentioning. But now brands are eager to invest into blogs. Probably fashion blogs are not as popular as social nets but a kind of fashion blogs exists there too. Let’s take Facebook. Almost every company has a personal page there that is constantly updated. All this proves that transformation of PR into digital tool is inevitable.

  7. Is there a labor dispute at the up coming Freize Art Fair in NYC?

    Tony Leddy from Bethesda, MD, United States