The PR Agency of the future?

Posted on 24/03/2011

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I attended a fascinating debate last night, hosted by the PRCA, on the future of public relations agencies – but one which raised more questions than it answered.

So, here’s my take on the answers to the five big issues raised…

1) Talent. Or lack thereof.

There’s a real issue with the PR industry being able to attract and keep the best talent. The solution to this one is pretty clear. We need to move away from the idea that a degree is a starting point for entry to our industry. Some of the best PRs I’ve worked with never finished, or even started a degree. Yet agency owners got lazy. To take on a PR Apprentice means you take someone on for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years and give proper training at the outset. People wanted a quick solution to staffing and the boom in graduates provided it.

Now, there’s a almost universal academic snobbery around trainees – all agencies have ‘graduate trainees’. But few have Apprentices. This is crazy. Apprentices can take on the admin workload of a graduate, many are just as passionate about the media (some even more so), willing to work hard and…. the government will subsidise them.

There’s another benefit to broadening entry points to the industry. Diversity will improve. With improved diversity will come a better understanding of audiences / communities and improved creativity.

We also need to limit the hiring in ‘dazzle dazzle‘ former journalists and politicians who (in the most dangerous cases) have no clue what they are doing when it comes to communications strategy (thanks to Karen Wagg for responding to my question on this point). Their presence is creating a glass ceiling for many PRs – why bother seeking to get to the top if you won’t get there.

2) Integration. Or the threat it poses to PR agencies.

Integrated communications is a must have. I don’t know of a client who doesn’t want it. But in reality, does anyone really have what it takes to deliver it? Traditional ad agency egos mean precious (read expensive)  TV creatives must have dominance, the PR’s guard jealously their access to journalists and senior clients (mainly because of the crisis element of our work) and the direct marketing people have loads of pretty graphs to show why they are vital. So, actually, this is an issue for the entire marketing industry. To address it, agencies have a choice.

Either join with a group of like minded marketing agencies (oh, go on then, that includes Band & Brown in the EdC / Cossette group) and look to integrate the best of each discipline. Or concentrate on being as good as you can be in PR (in all its forms) and be clear where you sit in the mix.  And work on an equal footing with other disciplines (it seemed that this is the route the panellists from Edelman and H&K favoured).

Or, and this is probably the most exciting option, just start again. Create a marketing agency from scratch, which is equipped for the 21st Century.

Regardless of which route you take, be clear on what you do (are you a conversation, engagement, reputation, content, advocacy agency – or all of the above) and prove you can do it well.

3) Measurement. Or trying to prove what we do works.

The most popular Tweet of the night came from Candace Kuss:

Conversation agency?? Attention agency??? Engagement agency? I’m betting clients may cosy up to a Results agency. #prcadebate

Right, so let’s prove what we do works. But how do we define ‘works’! As I tweeted last night:

‘A pile of clips is just a starting point’ (@marshallmanson)… As is a tweet, a like or sharing a YouTube video for that matter #PRcadebate

The number of ‘opportunities to see’ a client brand or message generated by a PR agency is only a means to an end. We need better tracking as to how many people really take that ‘opportunity’ and then what happens once someone has consumed that message. What action do they take? I’m not about to reveal all our agency’s thinking on this, as it’s worth a whole post in itself, but let’s all agencies agree to sign up to the principle of going beyond volume.

4) Social media is a distraction. Or, don’t fall for all the claims of evangelists.

A tweet from Danny Whatmough:

Are social media guys too zealous? “the solution to everything is social” they are too one dimensional #prcadebate

Well, simple answer is yes. Some.

Social media only ever was and ever will be a channel with which to engage people. Trying to fight a turf war over which marketing discipline owns it is like trying to say that ad agencies shouldn’t take out print ads because that’s a PR’s patch.

Trying to get a client an ‘earned’ message/brand mention in any form of media is clearly PR, where it’s communicating via an ‘owned’ channel it could be any agency delivering (including internal comms, PR and digital) and where it’s ‘bought’ media space / attention it’s more likely to be an ad agency’s territory. The key, really, is who has the most effective ideas to communicate with people through each of these channels.

5) We need to get over ourselves. Or, are you still reading?

PRs are not lawyers, we are not management consultants. We are PRs. We communicate. We create advocacy for brands. Let’s just stick to that, eh? And let’s stop looking so inwardly and be bolder in celebrating what we do (although let’s try and limit the celebrations to marketing and business media – whenever PR makes it into the nationals it’s usually just damaging to our industry’s reputation)!