PR agencies do more than drive news BUT they do tend to focus on the news cycle a great deal for obvious reasons. Yet PR has to recognize that the way we consume news has changed drastically in the last five years. Five years ago people had a primary news source, either via broadcast or a daily newspaper. Today they have a broad array of news sources that includes these same outlets, albeit online, but also includes bloggers, friends and people they follow on Twitter or are connected to on LinkedIn. In such a fragmented market for information it is harder for companies to control their message. This makes it far more important that companies determine the insight they want the news to create, which in will in turn drive the way they engage with the brand. Yet all too often companies are so focussed on how to best to get the news out that they spend little, if any, time on what the news means and what they expect the people who should be connected to that news to do as a result. In a world where we are drowning in information, the brand that goes the extra mile and helps us figure out how to make use of that information will win. For PR agencies this means changing the way we think about the news cycle. We need to work with our clients to make sure they understand the real and or desired implications of the news they want to promote. There’s an old saying – there’s no such thing as bad news. Perhaps PR consultants should worry less about the news and more about the insight. Insight drives behaviors and actions and without these a client may well wonder why they engaged with you in the first place.
The race is on for agencies to build their digital assets. Get it right and PR firms will grow faster than they have in decades. Get it wrong and they’ll have a struggle on their hands. So as agency heads look at their talent base and their potential new hires, they have a tough question to answer. Do they hire experienced marketing professionals who have some digital skills or the typically younger, more digitally literate who have only limited experience? Sadly for the more experienced group, the answer appears to be that agencies are trending towards hiring younger digerati, rather than grey hairs. This in turn is reshaping agency structures, product offerings, and pricing. To twist an old saying, we are who we hire. With agencies moving from a classic pyramid model towards something that looks more like a coat hanger, the opportunities for today’s experienced professionals are becoming fewer by the day. Is this fair? Probably not but this drive to hire younger, cheaper talent is in part the result of another force, not just digital. Client procurement departments have acted like sand paper on PR budgets for years and have increasingly made it more desirable to hire doers over strategists.
Most agencies are racing to build a ‘new’agency on top of their existing one. While they do need some experience to prevent the thing from collapsing in heap, what they need most is staff that can get on and ‘do’ at a price point that makes the investments the agencies are making viable. This effectively forces agencies to hire lower cost staff. These of course tend to be kids from college who have no real experience but can tell you anything you want to know about Facebook and Twitter. For this generation, SEO is a form of grammer and html was a choice alongside Spanish and French at school. Given a brand is now defined by the size and strength of its social network, it’s hardly surprising that many agencies will value these skills over someone who has known the editors at a business publication for a decade.
So is it all doom and gloom for us oldies? Far from it. We can start and build these new agencies, they do after all need some adult supervision. We can also explore the boundaries of owned, earned and paid media. These are the places where real value lies and where experience can really come to the fore. But we cannot assume that because we have decades of experience that our futures are secure. We have to bring something of value to the transition to digital. Identifying what this is is crucial and could yet save the careers of many. We are in an era of marketing where the value of experience is trending downward. In years to come that will of course change as digital becomes the norm but for now the digital natives are set to become the new leaders. That may not be what people want to hear but our industry is, like many, Darwinian. In our case the fittest are the digerati.
PR agencies have been people businesses for as long as I can remember. Yet the emergence of digital has created the opportunity for these same agencies to start selling ‘technology based solutions’ (an overused phrase I know). These ‘solutions’ cover areas such as analytics, blogs, email marketing, micro site development… the list goes on. Most agencies outsource this development to… developers. This is largely because most agency heads can write a press release or a blog but wouldn’t have a clue about how to write code. Many agencies can see that if they want to get away from an hourly business model they need to sell technology IP and ideally IP that can be resold to many clients without much additional development effort. Again, though, most agencies simply don’t have the skills in house to develop the technology, or even the skills to effectively manage the development of technology. In other words, if agencies really do want to sell ‘technology solutions’ they are going to have to start hiring developers AND people capable of managing these people. If this happens the idea of a PR agency have a CTO (chief technology officer) that is client facing will become commonplace. Does your agency have a CTO? Should it?
In the last few years, PR people have rightly stopped talking about stories and started talking about conversations. The idea being that brands can start or join conversations that their customers are interested in, or are already having. They can do this by contributing news, perspective, insight and raw content. This shift is both important to the way PR is carried out and to the role it plays in the marketing process. It opens new doors and new budgets for an industry that has long believed it deserves a bigger slice of the marketing pie. But I’d like to remind PR people about something advertisers have known for a long time. Getting our attention doesn’t necessarily mean engaging in a conversation with us. My daughter’s laptop can often get her attention without any information being exchanged. She simply enjoys watching entertaining content, or playing some mindless game. She is no different from any of us in this respect. We all have parts to our day when we simply want someone to take over our brains and let us escape. Advertisers have figured this out to the extent that during some computer games, such as a car racing game, you will see billboards advertising products. They recognize that the brands that ‘sponsor’ escapism are as important as the brands that sponsor educating us about the important issues of the day or the decisions we have to make.
Now the idea of creating content that helps people escape isn’t something you hear a lot in PR meetings. PR meetings tend to be all about getting the message across in an increasingly noisy market. But what if you created content such as a game or a video that was just so darned entertaining that people WANTED to watch it AND they knew your brand had sponsored this little mental vacation? Wouldn’t that be just as powerful as that major news item you were hoping to get someone to blog about? I’m not for a minute suggesting that we all ditch conversation management and move to entertainment. I’m simply suggesting that digital channels open the doors for PR to much more than just conversations. Try this on for size in your next PR brainstorm. Oh and happy 2011.
I was asked by someone this week how much they should spend on PR in the US for 2011 (yes it’s that time of year again). They’re a small business with a small budget and they feel they’ve not been getting the results they want. My answer was that they were spending too little with the wrong agency. Now you’d expect me to say that given Next Fifteen is parent to a bunch of PR agencies. But this common question got me thinking and so in order to help prospective marketing heads, here’s a simple scorecard that you could use to try and figure out what you need to spend:
1. Are you:
A. A start-up
B. A mid sized
C. A very large company that has an atrium at its head office big enough to house five startups
2. Is your business:
A. Doing really well
B. Making it but not flying
C. Struggling. I know my friends wonder why I stay at the company.
3. Is your senior management:
A. Really engaged in PR
B. Does it when asked
C. Too busy talking to customers/playing golf
4. Is your management:
A. Good at talking to the media and always gives great perspective and quotes
B. OK at talking to the media but sometimes over complicates things
C. They’re too busy playing golf – they don’t give interviews
5. Is your company:
A. The market leader in a recognized space
B. The business that is trying to catch the market leader
C. A business trying to create a new category so that it doesn’t have to compare itself with the market leader
6. If someone reviewed your product would they give it:
A. 5 stars (out of five)
B. 3.5 stars
C. We definitely wouldn’t let them review it but we’d direct them to a real cool demo on our web site
7. Does your CEO:
A. Have a really great blog that everyone reads
B. Have a blog but they are poor about maintaining it
C. Think blogging is just a fad and that newspapers will rise again to push them out of existence
8. Does your business have something genuinely interesting to say/announce:
A. Every few days
B. Every month
C. Interesting to say? Can you give me a bit more detail on what you mean by interesting?
9. Does your company:
A. Put out news, links etc on Twitter every day
B. Put out news and links etc on Twitter every week
C. What’s Twitter?
Now, for every question you answered A to give yourself 10 points. For B’s score zero and C’s score -10. When you have the answer you are then ready to calculate your spend. So, if you answered all As, then you would have scored 80. In this instance you would be a startup and should spend $15,000 per month plus 90%. In other words you should spend $28,500 a month. If you answered A to question one and Cs for the rest, then you’d have a score of -70. This means you should spend $4.5k a month. Given this is a stupidly small amount to spend with an agency you shouldn’t bother. If you answered B to everything you would be a mid sized business that turns the handle. In this instance your PR spend should be around 5% of revenues. If you answered C to the first question and all the rest, then you are about become a B company. You are probably looking for a new job so I suspect PR spend is pretty low on your list of priorities. If, by some miracle, you are interested in PR spend, you should be aware that your company doesn’t care about PR and it seems highly likely PR isn’t going to solve the issues it faces (note your CEO is too busy playing golf to worry about PR, so you should be too busy interviewing to worry about the PR budget).
As I hope you can tell, the point I’m trying to make here (somewhat lightheartedly), is that there are some normal amounts that companies should spend on PR and that they relate to their revenues AND their ability to fully leverage what PR is capable of doing for them. Spokespeople that aren’t willing to commit the time, crappy products and a business that is struggling don’t make for a great PR campaign. Struggling companies can make a great story IF the management is seen to be engaged and has a plan etc. but they also need to believe that PR is a key part of the plan to get the business going and invest in it properly both with time and money. Some of you might feel that you need to spend more if you have an average company with average products etc. You can but in this instance, you need to demonstrate PR’s potential and get management to embrace it before asking for more money. If they believe, you’ll get every dollar you need. You may also question, why companies that believe in PR and use it well, need to spend more. I’d argue that when a company makes full use of PR and is getting good results, it should spend all it can and then some.
Good luck with the budget games for 2011!