PR agencies. Does size matter?

Big companies need big agencies.  Right?  Wrong.  Big companies THINK they need big agencies.  Why?  Because they need access to the ‘big brains’ that sit in big agencies and the army of staff that can be brought to the task when needed.  Now of course the reality is that in 99.99999% of situations the client doesn’t work with anyone else but their appointed account lead and the team at their disposal.  In most cases that means a pretty small team are working day to day with the client.  Such a workload doesn’t require a big agency.  It requires an agency with talent.  So the answer to the question: ‘does size matter?’ is “No.’  Of course it doesn’t really matter what the answer to the question is because, like all things, human nature gets involved in the decision.  Big companies (and even small ones who want to be big) don’t need big agencies.  But, they WANT a big agency, just like they want a car that costs $100,000 even though it does the same thing a car that cost $30,000.  In other words clients (at a certain level) want to appoint an agency that makes a statement just like they do with all purchasing decisions.  On that basis being small isn’t the problem.  On that basis giving them a reason to tell everyone why you are such an amazing firm is.  Confused?  You should be.

Is the PR recession over?

Economists seem to agree that by and large the major economies of the world are no longer in recession.  But it’s clear that while some industries are back to growth, others are still mired in there very own recession.  So, is the PR industry one of the growth industries or is it still in recession?  The answer is potentially ‘yes’ to both of these questions.  I’d argue that the PR industry has emerged from the recession as a different business. It’s had to.

Pre recession, the PR industry was drifting towards digital and in particular social media/networks.  The recession accelerated PR down that path in ways that will change the industry forever.  Put another way the deliverables that clients rightly expect post recession are different.  Very different.  Post recession clients expect to understand communities and the conversations taking place in those communities.  They also want to take part in these conversations, or at the very least influence them.  They may also want to create their own communities.  This is real ‘public relations’ and it’s a huge opportunity for the industry.  Yet some agencies still view the world the old way.  They view PR as a process that drivcs headlines and creates events.  They think that a blog entry is effectively another headline.  In other words they are not measuring communities and conversations, they are measuring the volume a client can talk at.  These agencies are going to have to adapt and fast, or their recession will last a long time.  A very long time.

The agencies that are embracing a new way of measuring success are coming out of this recession with a great opportunity.  They are speaking the new language of marketing and delivering services to match.  They are not confined by what media or events exist.  Instead they create and influence communities and the conversations that are taking place using the best available tools.  Truth is the agencies that are on this path don’t really think of themselves as PR agencies anymore and they certainly don’t fear agencies that still deliver ‘old style PR.’  This is because the approaches they are taking require skills from a wider range of disciplines.  It’s also because they don’t measure success like they used to.

So, if you want to know if your agency is still in recession, ask yourself how you define success for a client.  The answer to that will tell you a lot about your prospects for the next few years.

Should PR agencies play client politics?

PR agencies often get caught up in the politics of their clients.  It could be departments that are at war; marketing heads that refuse to let anyone but them talk to the CEO; PR plans that are designed to keep CEOs happy rather than do what the client’s business objectives need.  Agency staff often scratch their heads when such things happen but in the end they tend to go with the flow for fear of losing the business.  This isn’t consultancy though.  Instead this is being an a … well you know the word.

So how can agencies be real consultants in a world where so many clients behave irrationally?  It’s not easy and it isn’t simply a case of being principled.  If you fired every client because they refused to act as they should, you’d have no clients.  Indeed the politics that cause clients to behave strangely are more deep rooted than just the PR department, they are often company-wide issues.  In most cases if the CEO really knew what was going on he, or she, would scream the house down.  But of course in some cases the CEO is the cause of the politics.  CEOs that run their businesses by fear, often create dysfunctional but often quite successful businesses.  And this is where as a consultant we should step back and make the important calls.

My advice is very simple.  If a client is behaving irrationally look at whether that behavior is stopping the company from being successful.  A good example here would be Apple, which is notorious for being irrational.  But you can’t argue with the success of the company or the level of its PR for that matter.  If the client is succeeding despite the issues you can see, then you should find sensible ways to deal with the challenges the client is creating.  This may mean gently pushing a better agenda and approach.  In other words be a consultant BUT recognize the limitations of your assignment.  The exception is of course where the client’s behavior is damaging your business by destroying your staff’s morale etc. In that instant you need to step forward and protect your business.

Where a client is failing as a business AND is behaving irrationally then you need to step up and be a consultant.  If the client refuses to listen to your sage advice and threatens to fire you if you don’t step in line, then I suggest you politely resign the account.

In all cases agencies should not assume they know everything and that the client is stupid.  Agencies often have a great view of a business but it is not always a perfect view.  There is often a lot going on that we can’t see and we need to recognize that.  So in short playing politics should never stop us from being consultants but it may prevent us from being the consultants we’d like to be.

What digital services do PR agencies need to offer?

PR agencies are jumping on the digital bandwagon and rightly so.  But what constitutes digital?  A lot of agencies describe digital as social media relations, or online PR.  In that regard they embrace social networks (they monitor them and find ways to create communities for their clients).  They also embrace bloggers and of course all the online publications and wikis.  Much of this shift to digital is simply replacing traditional media with online content sources.  I’d argue that such an approach is not true digital but a much narrower form of digital communications.  True digital is far more complex and difficult.  My description of digital embraces:

  1. Analytical tools and services that enable companies to fully understand the extent to which they and their rivals are participating in the conversations and communities in the digital world.  And some insight into what to do next!
  2. Search skills and the ability to influence the terms people use when searching for clients and their rivals.  SEO skills are not a part of most PROs toolkits.  They will be though.
  3. The ability to design and build web properties.  Right now agencies are outsourcing the task of designing and building micro-sites etc.  But the structure and content of web properties is increasingly becoming a more central service and not a skill that should sit outside the firm.
  4. Connection to CRM technology and the customer support side of the business.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to find the join between customer relations and public relations, thanks in large part to the online relationships that now exist around brands.  This creates both a technology and skill challenge for agencies.
  5. Creative direction.  The concept of having a creative director is not a common one for many PR agencies.  Indeed, we often assume that all our people are creative.  With the convergence of digital advertising and digital communications, many clients actually expect to see a creative director.  Furthermore, B2B PR actually needs another level of creativity.  In B2B PR we are so used to focusing on key messages that we can forget the value of simply making people enjoy their connection with the brand.  Consumer PR people understand this challenge well, which is why creative teams and creative directors are more common in that world.  Put another way, we engage with brands intellectually AND emotionally.  B2B PR tends to focus on the former.  In a digital world it has the chance to put equal focus on the latter.  Bring on the creative director.
  6. Community building skills.  PR firms are used to leveraging influence through existing communities.  For example we use the editorial or blogger community to get our messages out there.  We are embracing Facebook and Twitter but we need to do a LOT more.  We need people who can really build communities.  This thinking goes well beyond Facebook and even Ning and Grouply.  It needs to embrace online and offline community management skills.

There are actually other areas, such as video content that a true digital agency should embrace but hopefully this shows that digital done right is a lot more than just basic social media relations.  This transition is going to be fascinating. I’m dying to see who the new kings and queens of communications will be.

Great PR versus Good PR

There’s a temptation to view companies that get a lot of positive PR as doing great PR.  That’s not always the case though.  Volume alone should not be taken as a metric of success.  Great PR is about building a sustainable and positive relationship with the various audiences that connect to your organization.  To put this another way, I have a good relationship with my mother.  We talk every week and she visits for about eight weeks a year.  But in my world, that doesn’t mean we are constantly talking, emailing or texting.  We have a regular conversation and beyond that we talk when we need to.  It works for us that way.  If I started calling her every day we’d probably upset that balance (I’d annoy her and vice versa).  I believe the same applies to many relationships companies have with their customers and stakeholders.  If they talk too little they can be forgotten or misunderstood. If they talk too much, the conversation gets, well…  boring.

So how do company’s know what the right balance is?  The amount and type of PR has to match several factors:

1.  The long term business goals of the company – how much change is the business going through and therefore how much needs to be discussed?  Does the company have a well laid out long term plan or ambition?  Matching communications to both the short and long term commercial goals of the company isn’t easy but is vitally important.  Most companies, in my experience, focus on the former and rarely keep an eye on the latter.

2.  The personality of the company – is the brand defined as an intellectual, quiet type or a gregarious talkative type?  Let’s be clear the personality of a company is often closely linked to the personality of its CEO.  So don’t try and write a PR plan for a company without getting to know what the CEO is really like.

3.  The competition – the mistake here is that people assume you have to do more PR than the rival.  You don’t.  Instead you need to do better PR and more authentic PR.  People want a real conversation not a loud one.

4.  What is expected – what a company has done in the past is what is expected in the future.  Changing the style and volume will make people ask questions.  Do you want that attention?

As PR people we can often forget that people will remember a truly great piece of PR (or a truly bad one).  A focus on the quality and not the quantity should therefore be the starting place for any PR plan.  Would a company’s objectives be better served by a great cover story every six months than ten short news stories?  Not always I agree but in many cases it would.

So once again, “less is more.”

Toyota’s PR nightmare

Toyota appeared to have made all the smart moves in the car industry. Their big bet on hybrids gave them a market when gas prices soared, leaving the US auto giants with an SUV dependent product line and a lot of inventory. Just when it looked like the car industry was about to recover Toyota has been hit with a problem that could damage the brand for decades. Sticking gas pedals are worrying for a driver (to say the least). They are made more worrying when the maker of the car a) seems to ignore the problem and b) doesn’t seem to have an immediate fix.

Toyota has been forced on to the defensive, which, as every PR operator knows, is the worst position to be in. Essentially they’ve made it hard for people to trust them. As a Toyota Prius owner I am amazed by the lack of direct communication. It’s as if they simply hope the problem will go away.

Toyota can get through this. But they need to focus on rebuilding trust and not simply saying sorry. That means doing things that will earn that trust. Right now, Toyota’s tag line of ‘moving forward’ couldn’t be funnier.