What does a modern PR agency look like?

“The world of PR, particularly in the B2B space, is evolving and many agencies are struggling to break out of outdated and constrained mindsets”. These are the words of Mike Sottak, managing director at The Hoffman Agency, as he discusses how PR must evolve if it wishes to thrive. He says that first clients (and their agencies) must think of themselves as publishers and not rely solely on third-party publications to tell their story.

Sottak adds: “Whilst earned media through traditional PR, media relations and publishers is still critical, that’s only part of the story. Today companies must spend much more time and effort developing their own content and disseminating it through a variety of channels – from blogs to e-zines. Content is king today.”

Producing engaging content is not enough on its own. Sottak says: “We must understand the connection between PR and SEO, and this is virgin territory for a lot of agencies. There are specialist SEO firms, of course, but they don’t necessarily bring the domain knowledge to effectively develop the content to begin with. It is also important to think visually. PR practitioners are bogged down in the written word, and we need to use images, photos, charts and infographics much more to develop engaging content and tell our stories. We are seeing more design resources becoming a part of the total PR solution.”

To keep existing clients happy, and entice new clients, agencies are desperately trying to be all things to all men. Giles Fraser, co-founder of PR firm Brands2Life, lists just a few skills modern agencies need: “Whilst great people and organisational skills are, as ever, important for everyone, there is a growing need for all consultants to have broader strategy and marketing skills. Agencies also need specialists in areas such as writing and content, visual and broadcast, analytics, design and creative, project management and web development. The ability to consult with senior client management is also a really important skill as the role of the agency expands.”

Agreeing that there is immense pressure on agencies to provide skills that may be out of their comfort zone, Andy Barr, head of agency 10Yetis PR, says: “PR agencies are evolving into one-stop shops for SEO, digital marketing and not forgetting all the associated “normal” public relations campaigns. Similarly, SEO and digital agencies are evolving into PR agencies, what a murky world we now live in. The reality; we in the PR sector are doing the top button of our shirts up, using hipster phrases such as ‘outreach’ and ‘content marketing’ and just going about our normal work, but branding it ‘digital communications‘.”

“Flippant remarks to one side for a second, agencies are seeing a growing need to ’cross-skill’ (Darn! I have used a hipster phrase myself) employees in the ways of SEO, digital marketing, PR, video and content creation so we have teams made up of knowledgeable people, flexible and ready for the demands of the modern-day media and clients.” It may sound daunting providing so many services, but as Barr concludes: “Agencies have never had it so good in terms of opportunities.”

The key to being a modern agency is ensuring you employ the right people. Niki Wheeler, director of agency Launch PR, says that 20-something “millennials” hold the key: “The children of the 80s and 90s have diverse interests and are consummate publicists when it comes to promoting their personal brands online (millennials in the Launch team include a scriptwriter and stand-up comic, a jewellery designer, a former teacher, and a fashion retailer). You’ll spot the good ones because they’ll have a view on your Linkedin connections and Twittesphere before they’ve entered the building, and then they’ll apply the same rules instinctively before they write a release or pitch a story.”

Susanna Simpson, founder and managing director of PR agency Limelight, agrees that young blood is vital in PR: “It’s always been a young industry and will probably only get younger. The secret is to combine business knowledge with technical skill effectively to ensure the best for your clients.”

However, Simpson says that despite all the changes in PR, the core work remains the same: “Our job will always be to communicate. It won’t disappear. In five years or even 50, people will always need advice on how to communicate with their key audiences. What is changing is the ways in which we communicate. New technology is always evolving and new tools are constantly developed. The key will be ensuring you are on top of them and making sure you pick the right ones for your client.” 

Case study

How we are changing

Ben Maynard, EMEA technology practice chair at PR agency Burson-Marsteller, describes how the agency is adapting to modern demands:

“We are seeing more and more companies coming to us at a particular inflection point in their growth. They recognise that they need to make an impact quickly, at scale and across a wide range of influencers. These ‘High Velocity’ businesses are often technology driven and are lean and ambitious. They do not have time for typical approaches to strategy and campaign development – but they do need coherent strategies and creative campaigns. They want agile and focused teams, but need a wide range of disciplines. They want to tell a positive story, but find themselves the subject of negative questioning.”

“Squaring these circles is the challenge we face – and we are answering it by adopting models from other professional services firms. Providing senior counsel, rapid ongoing creativity and idea evolution, plus the security of established best practice and a trusted network of cross discipline specialists both in the UK and globally – we can create hybrid teams that mould to these clients’ needs. We need to adopt the models of these high-velocity clients, challenging and adapting as we go, providing counsel on the fly, in order to continue to deliver stand-out results to this emerging segment.”

More information

To see case studies about how PR agencies are modernising, the PRCA has a library of videos revealing the secrets of innovation from consultancies that have put change at the heart of their businesses, go to http://www.prca.org.uk/futurepragency

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