How PR agencies are ruining their own reputations

Professional public relations practice is about building sustainable and mutually beneficial relationships which are underpinned by trust. We counsel clients on the need for open and transparent communication, again to build trust.

By virtue of the fact that we espouse the importance of trust to our clients, one would expect public relations professionals to practice what they preach. Despite the growth of our £9.62bn industry, we are self-sabotaging relationships with clients to the point where we cannot be trusted.

The self-sabotaging of the public relations industry was laid bare in a recent exploratory survey that I commissioned the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds to carry out. The survey investigated client management and billing practices in the industry, as I was keen to find out if some of the anecdotes about how agencies manage relationships with clients were isolated incidents or part of the culture in the industry.

The findings of the exploratory survey revealed a worrying accountability gap between agencies and their clients, and that work needs to be done to demonstrate that clients are receiving a return on their investment.

Key findings of the exploratory* survey:

  • Only 41 per cent of respondents always provide a service level agreement for their clients.
  • 2 per cent of PR agencies calculate their fees wholly on results.
  • 59 per cent of agencies always keep their ‘pitch’ team as the team on the client account.
  • 42 per cent of PR agencies think there is a need for industry guidance about calculating fee structures and agency rates.38 per cent of PR agencies think there is a need for industry guidance about communicating fee structures and agency rates.

As a profession, we want public relations to be accepted as a strategic management function, yet despite this, we are unable to demonstrate and articulate our value to clients. Just 21 per cent of agencies that took part in the survey said they always provided an estimate of the return on investment (ROI) to clients. How can we be trusted when we cannot be explicit about the impact of our work and how this links to achieving business objectives?

Another aspect of the survey that is a cause for concern is that only 41 per cent of agencies provide their clients with a service-level agreement. It beggars belief that less than half of PR agencies are able to outline basic facts such as the availability of their service and how they will operate to best serve the needs of their clients. Would you trust a business that operated in this fashion?

There are trust issues in the billing process too. The survey revealed that agencies tend not to itemise all costs incorporated into their charges. Why hide them?

There is also a big emphasis on “time spent” when it comes to the methodology of calculating fees, with 68 per cent of agencies questioned using this approach. With the combination of charging clients for time spent and not being able to articulate a ROI for this time, there are clearly a number of PR agencies who are simply wasting clients’ time and money, and delivering nothing of substance.

Although this is an exploratory survey, it should act as a wakeup call to the industry. If we want to be trusted and valued, we must adopt a hands-on, practical and results-orientated approach when it comes to our relationships with clients. PR agencies that are not operating in this manner are charlatans and damage our reputation.


*101 people responded to the survey with 92 completing it in full. Just over half the respondents (55 per cent) were based in London and the South East of England, with the remainder distributed roughly across the UK.

Written by Clare Ward, founder of Clare Public Relations

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