Latest Posts

So what is the future for PR agencies?

 

It can’t just be me who’s noticed that there’s been a lot of debate in recent weeks about the future of the PR agency. Obviously, not just in recent weeks, but it does seem to have become a focused and popular topic of conversation of late.

For those of you who’ve somehow missed it, the two articles below are a helpful introduction:

http://www.holmesreport.com/featurestories-info/13365/10-Ways-To-Design-The-PR-Agency-Of-The-Future.aspx

http://www.thecommsdept.co.uk/a-consulting-assignment/

But, essentially, the more you read around the debate, the more it seems to boil down to a number of fairly broad conclusions: 

1. The current structure of most PR agencies will at some point cease to be fit-for-purpose.

2. No-one knows when that point is – estimates range from now, to two years ago, to not for a while yet.

3. Although lots of people have opinions about what isn’t right, no-one has yet put their finger on exactly the right formula for PR Agencies Mark II, if this indeed exists.

4. This is about much more than “bringing in a social media expert” – it’s about responding to fundamental shifts in communications channels, in the sophistication of audience targeting, and ultimately changes in how clients will want to work with agencies (if at all).

So, I suppose the first piece of good news from all this is, if you’re gripped by a sense of vague foreboding that you should be doing something, or you’re already trying something, but aren’t sure it’s quite right, then you’re not the only one. Indeed, it’s probably a good thing – I strongly suspect if you’re completely convinced you’ve got the right answer already, then you haven’t entirely asked yourself the right question. 

The other piece of good news is, it’s not just us. In recent weeks I’ve read just as many articles from people in advertising and various strands of digital worrying about all the same things that PR agencies do. This could possibly also be viewed as bad news – there isn’t just a simple model somewhere else we can all copy – but to me indicates that we’re not losing out as badly to others in the communications world as we perhaps fear.

The simple fact of the matter is we’re in the middle of one of those seismic shifts that happens to all sectors every-so-often. We’ve had a pretty good run of things, but it’s now becoming increasingly clear that if we don’t get a grip on how our role is changing soon – and even more importantly, start getting ahead of what’s happening so we’re not just being reactive – we’re going to find ourselves caught in the middle of an unholy fight to the death between marketing disciplines. Or worse still, find ourselves becoming old-fashioned, then obsolete.  

And although competitive advantage is obviously important, my personal feeling is that we’re going to have a much greater chance of understanding where we need to be if we pool resources and learnings, and ask ourselves tough questions – why don’t clients use us for a wider range of skills? What have we got wrong already that we can learn from next time? That’s one reason I’m part of the PRCA’s PR Council Working Group on the PR Agency of the Future – to help look at what the industry can usefully do to get better insight and share ideas about next steps. Although I’m not claiming we’re going to instantly come up with the right answers, look out for something hopefully helpful later in the year.

In some ways, it’s very exciting to be part of an industry at a crossroads. In others, it’s slightly terrifying – like walking a tightrope you can’t really see. But the more we talk, the more we share, the clearer the tightrope is going to get, and the better chance we have of staying on it. It’s a challenge I’m really looking forward to.  

 

Does anyone listen to female experts?

The issue of how to make your client a ‘go-to’ person for media comment has always been a thorny one. Indeed, it’s probably because it’s difficult that PR agencies get paid to help with it at all. How can you persuade a Chief Exec who has a hundred other demands on their time to be available and quotable at the drop of a hat, offering genuine insight that marks them out from tens of others? And, even if you can, how can you persuade media to stray from their existing ‘go-to’ people and give your Chief Exec a try?

But, whilst tackling this tricky conundrum, did it ever occur to you that the gender of your spokesperson could be making it even harder? According to Broadcast Magazine’s ‘Expert Women’ campaign, male experts outnumber female by four to one across major TV and radio shows. Earlier in the year, one edition of the BBC News at 10 had a nine to one male to female ratio. There are not four times as many men as women in this country, let alone nine. So the logical conclusion to come to would be that it can be harder to pitch in a female spokesperson – especially around an issue not viewed as traditionally female.

Yet this is only half the story. If you speak to broadcasters in particular, there’s a real sense of wanting to improve the gender balance, and get new women in – indeed, I’ve not found it any harder to get female spokespeople on TV than men. But there’s also a sense that, in some areas, there’s a real shortage of women out there who are willing to put themselves forward, and come across well in the broadcast medium. 

The latter is a slightly chicken and egg situation – you get good at broadcast interviews by doing more of them, so you need to be given your chance. And it’s good to see broadcast is addressing this – not only through their own trade magazine’s campaign, but through initiatives like the BBC’s ‘Expert Women’ days, providing free training and insight to those women who may have a lot to offer, but lack the showreel to prove it.

Bloomberg has also linked up with HerSay – www.hersay.co.uk – a new media resource centre for female experts, to support the women on their database with media training and familiarization with how broadcast in particular works. The evidence shows that these new female-only databases are working, with journalists starting to use them as a resource to ensure better gender balance. But they’re only going to work if they’re populated by the right people. 

Which leads to the final part of the puzzle. I have the great pleasure of working with and knowing many fascinating, articulate women – a significant number of whom would feel intensely awkward about describing themselves as experts and pushing themselves forward. As I’ve written in former blogs, lack of confidence, and the failure to boast a bit can be women’s worst enemy – you’d be very lucky for the media to just coincidentally find out that you’re smart, pithy and a mine of information if you don’t actually tell them.   

Addressing the gender balance in media is important for all sorts of reasons – from providing positive role models, to just making it a bit more interesting to read and listen to. Media, PRs and women in general all have a role to play in making that happen – but with recognition of the problem already leading to progress, I’m optimistic we can all help make that change.

Are partnerships the right route for government comms?

Being slightly nerdy, I’m quite a fan of the Government Communications Networks guidance documents, and I have to say that their latest one on Communications Partnership Strategies is a particularly good one https://gcn.civilservice.gov.uk/guidance/official-guidance/partnership-guidance/. Although obviously aimed at those in the public sector, it’s also a clear and straightforward guide relevant for charities looking at commercial partnerships, as well as helpful for those in the commercial sector thinking of closer working with government, but unsure of the parameters.

Of course, what it avoids (and indeed should) is the wider controversy about whether and how government should be working with commercial providers, and getting the balance right between voluntary partnerships and legislation. Alcohol and obesity are obviously key areas for debate – the BMA feels strongly that legislative measures such as minimum alcohol pricing and banning marketing unhealthy food to young people are needed, whereas the current government approach seems to be more one of working with key players in this area to enact change.

One player announcing big changes this week is Coca-Cola, who globally have made a series of pledges to help combat obesity – http://www.marketingweek.co.uk/news/coca-cola-to-stop-advertising-to-under-12s/4006616.article – including stopping advertising to under 12s, putting calories on the front of its packaging and supporting physical activity programmes in every market it does business. Now, I’m not saying that in itself this is going to change obesity overnight – and yes, I’m sure the money they put into this will be dwarfed by their overall marketing budget – but what it does indicate is the extent to which people wanting to work with sectors with a growing image problem are pushing at an open door.

I once remember someone telling me that, if you took out the fact they sold cigarettes, tobacco companies had some of the best CSR programmes out there. It’s a flippant example (and a few years old now) but recognizes the opportunities presented by the need for a ‘licence to operate’ – and the way in which the big name players are willing to make changes voluntarily to stay on the right side of public opinion, as much as government ministers. Whatever you think of initiatives like the Public Health Responsibility Deal (https://responsibilitydeal.dh.gov.uk/), a lot of people have signed up to do a lot of good things, without the antagonism and general fuss created by legislation.

Of course, this is all about balance. Where this has the potential to become dangerous is where, in order to secure a voluntary concession, something larger and more important is dropped, and the ‘stick’ of legislation is lost altogether. It’s often forgotten that some of the most effective behavioural change and health improvement campaigns have been a combination of public information, partnership working and legislation – and may not have worked so well without the latter. But whilst legislation is slow and controversial, government is right to try to get the most from partnership working in the meantime – and professionalizing their approach to them can only have a positive effect.

Does the demise of More! mark a watershed moment?

Many ladies of a certain age will have had a tiny moment of nostalgia this week, with the news that More! – one of the few remaining magazines from our teenage years – is set to close. After 25 years of bringing us priceless gems such as Position of the Fortnight and despite a revamp last year, circulation had slipped to under 100,000, and even one of the biggest names in teen magazines was no longer viable.

Without wishing to ignite the whole debate around the influence of celebrity-led mags on teenage girls, and whether the likes of More! have made them constantly worried about being fat and pleasing boys, I do think this marks a sad day. Not just that 22 people lost their job in a market that’s getting ever tighter, but also that it brutally underlines the gap between today’s teenagers and those of us (however hip) the wrong side of 35.

I grew up in world of More! and Jackie and Just17 and frankly am not sure how I’d have got through my teenage years without them, dubious as their advice most likely was (for some reason, I always remember the tip of wearing an all-in-one ‘body’ under your jeans to prevent young men having ‘wandering hands’). Advice came to teenage girls through five or six essentially ‘approved’ routes, where I’m sure half of the journalists knew each other, and despite making me more concerned than I probably should have been about the size of my thighs, deep down felt a sense of duty of care to the readers.

Now, with media channels (and I’m including social in this) so fragmented, it’s consistently harder to get more responsible messaging out to teenagers, especially girls. I say this working for an agency that’s won a lot of awards for targeting teenage girls for our ‘make mine Milk’ campaign – but that has access to a tone and a spend that many charities or even government campaigns lack, and has been a sustained campaign and a lot of hard work. The thing about being able to opt in to a wide range of media is that you can opt out of things that you’re not interested in – and who wants to spend their spare time reading about the dangers of drugs, STIs and the HPV vaccine?

The demise of More! means that PRs and communicators as a whole will need to think of ever more engaging ways of getting the right information to the right people. Would be interested to hear your views on campaigns you think are doing it well….

Why agencies need to learn to say ‘no’….

My eye was caught by Larry Franks of Beige’s call to agencies to stand up for themselves in this week’s PR Week – coming in the same issue as the Jaguar Academy were criticized for running a PR pitch process, then not choosing anyone, and Ketchum had their Morocco National Tourist Office account cancelled a year early, for what seems like no particular reason.

The idea of a ‘letter of engagement’ binding clients to start paying agencies for work post pitch is certainly an interesting one, which you would hope most reasonable clients wouldn’t object to. Good clients also recognise how time consuming pitch processes are for agencies – tales of clients using pitches for ‘ideas gathering’ are relatively rare, but unfortunately, most people have them; and everyone has stories of pitching for something which turns out to be entirely different (and usually much smaller) once it’s actually in the door.

Mutual client/ agency respect is vital for a good working relationship, and no-one wants to get off to a bad start. Everyone knows that some work will need to be done post pitch to get a programme right, but expecting large amounts of this for free, or substantially changing the brief can make things difficult, just as it turning out the agency don’t have the staff to undertake the work or haven’t costed correctly is no doubt just as frustrating for clients.

Of course, we all know that times are tough, and sympathise with the fact that many clients are facing budget cuts outside of their control and delays and changes that frustrate them too. But Beige are right to take a stand – as long as agencies continue to have no come-back, and let themselves be taken advantage of, there will be a small minority of unscrupulous or just badly organized clients who will take advantage of agency tendencies to bend over backwards to get them signed up. My guess is that these will also go on to be the clients who are the most overserviced, and the most likely to repitch at short notice and leave you anyway.  Setting boundaries from the start has to be a sensible approach and the more of us that do it, the stronger the industry will be.

The big debate – messy desk person or tidy desk person?

As any of you who follow me on Twitter (@lornagozzard – hi!) will know, I love a good PR survey. Especially when it’s on an issue close to my heart. So imagine my joy last week when I saw that Staples had been investigating the two tribes of sworn enemies that dominate any office – Tidy Desk People and Messy Desk People.

As is illustrated in this nice Guardian piece here (http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/shortcuts/2013/mar/12/messy-desk-driving-colleagues-mad), the results were stark. One in four Britons has received complaints from colleagues about their untidy desks. Apparently, one in 10 of us has actually been formally cautioned over it, which means that either a remarkable number of us work in some pretty unforgiving environments, or there are some desks out there that are real health hazards.

Now, I have an interest to declare at this point. Despite being very organized and the sort of person mildly obsessed with the correct use of coasters in my personal life, my desk is pretty messy. At earlier points in my career, it’s been very messy. I work on a lot of things at once, I like having the documents near me, I can’t proof on screen, and all of this generates paper. Depending on how busy I am, I periodically sort through this paper, but if I have a lot on, many piles of it may accumulate before I do.

And, despite arguably doing fairly well for myself, I have always felt that Tidy Desk People judged me for this. Largely based on some of them being quite open about doing so. Even though I can always find what I want (except in fairness, pens), there’s no tangible evidence it’s ever affected my work, and it’s just paper, so doesn’t smell or attract vermin.

To check this wasn’t just personal paranoia, I opened the discussion up to the wider Kindred office. Again, shocking results. The first one of which is that messy desk people (MDPs) are much keener to defend their behavior than tidy desk people (TDPs). I was flooded with emails from MDPs, whereas I had to ask twice before any TDPs spoke up. Too busy tidying their desks, possibly.

The second, was that there really is some genuine antagonism there. I work in what I’ve always thought was a very happy and relaxed office, but clearly there’s dark tensions bubbling away under the surface:

“There’s certain pods in the office whose desks are ALWAYS in an absolute state. I couldn’t hack it – I don’t know how they keep on top of their workload.”

“I often find myself looking with suspicion at tidy desks and assuming their owners either have too much time on their hands, or a radically different sense of priorities.”

“Tidy deskers make me feel bad. They can be condescending too – when you sit next to one and your stuff accidentally overspills into their area, they can get really mean about it.”

There’s also a lively debate out  there about whether a messy desk is in fact ‘creative chaos’ – “I find empty, minimalist desks uninspiring” – or just something that distracts you from the job in hand – “a cluttered desk definitely proves a distraction in my case…..a tidy desk makes for a tidy mind.”

At the end of the day, it’s probably a sign of a good agency environment that there are these differences of opinion – a homogenous group of people with the same way of looking at a problem would not be a great set-up.  And I suspect MDPs are cut a bit more slack in agency – at least there’s an understanding that PR generates paper and attracts people with a range of approaches to creativity, some of which might not be tidy. You don’t hear of that many agencies who force people to hot desk, or have clean desk policies, for example.

So, the debate will continue, and people like Staples will continue to make excellent PR mileage out of it. Bad news for trees and people who need to find pens quickly, good news for reminding us all that it’s often our points of difference that make us into a successful, interesting team. Cast formal cautions and paranoia to the wind and embrace the state of your neighbours’ desk – your workplace will be all the stronger for it.

Why the Big Society needs to be above politics

Perhaps it’s because we’ve all been too preoccupied with horse burgers and Oscar Pistorius, but the Cabinet Office’s latest Community Life Survey doesn’t seem to have set the world alight. If I’m being honest, I only found it googling something else. But if you haven’t had chance to take a look, do here (http://communitylife.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/assets/Community%20Life%20Survey%20Q2%202012-13%20Bulletin.pdf)  – there’s some really interesting little snapshots for anyone doing community or voluntary sector related work.

The big headline (or what it would have been, had it got more attention) is that the number of people undertaking ‘formal volunteering’ (unpaid help through groups, clubs or organizations) is up on 2010-11 – by 5% for those volunteering at least once a month, and 6% for those volunteering at some point in the last 12 months. ‘Informal volunteering’ – giving unpaid help to people who are not relatives – is also up, with 6% more people informally volunteering once a month than in 2010-11 and 6% more saying they’d volunteered informally at least once in the last 12 months.

Now, I know the ‘Gamesmaker effect’ and the general Olympic/ Jubilee fiesta will have skewed the statistics – and it will be interesting to see the results in a year’s time – but  they shouldn’t have had too great an impact on those volunteering once a month, or informally volunteering, for example. So what is it driving these changes?

I suspect many people will answer along political lines. If you’re pro the current Government, you might say it’s a vindication of the whole Big Society initiative and proof that the Government’s support of volunteering is working. If you’re anti the current Government, you might say the current programme of cuts has been so debilitating to the voluntary sector that more people are feeling compelled to step in and help, and that informal volunteering is driven by the failure to properly provide services such as care of the elderly.

Yet it’s so important we don’t let volunteering become a political football and let our political views colour whether we step up and get involved. I’ve said this before, but as comms people, we have a wide range of skills that many charities would find a huge asset – the Media Trust do some great work in this area and there are also some really interesting mentoring projects out there. I should declare an interest in my favourite (Leaders Together  http://timebank.org.uk/leaders-together) as I’m a Trustee of TimeBank – charity trusteeship also being a great way to use your professional skills in a voluntary environment.

So, if you’re one of the people who doesn’t find yourself in the 45% of us who do already volunteer formally at some point during the year, do have a think about if 2013 could be the year to give it a try. Whatever your political persuasion, there’s a real need out there, as well as a significant chance you might even enjoy it…..

Why case studies count

The subject of this week’s PRCA’s Public Sector Group was prize-winning campaigns. We were lucky enough to have Leonie Austin from NHS Blood and Transplant, and Linda McIntyre from Consolidated in Scotland come along and talk about their PR Week and PRCA Award winning entries – coincidentally on the related topics of getting people to give blood, and to sign up for the organ donation register.

As you’d expect from award-winning campaigns, there were some lovely creative touches in both, as well as all the usual hygiene factors done really well. But what came across really strongly from both campaigns was how good, emotive case studies can dramatically increase a campaign’s impact.

Of course, I’m not telling people anything new here. PR people spend half their lives on the hunt for case studies, often getting increasingly frustrated when they don’t appear, don’t want to drop everything to be in the BBC Breakfast studio the following morning, or forget to give your client a name check. And even the most obliging case study can sometimes have difficulties with journalists – taking too aggressive a line in questioning, choosing a particular angle to cover that the case study might not find appropriate, or just dropping them in the end because news priorities have changed.

Listening to Leonie and Linda talk about the incredibly inspiring case studies they deal with – especially in the case of organ donors, where you might be dealing with a recently bereaved family, or someone undergoing the stress and tension of waiting for an organ transplant – brought home a fact that it’s sometimes easy to forget. Case studies are flesh and blood people, with entirely separate lives of their own – not an extension of your PR campaign designed to “amplify the emotional factors.”

Of course, I’m sure we’d all be incredibly protective of our case studies in such life and death situations as those set out above. But we do need to remember any case study – even someone saying how much they like a new brand of toothpaste – probably isn’t used to dealing with the media, might be a bit scared by it, will have their friends texting them to take the piss when the piece appears, will be a bit disappointed if it doesn’t appear, and basically is doing you a massive, massive favour.

As the PRs, we’re responsible for putting a case study up in front of the media – a situation they might otherwise never find themselves in. So we have a responsibility, even a duty of care, to make sure that they’re well prepared, comfortable with what they’re asked to do, and protected where necessary, as well as properly thanked. The case study work done by Consolidated in Scotland encouraged over 1,000 people to sign up for the Organ Donor Register – when we know they can make that kind of impact, it’s only right that we treat case studies as the incredibly important people they are.

Where should Government investment go?

Last week, my eye was caught by the Advertising Association calling for Government investment in the sector to kick-start economic growth – http://www.campaignlive.co.uk/bulletin/campaign_daily_fix/article/1169102/ad-bosses-call-govt-investment/?DCMP=EMC-CONCampaignDailyFix (sorry the link doesn’t work, but it cut and pastes fine…). Apparently, £1 invested in advertising generates £6 for the British economy – a quicker and more effective driver of growth than investing, for example, boring old infrastructure. In fact, removing advertising spend takes a whopping £100billion out of the economy.

Well, all that’s very impressive, but in an age of austerity, is this kind of call to action really a good idea? The Advertising Association is asking for a range of actions in response – the Government encouraging SMEs to invest more in marketing and business development, and what seems to be lots of talk about cutting regulation and reducing red tape – but, at the heart of it, who’s the audience here, and what are we trying to persuade them to buy in to?

On the whole, the marketing sector is not one that attracts a great deal of public sympathy. We’re skewed towards London, earn above average wages, and don’t produce output as the same tangible value as say, a nurse or a builder. I suspect most people if asked where to put Government investment (whether time or financial) would be a lot happier with hospitals and train lines, than with making it easier for companies to sell things to you, in a less regulated way.

The creative industries are obviously a massive asset to the UK, and I don’t dispute the fact that advertising, PR and marketing all have an important contribution to make to the economy.  But I do think we have to be careful about pitching ourselves against other sectors which rate higher in the average voters’ eye, in front of politicians, at a time where a little bit of sensitivity might not go astray. If we can transform the economy through our magical selling ability, I’m sure we can find better channels to tell the story of our contribution.

The beginner’s guide to finding an agency

Noticing that prmoment.com are running a poll on whether pitching is a good way to find an agency, it reminded me of a meeting this week where, when I asked how the contact had found us, they were honest enough to reply ‘Google’.

I often think that compiling a good pitch list must be one of the trickiest parts of the process for a prospective client, especially if you’ve not had an agency for a while. This shows in the variety of lists we end up on. Sometimes I have no idea what we have in common with our pitch competitors. Other times, our skills are perfectly balanced.

So, for what it’s worth, this is what I’d do if I had to find an agency. Not rocket science – in fact, I’m sure it’s what many clients do already – but hopefully it should help make the pitch process worthwhile for all concerned.

-          Obviously, if you’ve worked with an agency and like them, put them on the list again. But do also think about the key staff you’ve worked with. Individual ability and chemistry is core to a good PR agency relationship, so if someone’s left who you rated, you might want to track down where they are now, and see if working with them’s an option.

-          Look at who’s in the industry press and who’s winning awards. It’s not a cast iron guide – for example, things like League Tables are based on volume rather than quality of work – but it should give you a sense of which agencies are doing good work in your field right now.

-          Ask around. Ask everyone you know in a similar field to you who they use or who they rate. Ask journalists you deal with if they’ve got any recommendations. If you have friends you can have an honest conversation with agency side, ask them who they’d add to the list. This is particularly helpful if you work in a more niche field, where more generalist agencies might not be right.

-          Look at who brands you admire use – it’s often easy to find, as the agency contact details will be at the bottom of their press releases. Be careful of direct competitors though, as there might be restrictions on the agency working for both of you.

-          Think about your budget when compiling a list. You might love the look of a particular agency, but if all of their clients are massive blue chips and you’re a small charity, you might not be the best match. Look for agencies working on similar sized projects and be honest about the budget up front.

-          Agency matching services can be great, but they’re not always comprehensive, so combine them with your own research if you can.

-          If you have time, start with a long-list and whittle it down through a short stage involving a few relevant project case studies, or short creds. Most agencies shouldn’t mind that as a process, and it gives you a better sense of how they might work ‘in real life’, as opposed to how they present on their website or in PR Week.

-          Within that list, think about getting a broad mix of agencies, who are likely to come to your problem in different ways – for example, a balance of agencies who are known for their creative or strategic approaches, or have different (but still relevant) core client bases.

-          Take no more than four agencies to pitch. It means you can have time to really focus on supporting those agencies in the process, so they all come back to you with good responses. Too many agencies can feel a bit scattergun, and will put some off pitching all together.

And best of luck with it! May you and your new agency be very happy together.

Powered by WordPress. Built on the Thematic Theme Framework.
PR Week. The leading source of news, insight and analysis on the Public Relations Industry