We Need To Reinvent The PR Agency Model

COVID-19 is causing significant layoffs at leading PR agencies (for instance, here and here), as clients pull back on spending (and contemplate their own reductions).

I think it’s quite possible much of that spending won’t come back.

What’s certain is that the pandemic-induced hiatus is going to give clients a chance to reassess their priorities, both internally and externally, as they struggle to deliver on work they think is vital and assess the impact of projects they’ve been forced to abandon.

It may well prove to bluntly reveal the true scope of the transformation that has been going on for a long time.

I’ll make my case below for understanding that transformation, along with how PR agencies might use today’s unique circumstances to reinvent both why and how they function. It won’t be easy or comfortable, and it’s rife with risks, but I don’t think there’s another option.

Yesterday

First, a bit about how we got here.

As businesses began expanding beyond their traditional local markets in the late 1800s, they needed virtual stand-ins for the direct relationships they once had with their consumers. Mass media came about during the same time and provided the “spaces” where those relationships could be experienced. PR, like advertising, emerged to exploit those opportunities.

Freed from the requirements of relationships based on tangible experience and accountability, a robust industry grew up to elevate businesses into brands that could stand for a limitless universe of qualities and associations. Gasoline put a tiger in our tanks. Underarm deodorant gave us confidence, shirts, alcohol, and cars connoted social status, and sneakers and soda pop empowered us to do unspecified but vaguely good things.

The graphics and language of advertising bought the media exposure for these invented attributes and, by embracing them, generations of consumers made them subjectively real. Brands existed as long as advertising continued to generate them.

No matter how authoritative the substance or tone of those ads might have been, however, they were no replacement for the vetting and approval once provided by friends, family, and trusted members of communities.

PR addressed this need by influencing the portion of media that couldn’t be bought outright; editorial was presumed by consumers to be objective and independent of commercial influence, which made it believable in ways that ads weren’t. Reporters and editors were its gatekeepers. If they chose to put something in the news, it had to be news-worthy.

Early industry pioneers invented ways to exploit this opportunity. Ivy Lee got his client J.D. Rockefeller to give dimes to poor children in front of photographers tipped off to the events (Daniel Boorstin would later codify the tactic in book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, published in 1961).

Edward Bernays helped sell women on the idea of smoking cigarettes by staging a parade down New York’s Fifth Avenue, and got doctors to convince editorial writers to opine that a breakfast of greasy bacon was healthier than the traditional fare of fruit and grain (his client was a pork packer).

Politicians around the world discovered the power of PR’s spooky influence at a distance. Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932 in large part by his ability to brand his New Deal, and about the same time Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels used ideas from Bernays’ book Propaganda (he even hired an American PR agency to promote Germany’s brand).

PR wasn’t intrinsically good or bad but simply a powerful set of tools that could be put to a variety of purposes. It was supported by the belief that no business or government idea or activity was good or bad, either, but that everything deserved a chance to appear in a marketplace where a phantom public would supposedly vet them (even though journalist Walter Lippmann postulated in 1925 that such a public square was imaginary).

In a world defined by persuasion, accusations of unfair manipulation or spin came only from those who lost the battles for consumers’ hearts and minds.

This helped make the 20th century the heyday for media of all sorts, as outlets multiplied many times over, blanketing the world in local, regional, national and international titles and providing endless opportunities for PR people to present their cases. Agencies proliferated to meet this need, the biggest touting names like Carl Byoir, Hill & Knowlton, Burson-Marstellar, and Daniel J. Edelman. Many of them were attached to advertising agencies in acknowledgment of their shared responsibilities for promoting brands.

Today

At risk of noting that water is wet, today’s media media environment has changed.

Digital technologies have transformed the role of media from that of a limited number of places where journalists are gatekeepers of information, to an endless array of platforms that connect people without such intermediaries. “News” is now “content” that can be purposefully shared or revealed despite the best efforts of its owners. “Facts” are now “opinions” since there’s always an argument to support or refute any statement or interpretation.

People don’t rely on newsmakers to tell them what’s true; they get that information from a variety of sources, most notably one another. So, if mass media were top-down, from one to many, digital media have flipped that funnel. Each individual is on her or his own, enveloped in a curated, one-of-a-kind collection of content that can be consumed anyplace, anytime.

Truth is in the eye of the believer, and its gates haven’t just been opened but removed from their hinges.

This has revealed what Lippmann proposed: There is no shared marketplace of ideas. Marshall McLuhan’s vision of a global village has morphed into an infinite number of villages, local not to place but to practice or belief, and separated from one another by walls of disconnection and distrust.

This transformation has been noted by a number of authors, including Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 1985) Nicholas Carr (Utopia is Creepy: and Other Provocations, 2016), and yours truly (A Thousand Words: Why We Must Fight The Tyranny of Brief, Vague & Incomplete, 2013).

What’s been examined far less critically is how communications agencies have responded to this new reality. Or not.

The remit for PR agencies has stayed basically unchanged: Produce more stuff, and find more ways to generate attention for clients’ messages. No longer limited to influencing journalists who were the gatekeepers to exposure or judgments of legitimacy, agencies have embraced a wide variety of far easier ways to push out information (again, now called “content” because it has no inherent meaning or truth).

For every one journalist covering a topic there are now dozens if not hundreds of bloggers or websites. Media that once charged for ad space now sell exposure in editorial under the label of native content, so PR can function like advertising. Celebrity endorsements have been augmented by social media influencers who are bought and paid for their willingness to hawk products to their followers. A wide variety of tools exist for publishing content outright, from posting on social media to writing blogs and entire websites conceived as standalone publications.

The gnawing, insatiable demand for content by these outlets, aided and abetted by convenient new theology that demands it be fed, has been the full-employment act for PR agencies. Every idea deserves its day in the sun, and nobody has the authority, morally or literally, to decide what should or shouldn’t be considered true.

Businesses and governments should push out whatever they wanted to say and let the marketplace pass its judgment. Just ask Facebook.

Up until the pandemic hit, this old-fashioned thinking partially obscured the fact that PR is failing.

People don’t automatically believe what companies tell them anymore. We know now that cosmetics can’t reverse the flow of time, or that beer makes us good looking. We don’t necessarily believe claims about ingredients, manufacturing, distribution, and social impact. We suspect that new versions of products or service upgrades are intended only to create new ways for companies to make money, and not really do anything useful or necessary for us.

Why? Maybe it’s because we can search out the truth on the Internet and see what’s really happening not just in our lives, but across the planet. Perhaps our brief bursts of interaction with technology impede the formation of lasting and reliable opinions. Maybe we’ve just grown cynical of invented promises and the slick contrivances of images and words that companies adopt when they talk to us, whether delivered in print ads or Twitter declarations.

Maybe we’ve learned that there’s always more that companies and governments leave unsaid, or allow us to misunderstand because it serves their purposes.

Whatever the cause, companies are finding it harder to maintain price premiums that were once based on those imaginary values. They’re finding it harder to keep customers loyal, and a new generation of buyers say they’ve given up on the overarching ideas of democracy and capitalism that underpin our public lives.

Some companies and their communicators sensed this crisis before the pandemic and introduced the idea of purpose or “purpose-driven marketing,” which asserts that businesses have some vague responsibility to do good in the world. But it’s little more than new branding creative intended to prop up the old approach.

“Don’t look at what we do, look at what we want you to see.”

There is no crisis in content or purpose. PR agencies face a credibility crisis, and the traditional approach to generating huge amounts of stuff based on what their clients want to say does not solve it. It makes it worse.

Tomorrow

Waiting for clients to return to pre-pandemic programmatic development and spending isn’t a responsible business proposition for PR agencies, especially big ones with huge staff and physical overhead.

Right now, clients and consumers are getting the chance to experience life with less of the stuff that agencies gave them, and assess how (or how little) they miss it. Things will change as a result— clients will do less, or at least differently, and pricing will change accordingly — and the challenging trends I noted above will continue, if not get worse.

Now is the time for PR agencies to assess both why and how they function, and I have three radical thoughts in this regard:

First, PR agencies could consider transitioning from being agnostic conveyors of content to principled keepers of truth. They could become more like schools of thought, and less like collections of technicians or department stores for services.

PR agencies could stand for things.

This isn’t a wholly new idea. In the early days, ad agencies had different reputations, so Ogilvy was about expository description, DDB was witty, Leo Burnett did icons and jingles, and Wells Rich Greene did slogans. They provided all of the other services necessary for legit communications but they each stood for something.

What if PR agencies owned unique ways of vetting and asserting truth?

One could be all about third-party affirmation, so its core premise would be approaching every client task within the perspective of who or what could be added to the activity. Another one could be all about community development and management, basing every outbound task on building affirmation within specific audiences (by topic, geography, or other attributes). Other agencies could develop unique methodologies for tracking and measuring the credibility of client messages (not their transmission), perhaps using an ESG-like methodology for content.

All of them could keep doing everything else, of course, but each of them would do one thing really and uniquely well, and that value wouldn’t be delivered by communications; it would have to start much earlier in the management process, and then have checkpoints along the way through development and delivery.

But it wouldn’t be about delivery.

When the issue is cast as one of matching content to target audiences, PR agencies are thrown into competition with management consultants, technology consultants, tech firms and platforms, and every type of startup. It makes communications a technical conversation when you care only about what will work versus what is right.

And it puts PR in a race to the bottom on pricing because is focuses solely on distribution, much of which gets commodified by technology.

It would be great if PR agencies coming out of the pandemic didn’t have to compete on this level. Imagine instead if associating with a PR firm came with some valuation benefit among informed stakeholders, like investors and regulators, and even some consumer-facing certification (think Good Housekeeping Seal for information?).

Second, PR agencies could reconsider how they’re staffed, building capabilities to understand and deliver why and what, not only how.

The practice of public relations is taught as a vocation, and therefore big agencies are filled with smart, well-meaning people who are expert in its practices. But much if not most of what they’re trained to accomplish is also work claimed by all those competing providers I mentioned just above. Bots can not only deliver content but generate it, not to mention manage programs overall. It’s a fair bet that a lot of the jobs done at PR agencies may be going away irrespective of what agencies choose to do, whether to competing offerings or AI.

So why not define new job descriptions?

Why not create jobs that tie-into whatever schools of thought an agency has chosen, and then recruit people to staff it (and subsequently define career development and growth plans)? Look for thinkers and doers with deep knowledge and passion for behavioral science, sociology, psychology, even religion, so that agencies can tell clients things that other contenders for their attention can’t or won’t know or say.

It would require a complete rethink of “where” the business of PR starts. As long as PR stays wedded to brands or marketing communications, it’ll decline along with those functions. Translating branding gibberish into publicity programs is a fool’s errand.

Instead, big agencies could refashion their points of engagement to match various departments with their clients, such as supply chain, manufacturing, logistics, and then all of the internal services like accounting, legal, and HR. Each offering would reflect the common POV of an agency’s school of thought, only applied to the specific activities of each department.

Their roles would be to participate in client decision making, providing counsel on how any action would reflect on the business and what it would take for its stakeholders to embrace it. To challenge preconceived notions from the perspective of informed outsiders, and dare clients to stay accountable to their stated missions and intentions. To provide perspective on the direct and tangential impacts of potential choices, and analyze them for ethical and moral clarity.

In essence, every corporate decision is in and of itself a communications decision. What companies do matters more to the world than how those actions are described. Brands as behaviors, not mental constructs.

PR agencies could assert a key role in informing those business decisions, and then let the consultants and tech platforms worry about delivering the resulting messages.

It would take a massive reimagining of agency staffing, moving all of these non-PR technicians into central roles, as well as challenging clients to join in the effort.

Third, PR agencies could reimagine the circumstances in which they’d say no.

To date, agencies have sold themselves on their track records, which often have included assuming challenges that seemed difficult, like promoting topics or causes that were out of favor, not popular, or even downright and actively opposed. This has been in keeping with the old fashioned ideology that no company or government position is inherently wrong, and that everything deserves a chance to be considered in the marketplace of public opinion.

Not true. I’m not sure it ever was, but it certainly isn’t the case now, and it won’t be going forward.

Truth, like a brand, gets really squishy when communicators get their hands on it. No two pros define them the same way. So if something is partially true, or could be true in certain circumstances, is it the truth? If facts are omitted or implications unmentioned, is it still truth?

It gets even dicier when you get to the meaning of adjectives and adverbs: What’s the difference between “good” and “great,” or “meaningful” vs. “significant.” Where’s the dividing line between maintaining the Status Quo and changing it? Is “healthier” the same thing as “healthy?”

Other terms get even more squishy, starting with words like “organic” and “sustainable,” both of which are grossly overused and regularly misunderstood. “Leader”means a zillion different things, as does “innovation. “Diversity” in one instance means something entirely different in another.

And then we wonder why nobody believes what companies or politicians say anymore.

The path forward for PR agencies is to put a stake in the ground on the criteria for the words they use, and back it up with objective and verifiable facts. Invent new ratings for truth and value (again, model against ESG ratings).

And then charge clients for the privilege of using them.

This would set the stage for agencies to decline doing work when clients insisted on claiming truths that weren’t, er, so true. Accounts declined might say more about agencies than the accounts they accepted.

Standing for things might be more important than doing everything.

Conclusion

Here’s a bad joke: How many big agency staffers does it take to write a social media post? One, only then a dozen others have to review, comment, and discuss with the client how it conforms to the branding messaging template framework mission.

Or whatever.

I know, it’s not funny, but it’s illustrative of the cost structure of big agencies that prohibits embracing the ideas I’ve proposed in this essay. Like the substance of what they do, it’s going to have to fundamentally change.

It’s simply not reasonable to expect to hire full-time staff in anticipation of every potential client need. What happens instead is that generalists are recruited and then client projects are staffed based on agency need to keep them busy, and not necessarily on what skills those projects require.

Worse, much of the senior staff at the larger firms aren’t altogether necessary, as many of them are so titled because of their time spent at agencies and not in recognition of particular skills or contribution to client deliverables. Agencies work like most consultancies and delegate down work to the lowest paid staff, then mark it up a number of times before passing it off to clients.

Senior staff are mostly QA on accounts and faces on new business pitches. It would be considered a scam if it weren’t such established, common practice.

My guess is that this structure won’t be supportable by client or market needs coming out of the pandemic, in addition to being utterly disconnected from the radical rethink I’m proposing in this essay.

Instead, the path forward for agencies may be to forgo thousands or even hundreds of full-time staff, and instead organize around a core group of SMEs supported by a networked set of fellow expert travelers who can be activated when needed. This is how my agency works, as we no offices or full-time staff, but many all-but-full-time contracts and access to a vast universe of vetted, proven, and trusted collaborators.

Finally, if the offering and structure of agencies can change, how they bill clients will have to change, too.

The equation linking time to value has never been reliable. Horrible results can take a lot of time, and brilliant successes can happen in a flash, yet agencies both large and small are configured to maximize billable hours. Consider my bad joke earlier; like other consulting services, PR agencies make money by making staff spend time on projects, with each ascending level of seniority attaching a surcharge to the work they touch.

This is an untenable approach going forward if we want clients to associate PR agencies with spirited, meaningful engagement.

Being able to say no requires a better way to value what it takes to get to yes.

Again, in the case of my agency, we don’t bill by the hour or charge by the month but rather assign a value to an outcome and then stand by it. This means if a client insists on doing something that’s doomed to fail or, in rare cases, something that violates what we stand for, we can afford to refuse the work. No staff will starve, and no office rent will go unpaid.

I can’t guarantee that our model will work as a replacement for the huge footprints of even mid-sized agencies but, again, they’re currently configured for a world that no longer exists.

A path forward for PR agencies isn’t clear, but COVID-19 is a game-changing Black Swan event that demands much more than an incrementalist wait-and-see response.

I say it’s time to consider radical ideas and reinvent the agency model.

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