Google made information ubiquitous so PR firms had to pivot towards ‘intelligence’; now social media is rendering traditional intelligence moot, so the industry has to adapt further
Google killed the traditional PR firm; or more explicitly, Google News killed it. When I started my career, in 1993, the absence of the Internet worked both ways. Information and background was notoriously hard to come by and validate; I used to receive product backgrounders, campaign materials and data points through the post. My firm had a physical archive to store previous campaigns and supporting collaterals.
This ‘latency’ may appear unsupportable in today’s age of real-time information, but in the 1990s it applied equally to the client; it was rare that the agency wasn’t the first to see any coverage, to note any market development, or to identify any opportunity. By the time the client realised that we’d missed a huge feature opportunity or that the sub-editor had misspelled the CEO’s name, the agency would already be in mitigation mode. In general, the agency coverage report was the sole means by which clients would see editorial content (very few actually subscribed directly). In the event of a rectification or other recommended action being required, the PR agency would send it along with the coverage report.
This practice protected the agency – it mitigated fallout from unexpected or unfavourable editorial and crucially it bought time for the internal PR manager, since the coverage would be accompanied by a recommendation regarding the same.
The Internet changed this dynamic; clients – and CEOs – started to review coverage in real time, often ahead of the agency; particularly for agency teams managing multiple clients. The advent of Google News eliminated information latency completely. The cuttings report became an anachronism; virtually all the board of directors had already seen what counts by the time they’ve reached the office.
So agencies are forced to evolve from purveyors of information to purveyors of intelligence. While information is a question on availability and speed – beating the client to the news – intelligence is an entirely different proposition. This shift may appear a question of semantics, but in revenue terms the difference represents a factor of 10.
Intelligence is about interpreting data, news, market shifts, competitive activity, instead of simply reporting it. Intelligence generally results in a recommendation: the mythical ‘actionable insight’; not only, ‘What does this development mean?’, but ‘How should we respond to it?’ It requires context, background, judgement, discretion, experience as well as speed, none of which can be commoditised or delegated to junior teams.
That’s the thing about intelligence – the real deal, high value consultancy that the PR sector craves, at any rate. It’s bespoke, customised, subjective, distinct and particular to each situation. True consultancy requires senior people, fully engaged and prepared to recommend a course of action to the client; potentially, every day.
My experience – unfortunately, and it’s common across all the markets where I’ve worked – is that many agencies and PR professionals limit themselves to information: coverage reports, market data, competitive information, with little attempt to decrypt it or propose any actions as a result. And even fewer still are doing this on a daily basis. I don’t mean ripping up the plan of record every time there is a competitive announcement; I mean tuning the content, adding proof points to the messaging, engaging additional influencers, preparing counter-arguments, extending the outreach to alternative ‘safe’ media terrains, for instance.
The evolution from information to intelligence represents one of the biggest challenges facing today’s PR industry. It requires an adjustment to our very business model; how PR firms are perceived and evaluated, how we structure teams, and from where we recruit. Analytical skills are just as important as relationships.
By its nature, strategic counsel is always subjective, the result of a person’s particular perspective, or experience; clients often possess greater degrees of both internally. But in my experience, clients gain enormous value from such outside counsel – even if it is based on incomplete information. Most clients recognise that strategic counsel is neither a competition (with the in-house team) nor a zero-sum game. It’s not a question of an agency offering the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, it’s about being able to make a recommendation based on the insights available.
If the transformation from information to intelligence wasn’t sufficient to occupy our minds, there is a further nuance, largely driven by social media. This is what I call Intelligence 2.0; strategic counsel must now be implementable, in many instances, in real time. In practice, this means not only preparing the counsel, but also the supporting materials and other contingencies, to minimise the delay between client feedback and execution. If a market development requires a plan to be recalibrated, or a message to be redefined, clients are now expecting redrafts to be delivered along with the counsel.
Such support accelerates the decision-making process and reduces the delay between counsel and implementation. In today’s social media driven environment, this is the ‘new’ latency which agencies are tasked with minimising.