The world has moved on since 2003; PR firms that remain hooked on the ‘Carly Homily’ will not survive
One of my formative professional experiences was managing Weber Shandwick’s European network supporting Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) b2b operations from France at the turn of the century. It was my first real taste of international PR and coincided with the arrival of one of the company’s most influential (and certainly most vocal) CEOs, Carly Fiorina. Ms Fiorina’s efforts to revitalise HP have been much commented and documented. But there is one phrase from Ms Fiorina’s inaugural address as HP CEO in 2000, which – in my view – hasn’t stood the test of time. In fact, from a PR agency perspective, singular adherence to this aphorism represents one of the biggest threats to the progress and, even, viability of the sector.
Here it comes. I call it the ‘Carly Homily’: “The customer defines a job well done…” It sounds innocuous, right? A standard, safe CEO platitude. But don’t be so sure.
Last month, I raised the issue that PR firms who disregarded their own interests were as much in peril as those who disregarded those of their clients. This may seem obvious, but phrases such as Ms Fiorina’s have had the corrosive effect on the PR industry, which is traditionally reluctant to vindicate its role and purpose beyond those of its clients. Unlike our advertising counterparts, we are by nature discreet; behind-the-scenes is our preferred spotlight. If there is any doubt, just check out the last winners of the industry’s most prestigious acclamations; this year the Cannes Lion for PR went to LADbible (a self-proclaimed media company); last year, ad agency McCann won for Fearless Girl; in 2016, it went to a Swedish advertising company, Forsman & Bodenfors, for its Organic Effect campaign, and so on.
But PR’s aversion to such recognition is not only down to an inherent reticence, nourished by the industry itself, it is also the tacit acceptance of “…the customer defin(ing) a job well done” as a singular, defining logic. Where’s the harm, you may ask?
It’s the same logic that justifies under-charging for consultancy and strategic counsel, that lives in peril of upsetting the client with unconventional or alternative thinking. It’s the logic that reduces the agency role to one of execution and implementation, that discourages proactive beyond the brief. And a continuation of this ‘Carly Homily’ signals the road to perdition for our industry. In a truly multi-stakeholder world, PR firms’ considerations should be equally multi-stakeholder; let me show you what I mean (see below/right):
- Client considerations – the easy one! Adherence to the brief, pertinence of counsel, implementation.
- Agency considerations – Does it make sense? Is it profitable, where are the risks (who is assuming them?), where are the dependencies (the client or the agency?). Does it differentiate the agency? If not, how could the agency be protected (from losing the business to a cheaper alternative, for instance)? What is the value of the work in financial and qualitative terms (award-winning, reputation-earning etc.)?
- Media/influencer considerations – Rarely considered by agencies. Where is the value addition? Why should a journalist of influencer propagate such a message? Will it raise their profile (or that of the publication)? Will it enhance their reputation or readership? How will it benefit their audience, or contribute to their discussions?
- Personal/professional development – Never really considered by agencies. What does this campaign mean to the agency staff? What is the payoff for the weekend work or sleepless night? How will it contribute to their personal aims and ambitions (yes, you’ll need to actually know them, right?). How is the latter defined, in terms of remuneration, prestige, recognition, promotion, flexible working etc.?
Agency decision-making has just become a whole lot more complicated, right? In fact, it’s simply become ‘multi-stakeholdered’!
“The customer defines a job well done…” denies the multiple other parties to agency life, all of whom remain critical to agency success. Do PR leaders really consider the value to journalist of a particular piece of content their teams are pitching (or how value can be created from the same)? In an age of media consolidation declining circulations, how can PR firms create value for journalists through relationships, creative deployment of content and/or other insights?
Even from an agency management perspective, simply adhering to client requests represents an abdication of responsibility. Agency success is built not only on client happiness, but that of their staff, the respect of their partners and media. Even the bottom line depends on it. It is in clients’ interests (yes, even our favourite ones!) to systematically demand more for less; but agency survival depends on mitigating this trend through the provision of alternative services, and relentless commitment towards their own value addition. Yes, it can mean uncomfortable conversations with clients from time to time; but compromise and negotiation is part of the business. In fact, this is the business of PR.
A truly multi-stakeholder environment applies not just to our clients; it applies to PR firms as well. Make no mistake, client satisfaction remains primordial for our industry; but – apologies to Ms Fiorina –keeping the client happy is no longer the only criteria to ensuring PR agency success.