As PR agencies focus on becoming strategic partners to their clients,
they neglect their media relationships at their peril
PR firms are busy climbing the value chain – and that’s a good thing. According to one recent global report1, 91% of the participating CEOs considered communications to have a significant impact on the abilities of their companies to meet business goals, while, 82% said their management teams pay close attention to media coverage of their companies. The tangible value of reputation to businesses is now undisputed; as brilliantly surmised by the Harvard Business Review2:
“Firms with strong positive reputations attract better people. They are perceived as providing more value, which often allows them to charge a premium. Their customers are more loyal and buy broader ranges of products and services. Because the market believes that such companies will deliver sustained earnings and future growth, they have higher price-earnings multiples and market values and lower costs of capital. Moreover, in an economy where 70% to 80% of market value comes from hard-to-assess intangible assets such as brand equity, intellectual capital, and goodwill, organizations are especially vulnerable to anything that damages their reputations….”
The accompanying shift from PR ‘agency’ to ‘consultancy’ is still a work-in-progress; offerings are changing, relationships with clients and within clients evolving, and expectations on both sides of the equations being recalibrated. While agencies are programmed to respond to client briefs, consultancies are expected to anticipate issues and propose a course of action. But the opportunities for both parties are immense; for clients, good consultancy can help protect and promote the brand, as well as differentiate their own role within the organisation; the latter can mean increased responsibility, larger remits, budgets and – ultimately – promotion. Agencies that successfully make the transition to consultancy can command higher fees, be involved in more creative and interesting work, and reduce client (and staff) attrition.
The path to transition is well documented – from a deep understanding of the client’s business and challenges, to an awareness of competitive threats and market shifts. In short, as reflected in the Harvard summary, everything to help the client mitigate risk and fully exploit opportunity across its business.
Unlike traditional consultancies (management, strategic, advertising, branding etc.), however, PR firms are ultimately intermediaries. Everything they propose is dependent on a third party to see the light of day. Traditionally, these third parties have been the media – print, broadcast, digital journalists or editors. Today, they are just as likely to include independent bloggers, academics, NGOs, social activists etc. But the principle remains the same; without the complicity of these third parties, our counsel remains inert.
So why, despite our ambition and efforts to complete the transition towards consultancy, do PR firms continue to neglect these channels on whose relationships our counsel and campaign strategies are ultimately dependent?
PR agencies spend millions of dollars on training to better understand client business, to gain access to the C-suite, to become better consultants. But how much do they invest in similarly trying to understand the landscape affecting their local journalist and newspaper community, which itself is facing unprecedented levels of disruption?
Media rounds have become a rarity amongst PR firms, and invariably delegated as an executive activity rather than a management one; but this is just one aspect of media intelligence. Do agencies really understand the pressures facing today’s entry-level journalists or senior editors; their commercial pressures, their professional metrics, the politics of a newsroom, the uneasy alliance (and contradictions) between print and online-versions of the same publication? Do PR directors genuinely understand the business of media? How titles differentiate themselves, how they are funded (subscription, advertising, events, other revenue sources)? Are journalists ultimately working for themselves, for their publications, or both? How do journalists’ personal (or professional) social media activities affect this equation? Why do titles or, even, entire publication houses appear partisan? Is it derived from ownership (i.e. News International titles), origins of the title (The Guardian – consistently loss-making traditionally left wing), or is there a commercial logic (anti-Trump CNN’s ratings have never been higher)?
Unless we understand, or at least have an opinion on these issues, how can PR firms help journalists to meet their objectives? Because, after all, as intermediaries, PR firms should be looking to add value to both sides of the equation; client and media. How can an exclusive help a journalist to stand out, how can an alternative pitch introduce a writer to a new company for the first time, how can an off-the-record briefing help a columnist to decrypt a legal issue, how can a company comment or provide a fresh and alternative perspective on a national issue…?
Journalists are professionals and publications are businesses; both have agendas which PR firms all too often ignore. In doing so, we misunderstand our roles and mis-serve our clients; every client objective of a ‘cover story’ should fulfil a reciprocal objective for the media being pitched. There must be something in it for both parties.
And the same is now true for other influencers — bloggers, academics, social commentators, NGOs, analysts. Unless PR firms also understand their businesses, their motivations and objectives, how can they make proposals to support causes, endorse points of view, or validate a hypothesis on behalf of clients?
As PR firms make the transition from agency to consultancy, staff should be investing more time in understanding their ‘second client’; and that means more media rounds, not fewer!