Redesigning the public relations discipline at US agencies

Renee Wilson, President, PR Council sets out how public relations is outsmarting rival disciplines through innovation, helping clients build better organisations, and how this is how and where its future and huge value lies.

Is your public relations firm prepared to navigate uncharted territory? Does it have the courage to move from its comfort zone? If not, it had better learn quickly. Clients are expecting it.

According to a 2015 survey of global marketers conducted by Relationship Audits & Management, clients feel that answering the brief is often simply a ‘hygiene factor’ of the engagement.

“Many clients are looking for the agencies firstly to add to their brief, and go beyond and think into the future,” said Simon Rhind-Tutt, the company’s founder and managing partner.

“This is one of the things that differentiate agencies that are successful versus those that are not, that is the ability to lead into the future.”

Fit for the future

Design thinking is a hot area in business strategy, and for good reason. By putting an emphasis on future conditions rather than current needs, this approach can rewire an organization to compete at the highest level.

More and more US public relations firms are harnessing the power of design thinking, through the lens of the client; from the service they provide, to the products they offer and to the culture they’re building.

They are being more creative, more analytical; they’re embracing complexity, engineering innovative partnerships and building opportunities for those who come after us. They are embracing breakthrough innovations such as programmatic buying, which has the potential to turn great content into commerce.

Designing better businesses

As a result, US firms that are moving quickly to evolve are gaining a greater share of the marketing and communications pie. You don’t have to look hard for examples.

  • 95% of PR Council members report that clients are asking them to lead in content marketing; 70% say clients are asking them to lead in creative, and 34% of our members are now getting the opportunity to lead in paid media, a percentage that is surely to grow in years ahead.
  • Last year, in a joint PR Council and Association of National Advertisers (ANA) survey of senior marketers, nearly two-thirds (63%) said their top priority was Integrated Marketing. That might explain why our members are working with CMOs – in addition to CCOs - more often; in a 2015 survey, nearly half of our members (45%) said that working with CMOs was becoming a more common part of their job (up from 34% in 2014).
  • Before I joined the PR Council, when I worked for an agency, I recall being in various client meetings watching in dismay as our strongest ideas got shunned simply because they were delivered by an account director rather than someone with creative or strategic planner in their titles. 

Until recently, most public relations firms didn’t have the planning department, or strategic insights personnel to support their strategic thinking. We knew how to create big ideas but not necessarily how to present them in data-driven, insightful ways. We do now. Not only is the planning function now evident in large multinational firms, but in the US, midsize and boutique firms are adapting similar structures. Agencies can now compete on their own, or fit easily into other structures.

Beyond amplification

The power of earned influence and earned media has never been greater, and no discipline is more hardwired than public relations to orchestrate conversations. Many organizations are finding their most powerful integrated communications platforms are built from the core of PR.

In the age of ad blocking, which hovers over other disciplines like the sword of Damocles, we’re marching forward because we have the ability to create, own and amplify persuasive content that reaches influencers across all media.

No matter what an agency calls itself these days – PR, integrated communications or digital ninja powerhouse – those that possess public relations thinking at their core are in a position of strength.

If we can lead our clients on a path toward a redesigned discipline, we will go a long way to securing our future.