Fix the plane, or start from scratch?
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report
President/Editor-in-Chief

Fix the plane, or start from scratch?

Arun Sudhaman

Last week, I had an interesting conversation with the head of a fairly large UK consumer PR firm. As so often happens these days, our conversation about his agency's progress took place against the backdrop of rapid change that continues to define the current PR industry landscape. This particular agency CEO asked for anonymity, for reasons that will soon become apparent. Specifically he pointed out that it would be easier for him to simply start a new agency than try to re-engineer a typical consumer PR firm that is built on a decaying model. The bulk of his agency’s work, he noted, continued to focus on traditional media relations. Where it needed to go, of course, is a subject that has been discussed ad nauseum, requiring a more risk-friendly mindset that appreciates the impact of technology and the shift to digital consumption. I suspect that his conclusion, though, will strike a chord with many other agency heads. Indeed, a rather unscientific straw poll on Twitter suggested plenty of support for this point of view - that starting from scratch is an easier proposition than fixing the airplane while trying to fly it. As one former head of a large PR agency pointed out: "The real problem is managing any transition - as if the margins fall, you are fighting for your life." As we’ve often noted, the discipline of public relations appears ideally suited to a world where authenticity, engagement and content are critical drivers. Sadly, that does not automatically mean that the PR industry, congregated around a commoditised media relations model, is well-matched to these realities. Yet, starting from scratch may not always be the simplest option. The advantages of size mean that more investment dollars are typically available. You could also argue that a larger firm may be more exposed to the types of innovation that can make a difference for clients. In many markets, particularly emerging ones, moreover, clients are much less willing to take a punt on a newly-formed agency. And, as one commenter noted on Twitter, anything is possible, even at the most hidebound of agencies, if leadership is willing to take risks and make changes. Even if you were going to start from scratch, what type of firm would you build? One, presumably that aims to properly integrate earned, owned and paid media within a framework that encourages innovation. The agency CEO and I discussed the prospect of a an agency headed by specialist leaders from each of the key disciplines: PR, digital, creative and media. But how likely is such a firm to come together, when so many of the best people are either locked into lucrative big firm deals, or running their own shops? The challenges of integration have seen existing firms hire people with different skills, or merge and acquire different types of agency. The question is whether this kind of approach will prove sufficient to match the demands of a marketplace where users and consumers do not think in terms of channels. What does everyone else think?
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