How often have we heard the phrase “evolve or die”?
It’s a truism for ANY sector that unless a business is prepared to respond to changing market conditions and make structural change, then driving revenue growth will become challenging.
PR is certainly not immune to the need for evolution, and this article 'Is the PR agency model dead' by Arun Sudhaman definitely resonated with many seasoned industry PROs. But unlike other industries PR faces a significant challenge in making the arguably seismic shift needed to remain competitive… and that is the nature of the typical profiles of the individuals that work in this sector.
It’s a scary thing to hear that your job is ‘losing relevance’ and yet uncomfortable as that is it appears great change is on the horizon for many. Whether you are on the bus of change or not what is true is that it’s not necessarily ‘you’ that is becoming less relevant, but potentially the way you or your business is using your skills and experience within the structure of the agency that you are working for.
It’s a tough time for CEO’s as they not only have to decide what their future looks like but also ‘how’ they get to that future with their current workforce and structures. Talent is a key commodity that needs careful handling, PR more than any other sector understands people are the heart of the business and key client relationships, they can make or break an agency.
This is well known by successful PR executives who can sometimes ‘trade’ on their skill, experience, personality and close client relationships that may hold a significant revenue value. In an industry where value in client relationships (and who you know) rank high in the tick box of being successful, the profiles and personalities within this sector don’t always cope well with change – particularly when their role is up for debate.
When change is lapping at your feet people tend to fall into various categories: those that adopt it quickly to establish their ‘place’ in the new world, those that resist, defend and protect hoping it will ‘all go away’ and finally those that ‘sit on the fence’ waiting for more information before deciding which seems the best camp to be in. With so many agencies feeling the need to ‘evolve or die’, making the compelling reason ‘why’ has never been more critical, more so for the employees.
Communication of why it’s good for the business, why it’s good for your talent and why it’s good for the industry is a critical part of socialising employees of the need for change.
The structural changes required to move agencies to the new world are pretty seismic in project terms. When you are changing business models that require roles to be re-written and title changes it has a potential employment liability unless it’s done properly.
More importantly, retaining your good talent through the change process is made even harder given you can be regularly judged in this industry by your title and remit. Let alone keeping your clients happy and stable at the same time. Credibility, reputation, career history, aesthetics and money rank high in the motivating dynamics of this talent sector, making change even more impactful and concerning for some.
It will take a brave leader to make the necessary changes in a way that allows maximum strategic flexibility whilst not being hijacked by making decisions that ‘keep people happy’. I have been privy to discussions where strategy vs talent discussions can provide a real dilemma for leaders where an individual holds revenue power.
Engagement, involvement, and education can help an organisation move and evolve in a way that doesn’t feel threatening. Ironically it can be the process that can be more damaging to a business rather than the destination itself.
For an industry that ‘sells’ communication it doesn’t always do it well internally and being clear about your process and strategy before you are ready to start telling people will increase the likelihood of success. Telling your own story should be easy, creating the reason why and the part talent plays within that can be achieved with thought AND careful planning.
The hardest challenge will be for leaders to step away from the personal and professional impact (which is always scarier than reality) and embrace it wholeheartedly regardless of outcome. The question you may want to ask is ‘If I opened up a PR agency today would it look the same’?
If not, what is really stopping you? Creating positive excitement about ‘what is next’ and being clear on how that can benefit everyone should bring even the biggest ‘doubting Thomas’ along.
Paula Meir is a airector and HR consultant at Varo Consultancy