Charlie Carpenter 16 Sep 2019 // 11:29AM GMT
Let’s start with the sucker punch. Brands and their current behaviours are leading to PR as a discipline being made to feel more ‘disposable’ than ever before.
The tone for relationships (in all walks of life) is generally set from the start. Do both parties truly respect each other? Is there a sense of genuine mutual value exchange? With a modicum of emotional intelligence, you can spot this surprisingly early when observing partners of any type; business or personal.
And sadly, our observation of brands in the past 24 months is that they are not taking the selection of PR agency partners as seriously as they do other disciplines.
Whereas organisations will happily commit time, energy and resource (financial and emotional) to the hunt for creative, media, digital agencies et al; they’re currently notably less discerning – and more hasty – when it comes to PR.
So how does this manifest? From our vantage point, the data in recent years suggests that brands embarking upon PR agency selection seem reticent to properly research what exists on the supply side of the market.
More than any other discipline, there is a greater propensity for brands to ‘be in a rush’ to select a PR agency, and to default all-too-easily to who or what they already know - however long-standing or dated that knowledge happens to be and however fast the market is changing.
A majority of brands are also not giving serious consideration to designing a PR agency selection process aimed at best emulating real-life working relationships and establishing strong cultural matches.
And they’re sure as hell not giving due care and attention to the brief that will best test the agencies they meet and help to compellingly evaluate their skills and capabilities.
As yet it’s hard to put a finger on why. But let’s be balanced; perhaps this is all a storm in a teacup. For starters it’s true to say that (generally) PR is a lower spending area than creative, media and others; nothing has changed there, and that will always play a part.
It’s also true that PR agencies have oft been deployed on a project basis, leading to the all-too-common feeling that the discipline is not a strategic one.
As such, more junior in-house marketers are often left to run PR agency reviews, while others at a more elevated level busy themselves with the creative agency search.
Logical or not, whichever way you look at it this is a concerning place for the industry to be and something needs to change, fast.
I’d also venture a more provocative point of view, less based on the rational and more on the emotional: that brands consider the PR industry to be less dynamic, less ambitious, less enlightened and somehow less capable of impacting their business than other elements of the creative industries.
But this is fascinatingly counter-intuitive to me. We live in a world where the skills of the PR agency in storytelling, earned media, advocacy, mobilising ‘movements’ and influencing corporate reputation are arguably more valuable than ever.
PR should now by rights have claimed a place much higher up the food chain and be revered as an indispensable strategic weapon, at the very heart of the modern brand-builder’s armoury.
Instead we find ourselves in a universe that sees the attitudes and behaviours of brands fast eroding the quality and credibility of the industry and dragging it closer to the edge of the abyss.
Agencies are treated as increasingly disposable, ill-considered pitches are frequently called, the wrong partners are appointed again and yet more ‘hit-and-miss’ work is churned out.
But agencies must take responsibility here too if the industry as a whole is to drive change and see a positive shift away from the creeping reputation for ‘fast PR’.
Agencies should say ‘no’ more often to brand pitches that feel hastily put together, and position themselves as true strategic partners who should be treated as such.
In 2018 we conducted a survey which looked at modernising the way brands and agencies come together to establish strong and lasting relationships. Two fascinating stats emerged: 82% of agencies felt that if entrenched behaviours in pitching were to change, they would need to refuse to engage more commonly in processes that felt unfit for purpose in a modern world.
At the same time, 67% of brands said that they would be prepared to work with agencies who refused to pitch.
If that’s not an invitation for PR agencies to be braver in the name of positive industry change, then I don’t know what is.
Charlie Carpenter is the MD of marketing intelligence provider Creativebrief.