December 15, 2009
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Choosing the right PR firm

by Bob Pickard

During the past few years, and especially lately, I have been repeatedly asked by young people how they should determine what kind of PR firm to try and join (especially, in the case of students, after they graduate). Let me be transparent in admitting that I’ve been doing some of this thinking for myself recently, and soon I will be embarking on my next PR adventure.

My usual counsel starts with this critical question: is the PR firm going up, treading water, or going down? In every case, I obviously suggest trying to join the agency whose best days lie ahead, because its economic advance will help create the rising revenue tide of client work that propels young careers forward through richer learning, higher earning and more express routes to promotion.

It’s easy enough to advise that much, but the query that follows is more challenging: “How do we know if a PR firm is poised to grow in the future?”

There is no easy answer, and every agency goes through the peaks and troughs of a business cycle. But let me offer a few observations rooted in repeated personal experience gained in several countries and a few firms over the years. In my opinion, these are some key factors that help shape which way an agency is about to go:

What is the track record of the firm’s leader and is s/he still strongly motivated? Even at their largest global size (approximately half a billion U.S. dollars in revenue), compared to other industries, PR firms are pretty compact organizations and so the leader looms relatively large (and I mean global, national or local leader, depending on the recruitment context). Past results are strongly suggestive of future success, so knowing the size and shape of the firm today compared to when that person first assumed office is a fundamental issue. Still, past performance is no guarantee of future success and so some educated speculation should sensibly be considered. Looking at where the leader is on the career timescale can also be an indicator of results around the corner. Does this person still have fire in the belly because there are important wars yet to be won, or is there a satisfied complacency evident because what the leader set out to accomplish initially has already been met or even exceeded?

Who are the senior people and what is their motivation? Looking at the top executive guns in an agency’s arsenal and assessing their caliber is hard for a newcomer. How long they’ve been there is one telling measure; generally, assuming there is at least some new blood in the senior ranks, if most people have been with an agency for a long time, it means good things. It signals that they probably like working together and have co-created success through mutual trust and collaboration. There are exceptions to this ‘loyalty’ tendency, however. Sometimes senior people have suffered for a long time making compromises in an unhappy situation, because in the end they expect that there will be a considerable financial reward for their career sacrifice. So, while there may be shared interests around commercial objectives, disillusionment can also be a common bond. It’s not easy to find out if a company is a happy place or not, but I do know that in professional services, the happier firms with higher morale are the places to be. My own view is that the PR journey should be as enjoyable as any financial destination, and I do believe in this respect that it’s possible to have your cake and eat it too.

What is the ownership structure of the firm and can people earn equity as they rise through the ranks? I’ve worked for a publicly traded group and privately held independent agencies, and I can say there are pros and cons to each. The public firm can offer a fantastic breadth and depth of integrated group resources that deliver the full might of marketing where PR can be amplified by the powerful resources of a whole constellation of partner firms, but there can be impatient stock market pressures, corporate bureaucracy and sometimes PR can seem the junior partner. The privately held agency can provide a laser-like focus on PR, enjoy greater marketing freedom and act more agile with an entrepreneurial zeal, but private owners — and I’ve been a minority shareholder with two agencies — can act capriciously in what can be ‘messy’ unstructured environments where more systemic accountability, better corporate governance, and less random management would be ideal. Public or private, the key thing is that star players have a pathway to owning shares and increasing their equity position in return for consistently well motivated strong performance.

Who are the employees of the firm? Generally I would suggest that the most diverse consultancy has the edge. The more multicultural, the better, but I am not just thinking about ethnicity. PR is becoming an overwhelmingly female profession, and while I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, having run several offices across cultures, I can say that around the world, work life seems more fun and business can be more dynamic in mixed environments. The same goes for age and marital status. Having a blend of grey haired experience and youthful vigour makes a more complete operation, and offices where some are married and others single can be more exciting shops than ones where everyone is the same. Again, it’s hard to know these things from the outside looking in, but there are cues available online and if you ask around.

What is the staff turnover at the company? In general, there’s high staff churn in agency PR, but in some firms (and in some offices), there can be a constantly revolving door. Statistics are hard to come by, so trying to connect with former employees can yield valuable insights. Especially useful is knowing how successful the person to whom you would be reporting has been at recruiting, training, developing, and retaining talent. Does this person attract or repel strong people? During the job interview, if the person asking you questions seems to have thought about you and your career path rather than only what the company needs at the moment, then that is an encouraging indicator of it understanding the no-brainer truth that managing people well today is the key to generating profits tomorrow.

What is the character of the firm? Does it live its values, or just talk about an idealized image? Most PR firms list similar values, so knowing where these are practiced and not just preached can spell the difference between a delightful and disappointing PR firm experience. For example, if an agency seems to excessively emphasize integrity in its communication, does that mean it is sincerely the most ethical firm, or is honesty a sensitive area for some reason? Let’s look through another lens; everyone and their uncle say these days that their firm is a ‘thought leader.’ My advice is to look at a firm’s intellectual capital and consider its purpose. Is it being applied to help create positive business outcomes for clients, or does it look as though it is there primarily for agency marketing, to create the image of being the thought leader? Is the company synthesizing things that have been said by others, or is it actually articulating something new? Is it paraphrasing the same themes year after year, or is there a progression of fresh content that’s breaking new ground? The answers to these questions say a lot about a firm’s personality.

How does the company communicate itself? I am a big believer that ‘PR needs more PR,’ and so I think looking at how firms communicate their own story is strongly suggestive of their consulting quality. I would be skeptical about firms that don’t communicate much about themselves, but equally concerned about consultancies that communicate too much. Is a humble story being told, or is a boastful myth being sold? Self-congratulatory claims of superiority often reflect an arrogant hubris, so I suggest assessing such hyperbole carefully. Each firm should show the marketplace that it can handle its own PR in a way that inspires confidence worthy of being entrusted with conducting clients’ communications campaigns. I’d also look for content consistency as a plus and contradiction as a worry. Does the firm offer advice in the media about how clients should do their own crisis communications, but then bungle their own crisis handling? In general, PR firms are notoriously bad at managing their own internal communications (like doctors making lousy patients I guess…), so finding out how key people milestone announcements are made — and how succession is handled — can often be quite illuminating in seeing an agency’s executive competence in its true light. The PR firms that do their own internal communications well are often the best managed and highest quality consultancies overall.

Who are the clients and how long have these relationships been going? The continuity of client relationships anchors any agency and I think looking at who the customers are — whether they are leaders in their sectors — and how long they have been working with an agency says a lot about whether or not it is a client-centric environment. Client centrism and a focus on results rather than the appearance of activity is a critical augury of a firm’s fortunes.

These are just a few factors that I think play a role in deciding an agency’s future trajectory, a key issue in deciding which firm to join. What usually happens is this: the agencies that rally the most potent combinations of talent to build clients’ businesses — sustaining team cohesion and continuously improving quality — are the best places to grow one’s career. If you can find such a career sweet spot, embrace it and treasure it because such planetary alignments are altogether too rare and too temporary.

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