Rethinking the traditional PR agency model

An opinion piece in PR Week caught my attention recently. Written by the founder of a UK-based PR consultancy, the piece took a critical look at traditional agency models and called for a total rethink.

As the founder and CEO of an agency that has operated on a ”virtual” model for several years, this is a topic that’s important to me – and one where I have some experience from both the agency’s perspective and the client’s perspective.

When I first started Plat4orm PR it was apparent to me – and many others – that the boundaries between work and life were beginning to blur. The Internet was the primary driver, with broadband wireless and myriad new apps creating the ability to work from practically anywhere.

While that technology drew its fair share of criticism – and not everyone embraced the always-on culture that ensued – in my view, it offered a massive tangible benefit: my team and I could stay connected to clients, press and prospects no matter where we were.

We didn’t need to invest in an expensive office space and we didn’t need our entire team centralized in one or two places. It freed us up financially, practically and professionally. And it let us focus on doing what we were in business to do – hone our and our clients’ stories, be part of news cycles that run 24/7, respond to breaking news as it happens, and both create and follow viral social content in real time.

The traditional PR agency model was created at a time when print and TV were the dominant channels. Agencies anchored their process against print media or news desk editors’ deadlines. Pitches were made in the morning, stories filed in the afternoon, and papers put to bed that evening for publication the following day.

While this approach was successful for large and small firms alike, the rise of social media, the impact of owned channels and the emergence of the kind of online/broadcast news convergence that platforms like Facebook now offer has fundamentally changed the traditional news cycle. While large agencies have certainly evolved to accommodate these changes, their sheer size, scale and infrastructure – rooted in a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday working schedule – is clearly no longer optimal.

Think about it from a client’s point of view. In my experience, it isn’t a matter of clients expecting their PR teams to be available at all times, but they do want their PR team to be awake and aware of what is happening in the marketplace and be ready to respond at a moment’s notice. Traditional agencies can do this for sure, but it requires more hands on deck at the office working longer hours – all of which is expensive and billable to clients.

The new world of work obviously has an impact on the media too. Reporters aren’t looking for PR teams to pitch them all day and night, but given that news is 24/7, if a story breaks outside the traditional working day and reporters need a comment from you or your client, the expectation is this can and should happen. A quick text or direct message on Twitter may be all it takes, but there is an assumption that if PR is contactable if necessary.

Finally, from a PR professional’s perspective, there is much to be said for the flexibility inherent in this approach. A virtual agency can draw together team members from across the country and from multiple time zones and locations, allowing the agency to stay connected with clients and the press wherever and whenever necessary. This eliminates the considerable cost of maintaining multiple physical office locations, which is inevitably passed on to clients.

Flexibility works both ways. Yes, it may mean a quick call with a client at 8:00 p.m., but it also makes it possible for our team members to make that midday doctor’s appointment or pick up their kids from school. As the PR Week piece notes, there is a growing number of PR consultants who are drawn to the freelance or virtual agency model because it gives them a clear degree of control over their lives, while allowing them to serve clients in a way that is more results-oriented and cost-effective.

At its core, PR is about relationships – with clients, with reporters and with extended teams – and communication is the foundation of any good relationship. So, because we live in a world where the technology exists to let people work in more flexible ways and respond quickly to the needs of today’s new media cycles, I do think it is time for a rethink of the old school monolithic PR agency structure. Let’s embrace the changing work models, which ultimately enable more flexibility, more accountability and more productivity.