PR agencies are service businesses. They sell time, knowledge, and skills.
But, as PR becomes more complex, the cost of delivering that service is growing. Meanwhile, new tools and technologies are driving down the perceived value of core tasks. This leaves agencies with a challenge: how to replace service with product while remaining competitive.
Take news distribution. Even with newswires, we all spend time bringing news announcements to the attention of relevant media. Social news releases, Twitter, and RSS have all made getting the right news to the right reporters much more efficient. From a reporter's perspective, this “pull” approach is far more palatable than being “pushed” news. So, at what point does this function become replaced with a socially-optimized newsroom?
Clients expect agencies to be their eyes and ears, as well as their mouths. News monitoring and listening tools help automate some of this, but most require a significant layer of interpretation on top to be useful. But, as news consumption becomes more personalized and analysis more automated, the agency's role is diminished.
This should all be good news for visionary agencies because they can streamline low value tasks that no one enjoys doing and focus on high value work, such as creating content and managing complex communications issues.
Some agencies will tackle the trend by becoming product companies, turning their knowledge into tools that can be applied across accounts to achieve consistency and efficiency. But developing - and selling - product is very different from providing a service. It requires upfront investment, ongoing maintenance, technical service level agreements, and much more. Agency models will need to adapt.
It's not that we'll see PR boiled down to a trendily-named application. But parts of the PR business are becoming commoditized, as has happened in other professions such as accountancy, and agencies need a plan if they are to turn that to their advantage.
Lucy Allen is SVP of global account servicing at Lewis PR.