It's time to be bold and believe in the power of PR

A reluctance, or inability, to bill clients properly for services rendered and an enduring and self-perpetuated perception that PR is a "cheap" option continues to hold back PR agencies.

How often do you come to the end of a PR campaign write-up where you’re thinking, wow, that was really effective and great work, only for the sucker line at the end of the case study: "And we did it all for just $50,000"?

I often think to myself: "Really? They did all that and produced those great results through insight, strategy, and creativity and they’re only charging x amount…?"

And how often do agencies deliver way over and above their agreements or throw in added-value services for no extra charge to keep clients happy?

It’s symptomatic of an industry that has historically hidden its light under a bushel, considered itself thankful to be getting the crumbs off the table rather than sitting at the top of the table next to the client, and consistently undervalued its services.

It’s the same feeling I get when I hear people bleating and navel-gazing about why the PR profession is so hated, or how we can shed the impression peddled by mainstream media such as The New York Times that PR is all about spin and obfuscation.

The industry has to address this if it is to evolve. Let’s be bold and believe in what we do.

You certainly wouldn’t find an advertising agency undercharging for its services or having a crisis about what people think of it. Quite the contrary: There’s often an almost macho "Question our massive fees if you dare" mentality to their billing processes and go-to-market approach.

At PRWeek we’re knee deep in our Agency Business Report process at the moment - neck deep actually. It’s always illuminating to talk to the top PR agency execs about the state of the industry and the trends that are shaping it.

Many of them are restructuring to better enable themselves to deliver effective solutions for clients, and you’ll be able to read much more about this at the end of April when the report goes live. It’s clearly a pivotal moment for the industry, with content, insights, analytics, data, and creativity driving the agenda – and as we revealed this week, companies such as Johnson & Johnson are also reshaping their comms functions for this new environment.

One of the more revealing interviews I did for the ABR was with Hill + Knowlton Strategies’ new president for the Americas Mike Coates. I have detailed before in this blog the challenges ahead for H+K following what has been a torrid few years. But Coates has set the ball rolling to try and turn this situation around with some big and bold statements to his employees – and clients.

Coates took on his wider role at H+K last July, having turned around the agency’s Canada operation in great style over the previous 20 years. One of the first things he addressed at H+K US was the lax attitude to billing he found in place.

"PR people are often not that well trained in the business of the business, the capturing of value with our clients," he told me during our ABR interview. "A lot of the very good work we were doing for our clients went unbilled. We’re working with them [our staff] on different processes and systems to capture those billings and make sure they are in turn passed off to our clients."

Maybe this was a particular symptom of an agency that has endured tough times and was at a particularly low ebb, but actually I suspect it is more widespread in the industry than we might imagine.

Coates put in place rewards and incentives for his people to ensure H+K’s clients are well managed and cared for. He instigated an extensive client satisfaction measurement system.

"I’m also encouraging my folks to be good businesspeople," he says. "Client profitability is as important as client service; if you have client profitability you can afford to pay your people the salaries, bonuses, and training they’re looking for. If you’re not growing and adding to your bottom line it’s very difficult to do that."

He adds that you need to establish those links with your team so they understand "we’re running a business." And he says clients have reacted well.

"They also want to know you understand how to run your business," he explains. "If you bring to them in a very transparent way evidence that compensation arrangements are not fair, clients respond very professionally and, almost always, favorably."

Like me, Coates suspects this is pretty typical across the PR business in general, though I doubt many agency CEOs would be quite as open as him in saying so.

I liked what I heard from Coates and was impressed with his openness. He has a big job ahead of him, but it is going to be very interesting to see how he tackles it.

If he can start to realize the full value of the work H+K delivers its clients, he will be doing a service not just to the beleaguered WPP firm, but also to a wider industry that needs to put its best foot forward and stop undervaluing what it does.

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