The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is often credited with penning the notion that nothing is permanent except change. In the last decade and a half, the public relations industry has undergone yet another dramatic transformation, providing more than a grain of truth to this axiom.
Accordingly, the role of the typical PR firm CEO has also shifted out of necessity in order to keep pace with the times. Here, we examine some key issues facing those CEOs as they strive to remain steady at the helms of their evolving practices.
A sea change in technology
Without a doubt, in recent times, no single development has revolutionized the practice of public relations more than the internet. For better or worse, the web has proliferated into almost every aspect of our lives, and the increasingly important role of digital services in a PR firm’s portfolio occupies more of CEOs’ time and energy. While some PR firms have brought these digital capabilities in-house, our mid-2017 survey revealed that more than a third of PR firm CEOs are still outsourcing this functionality to third parties, in effect creating another vendor relationship that must be carefully sourced, managed, and monitored. Additionally, more than half of the CEOs we surveyed cited the recruiting of staff with digital marketing skills as their single greatest priority in remaining competitive – more about that in just a moment.
The ‘new’ news cycle
Once upon a time, with few exceptions, a PR firm could safely structure its day around a daily news cycle dominated by traditional print and broadcast outlets. Today, our digitally connected planet effectively forces many PR firms to function in "permanent 24/7 mode." Many web-based news portals are continuously refreshed with content, and an editor’s request for clarification on your press release won’t come "at deadline" because there is no such deadline any more. Crisis communication is as likely to be triggered by an unfortunate afternoon industrial accident as it is by an early morning tweet from the White House. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that many PR firm CEOs report being increasingly tethered to their electronic devices around the clock, staying "plugged in" from the moment they wake in the morning until sending off a few final e-mails and text messages at night before their heads hit the pillow.
"There really is no such thing as downtime in our business anymore, thanks largely to the power of social media," says Carin Warner, head of Massachusetts-based Warner Communications. "I saw this trend coming six or seven years ago, and now it has officially arrived."
Playing the talent game
Attracting and retaining top talent continues to remain at the forefront of CEOs’ concerns. An aging workforce comprised largely of Baby Boomers means that many veteran PR practitioners are nearing retirement, ushering in a new generation of staff with considerably less loyalty to their employers and a much different work ethic. International pollster Gallup has gone so far as to brand millennials as "The Job-Hopping Generation," and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics appears to support this label. According to January 2016 BLS data, the median employee tenure for workers aged 25 to 34 is just 2.8 years. As a result, many PR firm CEOs are reluctant to invest in formal training and professional development programs for junior staff members, only to watch those younger employees depart for supposedly greener pastures. CEOs also report being besieged with responding to employees’ quality of life issues like never before, ranging from accommodating flex-time arrangements to fielding requests to work remotely.
The imperative to remain competitive
In recent times, competition in the industry has only intensified. In the U.S. particularly, the last decade has seen a proliferation of new, smaller PR practices, many of which have less than five employees and do not belong to any professional trade groups, thus not appearing on anyone’s radar screens until they’ve stolen a client relationship or two from a larger firm. Some of these new industry entrants focus exclusively on serving clients’ social media needs, leaving corporate communications and media relations duties to larger, more established firms. Nonetheless, in order to not leave potential revenue on the table, the wise CEO must strive to make her firm as competitive as possible, assembling the proper mix of services with which to build a strong client base.
Clients are also increasingly demanding tracking and performance metrics from their PR firms. Florence Quinn, whose 30-year-old New York City-based firm Quinn recently opened a Los Angeles office, notes, "We often find ourselves dealing directly with CMOs who are well-versed in quantitative measurement. Public relations firms have always had to demonstrate value to clients, but these days, it’s more numbers-driven than ever."
Increasing administrative burdens
As a successful PR practice grows, so do the associated housekeeping chores. Suddenly, a single office has blossomed into three locations spanning four separate time zones, each with its own commercial lease, HR functions, and IT idiosyncrasies. Suddenly, the imperative to conduct an in-depth analysis of the firm’s 401(k) management fees has mysteriously leapfrogged over the media-training dossier promised last week to an important client. Some CEOs lament spending the majority of their days dealing with purely administrative tasks of their burgeoning enterprises rather than grooming client relationships or even managing the actual practice of public relations.
What’s to come
As the CEO’s role continues to evolve – and it undeniably will evolve – it’s important to take stock of your priorities and passions. If you find yourself being increasingly separated from what led you to start your own PR firm in the first place, it might be time to consider a merger or acquisition that can not only restore your vigor, but that can also bring financial peace-of-mind to the next phase of your professional career.
Art Stevens is managing partner of The Stevens Group, made up of consultants to the PR agency profession and focusing on mergers, acquisitions and management consulting.