Alloy logo

March 21, 2017

Anna Ruth Williams



This article originally appeared in O'Dwyers.

As the story goes, Ivy Ledbetter Lee founded public relations in 1897. He is lauded with sending the first press release, opening the world’s third PR firm and holding the first executive-level PR position. He was a trailblazer, a risk taker and an entrepreneur.

Mr. Lee saw how communications channels and mediums could be created and utilized to achieve business objectives; and time and again, he proved his value. Thanks to him, PR agencies opened shop and internal PR departments were created – ballooning into a $14 billion global industry.

Fast forward to 2017. PR is turning 120 years old, yet the industry has failed to continue the innovation that Mr. Lee set in motion so long ago.

Even worse, we've let other industries and new subsectors take over our very mission of reaching and persuading target audiences.

The rise of digital media channels, marketing technologies, Millennials, flexible workplaces and more have been embraced by our industry with cold arms. As a result, the industry has taken a hit.

What would Mr. Lee say about us?

Sit down. I don’t have good news to share.

Global PR industry growth slowed five percent in 2015, and Gould Partners says annual agency operating profits have consistently fallen, dropping from about 19 percent in 2011 to about 15 percent today.

Revenues don’t just fall on their own. This financial decline is a symptom of greater problems.

First, our industry struggles to demonstrate how a headline becomes a million-dollar sale. We struggle to show how a case study turns into 30 qualified leads. We struggle to showcase how strategic, optimized, syndicated content converts potential leads into customers.

SoDA Report explains, “Clients and agencies both wholeheartedly agree that agencies struggle to prove the impact of their work through measurement while clients feel increasing pressure to prove the ROI of agency investments. Agencies owned by holding companies feel this more acutely with 48 percent selecting pricing/value as a reason for termination versus 35 percent of independent agencies.”

Second, when Millennials started flooding the doors of PR firms, many agencies failed to revamp their business processes to align with a new generation of workers.

As such, industry employee turnover rates now hover well above 50 percent; PR is consistently ranked as one of the top 10 most stressful professions, and professional development is abysmal.

In fact, the SoDA Report says, “The percentage of agencies who indicated they are not providing any training to their staff almost tripled in 2016, growing from five percent to 14 percent.”

The business of PR must evolve to embrace this digital native generation that highly values flexible workplaces, meaningful work and growth opportunities.

Which brings me to the third problem - unhappy agency employees result in unhappy clients.

Over the past year, agencies reported that their client relationships worsened from 70 percent to 53 percent. Consequently, the average agency-client tenure has shrunk from more than seven years to less than three years.

Ironic - an industry responsible for reputation management and creating perception hasn't given its own reputation or perception much attention.

The Future of PR

So, instead of celebrating PR's 120th birthday, and giving a proverbial pat on the back to the industry - let’s map its future, because it's a bright one.

Never before have PR practitioners had so many tools, technologies and techniques in our arsenal. Never before have we had so many smart, multi-tasking, passionate workers in the talent pool. Never before have we had the opportunity to demonstrate and prove the value of our craft from headline to sale.

If we harness the power of our people and tools, we have the ability to strengthen PR’s value proposition into a holistic relationship between headlines and lead generation, content marketing and relationship building - all working together to create lucrative businesses for both us and our clients.

For example, today’s technology gives us the efficiency and precision needed to track consumers from a media placement to the first visit on a client’s website. Visibility into these first buyer touchpoints allows both B2B and B2C PR practitioners to nurture and build the relationship up to the point when it converts to a sale.

To be successful, we must take our tools and channels back from the agencies and departments that were forced to silo. We must be unafraid to answer the tough questions about PR ROI. And we must create workplaces, environments and compensation models that drive productivity, creativity and staff retention.

Some agencies are already seeing the light. For example, Finn Partners recently launched a Next Tech initiative, which is rooted in digital demand mapping research, and monitors online dialogue, channels, influencers and trending topics.

On the workplace front, last year at Alloy we toppled industry standards by investing over $2,000 in professional development per employee, and giving everyone (even 22 year olds) bonuses and commissions.

I have complete faith that together, we can better the industry that has been built and finessed over the past 120 years into a profession that we can all truly be proud of today.

The Future of PR is integrated. It's holistic. It's fun and flexible. It's quantifiable and trackable. It's collaborative. It's lucrative. And it's really, really impactful.