PR agencies are inefficient in ways that are not apparent to their clients. The inefficiencies can cost you tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the only “insight” you’re going to have is a rising level of frustration.
One problem is the way PR agencies are organized. The other has to do with philosophy and people.
PR Agencies May Be Structured Inefficiently
PR agencies have historically been hierarchical organizations. That’s not true of all PR agencies since the general business trend has been to replace hierarchical organizational structures with flat or matrix structures, but a lot of PR agencies are still structured the same old way.
Typically, your “PR team” includes several people, if your budget allows it. The most junior people handle the rote stuff and more senior people oversee what they do. While that operational process is not always inefficient, consider in-house agency meetings.
In-house agency meetings sometimes involve the entire team dedicated to a client. A one-hour meeting is the sum of all their billable rates, which, if you add them up may astound you. For your sake, I hope such meetings are fruitful.
Hierarchical structures also fuel egos in a way that is not in the best interest of clients. Quite often, as people move up the agency ladder, they rid themselves of tasks that tend to be assigned to more junior people. Depending on what’s happening on the client side, that hands-off mentality may work against the client, especially when a sensitive issue arises such as a product recall, a security breach, or a public attack by a competitor.
The typical agency-client relationship looks something like this: The client is the subject matter expert and the PR agency is the media expert. It’s a very simple formula that sounds good and is flawed.
For one thing, the client contact may or may not be a subject matter expert. If the client contact is a subject matter expert – great, especially if the PR reps are actively listening, taking notes, and asking smart questions. If the client contact is not a subject matter expert, few PR pros will be able to tell because their domain knowledge is either weak or non-existent. That’s one way misinformation gets propagated. Everywhere.
Worse, a lot of PR pros don’t understand their clients in any real depth, which I think (and I have always thought) is a mistake. There are a few reasons for that:
It’s not my job. Most PR pros don’t take the time to understand their clients and their clients’ products or services because they don’t consider it part of their jobs, as unbelievable as that may seem. After all, the client is the subject-matter expert. The problem with that philosophy is that journalists often ask second-level questions that few PR pros are prepared to answer such as, “Why do I need a smartwatch if I have a FitBit?” If they can’t answer basic questions, you’re likely losing coverage at your expense.
It’s not billable. Coming up to speed takes time, and the question is, who’s going to pay for it? Clients generally don’t want to pay to educate agency reps. Agencies don’t want to invest in fishing expeditions ad infinitum, especially if the time spent isn’t billable. There’s a balance. Finding it can be tricky.
They’re green. Most PR pros on the front line are very young. They lack the life experience and work experience necessary to infer important insights and ask insightful questions. It’s not their fault. They’ll learn eventually, most likely at your expense or another’s client’s expense.
They lack passion. Some PR pros aren’t passionate about what their clients do, and when they’re not passionate, they’re not interested, and they’re not doing the best job they could possibly be doing. In my role as a mentor, some PR people have told me they have a feeling they should be doing something else because they’re uncomfortable with their clients’ subject matter. These people tend to disappear on their own terms – or on the agency’s terms – in relatively short order.
Good PR People Are Golden
Generally speaking, agencies and people who work for agencies vary greatly in their abilities. Sadly, clients end up paying for a lot of inefficiencies that are not obvious (even to the people who work in agencies).
My advice is observe the people who are on your PR team and make your own assessment. You should be able to tell from words and deeds who “gets it” and who doesn’t. If you have a team full of people that doesn’t get it, it may be time to review your options.
On the other hand, it may be time to look in the mirror. Quite often the reason agencies fail or people at agencies fail to grasp critical information is because their client contact doesn’t want to share it, for fear of spilling trade secrets, or for political reasons (information is power). If you’ve had the same issues over and over again from agency after agency, perhaps the agency isn’t the problem afteer all.