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Top 5 tips to future-proof PR agencies in 2022

Top 5 tips to future-proof PR agencies in 2022

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This post is sponsored by Hill+Knowlton Strategies Singapore.

PR agencies’ key role traditionally was to manage risk and reputation and get ink and airtime from the media. Today, alongside PR, we are no stranger to working closely with other agencies specialising in marketing, social media, or media planning, to meet business goals and the challenges for clients.

However, with the rise of the digital economy, which has since been on steroids in a COVID-19 world, our clients’ needs have also evolved.

In this new world of real-time engagement, which has given rise to a proliferation of channels and content that reaches audiences directly, the need for intermediary media to disseminate news and information has diminished significantly.

The PR agency model must be reinvented, and its scope expanded from content creation and pitching stories to the media to offering digital and content marketing.

Content is still king, but it is not enough nowadays to just create great content; we must be able to effectively market it in this media fragmented world. Great content means nothing if no one is seeing it. This is the crux of the new content game.

The integrated arena has long since begun to take shape and agencies across the board are clamouring to lead the charge – both in terms of talent and technology. We will soon see nomenclatures such as PR, digital, media, social and creative agencies and their associated demarcation of services as a thing of the past. The rise of integrated marketing agencies from the ashes of the pandemic will be the norm in adapting to the changing needs of clients, and the industry landscape.

Adapting to this change is critical to stay relevant, resilient, and competitive in today’s dynamic environment. Here are my top five tips in transforming PR agencies to offer integrated communication services.

1. A paradigm shift in mindset from a traditional agency set-up to an integrated communication powerhouse

This pivot to offer integrated communication services is no mean feat. Change is always hard, and especially more so in an industry where old habits die hard. Senior management must be committed to invest in this endeavour, and there is a need to overhaul and redefine our value propositions to stay relevant.

Moving into this era of accelerating change, we need to think of ourselves as more than just public relations consultants. We must step up and be able to advise brands on all aspects of their marketing strategies – beyond just PR – and help guide them through the increasingly complex modern ecosystem to add value as a strategic partner.

We now need to be able to deliver end-to-end solutions and campaigns straddling traditional PR, print, media planning, display, social and creative, while presenting a seamless and consistent brand experience.

Traditional mindsets must change, and this evolution must encompass the whole organisation with a focus on building up an integrated practice. You can’t just dip your toe and hire a single digital unicorn and hope for results straightaway.

Processes, procedures, and contract templates must be reinvented or customised for digital marketing scopes with the involvement of your CFO and general counsel to ensure alignment across the board.

2. Assemble and train your epic team

People are the lifeblood of any establishment. In my opinion, this is the most crucial element in the mix – without talent, we are nothing. Theorising people management is easy. Executing these strategies and tailoring them to actual human complexities are not.

For me, the formula here is simple: Assign the right passionate people in the right roles and provide them with the support they need to function in those roles. As senior management, our role is critical in steering business/strategic direction, but more importantly, we are here to remove obstacles and provide an enabling environment so our people can perform at their utmost best.

To be a best-in-class integrated agency, we need our people to be the best at what they do. This means having the right people with the requisite skills and knowledge with a passion for what they do as well as continual training and development to cope with the rapidly changing landscape.

Start by conducting a training needs assessment and reviewing job descriptions to identify current skill gaps. Invest in upskilling existing employees to meet these gaps first – you might be surprised how adept PR practitioners, who are natural storytellers, can be. This boosts wellbeing and morale and helps with staff retention as your people will feel empowered as they’ll be able to link what they learn to their personal objectives.

3. Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Creating an agile integrated agency starts with the culture. We need to define the vision for the agency – data-driven, collaborative, adaptable, and experimental – what we at Hill+Knowlton Strategies call “always in beta”. This is both an existential position as well as a mindset that is applied to day-to-day work. It is critical to create this shared vision and communicate, reinforce, and model the behaviour expected of your team.

Fixing archaic and obstructive company policies is important to create and support a culture of respect and dignity for all team members as well as to foster an agile and nimble agency. Minimise hierarchy and bureaucracy – these are obsolete and are encumbrances in building a creative, open, and fulfilling integrated agency.

I’m a big proponent of work-life balance – it’s about working smart and hard. Quality over quantity. If overtime is the norm at an organisation – it means something is wrong – ineffective processes, ineffective people, or poor resource planning and allocation. Having our people work overtime daily for a protracted period builds a toxic work culture that breeds low productivity and frustration.

Also, empowering hybrid work styles and a nimble mobile workforce is now the expectation of digital talent who are flocking to join woke organisations that enable their staff to work at any time from anywhere.

4. Start small, think big

Transitioning to an integrated practice from a traditional PR agency is exciting though you need to be incredibly resilient, persuasive, and hands-on. Don’t take whatever projects come through the door or go straight to pitching for big retainers at the start. Big retainers often prove unprofitable and are often over-serviced – debilitating the team for new business and growth.

Agencies’ management needs to shy away from the old mentality of winning first and finding resources later. It rarely works especially in a talent crunch era where hiring takes months. Biting off more than you can chew will destroy an agency’s reputation and alienate your overworked employees.

Starting with small quick wins is a chance to curate your integrated portfolio with client logos that express your agency’s specialities and put the team’s capabilities to the real-world test. The best way to coach your team to be proficient is to get their hands dirty and jump in.

Quick wins help to prove the bottom line to bosses and gets them to loosen the purse strings for more headcount. Having a diversified portfolio with a mix of retainers and small ad hoc projects also goes a long way in building resilience for the agency to weather unexpected industry shifts and crises.

5. Data has always been gold. The problem is how to mine it

Creativity is the currency of any effective integrated agency, and we need to move from being media-facing to consumer-facing as well. This means positioning ourselves at the intersection of technology/data and the consumer to become the agency that thoroughly understands local nuances and insights to connect brands to their customers effectively.

Investing in research is a must. Obtaining tools to drive efficiency and innovative proprietary approaches to communications planning is critical. Deriving insights from data, which in turn informs the ideation and strategies, always work better than desk research or guesswork.

Agencies need to have the ability to manage real data, and rapidly feedback insights mined to the strategic process for optimisation. This is what will set apart a stellar integrated agency from a conventional one.

The writer is Jason Cheang, director, integrated communications at Hill+Knowlton Strategies Singapore.

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