PR Agencies: Adapt Or Die

DeathI’ve been wondering if the PR role is slipping and if the growth in interactive marketing will make PR agencies largely irrelevant unless they diversify and get wise to online opportunities?

Forrester’s December 2010 US Interactive Marketing Online Executive Panel Survey showed that PR agencies held a respectable fourth place when it came to which agencies are helping with company/brand interactive marketing but the same survey also showed that 68% of marketers were working with at least two or more agencies for their interactive marketing needs (all competing for budgets and control no doubt).

In the 14 months since that survey took place interactive marketing has continued to mature, and I wonder if the full-service interactive agency is growing up and gaining control -- leaving the PR agency behind at the kids table.

Why is PR at risk of losing their seat at the interactive table?

  • Traditional media decreasing in relevancy: Traditional media is declining creating a twofold problem for PR agencies. Firstly, ‘Digital’ is usually classed as its own category sending clients to digital specialists first for their online priorities. Secondly, the feeling is that many PR agencies still prioritize planning traditional media campaigns over online -- whether via their own heritage bias or client vanity at seeing themselves in mass media like newspapers or TV -- meaning the PR agency role is also decreasing in relevancy.
  •  Frontline ‘public relations’ online moving in-house: With every brand launching social profiles like Twitter and Facebook to speak directly with customers PR agencies were often key supporters of these initiatives. Often seen as ‘putting the public back in to public relations’ PR agencies certainly filled a shortfall in skills and labor that emerging interactive teams required. The next evolution? With mature marketers shifting interactive internally as best practice it seems likely that PR agencies will lose the day to day community management budget as an obvious delivery and cost efficiency. (Community manager salaries are becoming more competitive vs. PR agency billing structures). What will they offer in place?
  •  PR agencies tend to lack specialized service: Specialized digital marketing niches, like mobile, are taking off. PR agencies are often slow to adopt in-house specialized digital knowledge and play in the earned media space. This limits their ability to be involved in the design and build of emerging media and they also can’t participate where channels are being commercialized by media buying.
  •  Interactive marketing spend is dominated by search and paid advertising:  While PR agencies may be leading at social marketing when it comes to interactive, search marketing and display advertising are the big areas for spend. The majority of standalone PR agencies (without a media buying company in their group) are philosophically devoted to earning media, drastically limiting their involvement in some of the biggest budgets going. Furthermore, the one area that PR naturally fits with for contribution, Search marketing, is not being integrated into any PR agency offerings.

Adapt or Die: Why search is the answer

PR agencies seem to have left the biggest piece of the interactive marketing pie just sitting on the table. While search agencies diversify to offer services like press release writing and article generation (in fact agencies like iCrossing have entire branded content divisions) many PR agencies aren’t even adopting simple keyword targeting strategies to accompany the content they DO create.

On top of this PR’s greatest skill, influencer relations, is being sullied by cack-handed blogger outreach program consisting of bulk emailing names cut and pasted from a media database. Influence as a subject overall is complex and non-standardized but today’s link-building programs executed by search agencies have a level of sophistication that PR agencies don’t even have as a baseline when seeking online editorial for clients.

Given that PR has digitally relevant skills for search marketing and that interactive marketing budgets in search out-spend other areas PR tries to play in online (like social media) by as much as 900% [2012 interactive marketing spend from the US Interactive Marketing Forecast 2011 - 2016] shouldn’t the PR agency be adapting search capability to avoid extinction? I think yes.


Great post, but I think there

Great post, but I think there are firms (mine included) that are adapting. There are many more that are in danger of being left behind, largely because they have allowed themselves to be defined as tacticians -- good at "doing" traditional media, social media or any number of other services. You suggest that PR firms need to "do" a better job at search (and I agree), but that still undersells the true value of PR -- integration. PR firms have traditionally had an edge on their interactive/creative agency counterparts because we have been able to look beyond just what we "do" and see how the pieces fit into the overall picture. In fact, I just wrote a post that touched on this topic last week -- The best PR firms provide communications counsel at a level that most interactive agencies just can't match, and that's not likely to change anytime soon.

Not do, adapt

Just to clarify, I didn't say they needed to "do" a better job at Search but identified it as an area that I think PR should be adapting into as part of their interactive marketing capabilities. I'll check out your blog post.

No hiding from this - it is too important

I am not a PR agency, but I have been researching this area for some time now and I think this post poses the questions that must be asked very directly. Tracey, sounds like you guys are on the ball, but you are ahead of the curve. There are a lot of predators out there, from advertising agencies looking to diversify as their traditional model is broken to the whole spectrum of media, digital and SEO agencies.

Just yesterday I also blogged on the subject, with a comparison to the music industry in the 90's that missed the boat:

I like the comparison to the

I like the comparison to the music industry. Thanks.

manteau figh club de

Yeah same here i also a big fan of comparison to the music industry.

PR firms can still rule the marketing world


Great insights, and you're absolutely correct. The PR industry, in general, has failed to innovate, and as a result agencies have let interactive budgets and opportunities slip.

However, as I wrote in The Marketing Agency Blueprint, I still believe that PR firms have an opportunity to assume unparalleled levels of leadership and influence in the marketing mix, if they can expand their services and consistently deliver measurable value to their clients.

I believe that hybrid agencies will come to rule the marketing world, and PR firms are positioned better than most to transform and thrive. Unfortunately, many of the traditional agencies are resistant to change, and are slowed down by legacy systems that make it increasingly difficult to evolve and compete as clients seek more innovative strategies and services.

PR+marketing+social+AR = Dead

If you ignore the title slide (the relevant stuff starts at slide 12), this presentation I gave late last year outlines the characteristics I think are required for the next generation of PR/marketing pros (heck, they are required for this generation).

PR Firms Lack The Digital Skills To Excel At Search

The question that comes to my mind when I read your post above is: Do PR agencies have the digital skills needed to excel with search or display media? I don't argue that search marketing is quite related to PR in terms of driving visibility, and that search visibility improves with word of mouth -- traditionally PR's domain. But where I think PR firms miss is that they haven't mastered the idiosyncrasies of the search channel. The goal of search marketing is related to PR. But the actual search marketing function is media buying and portfolio optimization (for paid search) and Website development and content management (for SEO). Not skills most PR firms are any good at.

I agree with the thrust of

I agree with the thrust of the article, but I think the other group that are of questionable value are planners and buyers. Call me a cynic but I cannot see what buying agencies are bringing to the table in these days of disintermediation. The sonner their role is re-examined the better.

I fully agree

Great article direct to the point. It reflects one of the main argument that I use to persuade PR/Communication agencies to cooperate with our company (digital signage, audience measurement and social media integration solutions) in order to widen their portfolio offerings and to get ready to catch the new opportunities, linked to the digital and social media, and to avoid being cut off from the market.

I agree

Great article direct to the point. It reflects one of the main argument that I use to persuade PR/Communication agencies to cooperate with our company (digital signage, audience measurement and social media integration solutions) in order to widen their portfolio offerings and to get ready to catch the new opportunities, linked to the digital and social media, and to avoid being cut off from the market.

PR Agencies Require more Integrated Marketing

I think this article is great, it lays out the argument that such a agency cannot exist any longer. Nowadays, all Marketing and Ad firms are adapting to integrated marketing, but PR agencies seem to think they are above this. But PR is no longer press releases and employee relations. You cannot ignore the important aspects of the internet when it comes to any form of effective communication. Thanks for the insight!

Sorry, I forgot to add- here

Sorry, I forgot to add- here is a great link to an article about 3 Marketing Basics for any type of company, including PR work!

Couldnt agree more

We've been transforming our business for the last 5 years from a pure publicity shop back in the 90's to a digital comms firm with our own interactive group. Every one of our communications engagements now includes Interactive, as well as PR and social. I have an advertising exec on my leadership team, Dave Fausel who is helping lead the charge with this vision and mission. I truly believe that PR can no longer exist in a silo. Most agencies are talking about this, but a very few are actually do it. I would love to talk with you further some time if you are so inclined. You can check us out at in the meantime and see the byline I recently wrote for PR Week:

Good to hear about agencies making changes

It's great to hear about agencies making changes and wanting to share their ideas and experiences. When I wrote the article I was dying for PR agencies to get in touch and tell me how I was wrong and the ways they were adapting. To date only one agency (H&K) contacted me and now you. Contact the briefings team to schedule something with me in the future - and that goes for anyone reading this post. Thanks!

I'm currently in school for

I'm currently in school for public relations at UCLA. One of the most important- if not THE MOST important- factors of PR is social media. They are starting to go hand and hand with each other. Make sure you understand your publicist's social media campaign before you agree to it.

uk dissertation

Useful information shared on topic PR Agencies: Adapt Or Die..I am very happy to read this article..Thanks for giving us nice info. Fantastic walk-through. I appreciate this post.

Blue Haven Pools

My buddy and I had been just discussing this particular topic, This is always attempting to prove me incorrect! I am going to present her this particular blog post and rub it in a little!