Why you should seriously consider leaving your PR agency

When I first moved into PR consultancy 22 years ago, having previously worked in political communications, I was shocked to discover the lack of interest in insights, data and research within PR firms beyond the most rudimentary dip stick research designed to push whatever we were pitching. In politics we had every sound bite and slogan tested and focus grouped to within an inch of its life.

Over the past decade, with the rise of digital communications and social media, and the new horizons that has brought to our industry, this has started to change. Many agencies have established planning and insights teams, bringing more diverse and science-based skills into our industry. (At Weber Shandwick we hired our first strategic planners well over a decade ago and have had our own research arm KRC for over three decades thanks to the political campaign heritage of the firm.)

But many more have not.

At its heart, despite all the changes our business has gone through in a decade of massive media landscape change and exposure to the wider Cannes Lions world of creativity, PR remains largely a “gut feel” business. This is as true of clients as well as agencies.

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Our “Rising CCO” research amongst global heads of corporate communications shows that the majority trust and act on their intuition rather than data and insights that almost certainly exists within their company. Amongst European CCOs, 56% said they relied more on their instincts than data analysis, a stat I shared at the PRCA “Communicating in Turbulent Times” conference in London this morning. In the same piece of research only 1/5 European CCOs oversaw market research and data analytics, but will still have access to it. (The excellent Amanda Coleman, the head of comms at Greater Manchester Police and a fellow speaker made the point that sometimes in a crisis, gut feel is all there is time for. In the case of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack there was just twenty minutes from the bomb exploding to the first GMP tweet. Fair point but in her case that intuition was based on decades of experience and detailed knowledge, and in depth planning including drawing on best practice and learnings from similar incidents elsewhere. Not everyone taking key decisions in PR has that advantage.)

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In an era of increasing distrust in business and institutions, a growing divide between the informed and general publics (Brexit anybody?), and massive generational change (move over Millennials, Gen Z is here), this is both a mistake and the reason many clients still see their advertising agency as their main creative think partners.

I was pleased to be part of a panel discussion on creativity and PR evolution at another PRCA event earlier this week, the PRCA Scotland “Next Gen” meeting in Glasgow. I asked how many of the audience came from agencies that had established planning and research teams. Depressingly few hands went up.

Similarly I was talking to a group of PR graduates recently who told me their degree had barely covered data analytics.

I told the Glasgow group of young PR talent that any agency that advised its clients on long term reputation strategy solely on gut feel was letting both client and young staff down, and faced becoming increasingly irrelevant in our digital and data driven, increasingly insecure and unpredictable world.  Maybe they should consider moving to a more insights driven agency.

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